A Look At Greg McMillan's Flagstaff Training Group

By David Monti
December 18, 2010
(c) 2010 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

FLAGSTAFF (18-Dec) -- On a 15 mile stretch of pavement which cuts through the largest stand of Ponderosa pines in the world, coach Greg McMillan is looking for answers today.  Seven athletes whom he coaches will be doing a tempo run there, testing their fitness for next month's Chevron Houston Marathon, a dress rehearsal for the USA Olympic Trials Marathon one year later.

"We do the bulk of our marathon training here," he explained to two visitors yesterday, as he pulled his white pick-up truck to the side of the road to provide a better view of Upper Lake Mary.  "It cycles between 6800 and 7100 feet (2074m and 2165m)."

Hilly, with wide shoulders and gentle curves, Lake Mary Road looks like a picture postcard after a late autumn snowfall put four inches (10 cm) on the ground, and dusted the boughs of the countless evergreens on both sides of the road.  McMillan, his black down jacket zipped up against the cold, points out the white mile marks he measured and painted on the roadway himself.

"We did extensive research," said McMillan, who still speaks with the drawl of his native Tennessee.  "We were prepared to go anywhere.  I wanted altitude, but I also wanted to be able to get down.  Forty miles (64 km) and we're in a different world."

McMillan, who came here four years ago with his wife, Tracy, and established the McMillan Elite training group (he later changed the name to Team USA Arizona), did his homework first.  He was looking for a place with high altitude, a reasonable cost of living, both trails and roads suitable for running, and a track he could reach within an hour at a lower altitude.  With funding from adidas and the New York Road Runners, McMillan is realizing his dream of developing Olympic hopefuls, particularly in the marathon.  His top athlete is former Stanford University runner Brett Gotcher, who clocked the third-fastest marathon by an American this year, 2:10:36, in his debut at the distance.

"We started our group from scratch and we worked very, very hard in a short amount of time to get to where we are," McMillan said later at a luncheon at a nearby restaurant with most of his team.  "I see them everyday, so it's fun for me because I see the highs and the lows building into the race.  So, I've always said if we could go into the Trials in 2012 with people who can be considered to be contenders, we would have done our job."

Although McMillan provides on-line coaching for everyday runners, his work here is completely hands on.  From the long tempo runs on Lake Mary Road, to the track workouts at lower altitude in Sedona to the south, McMillan is there, his stopwatch running.  For today's tempo run, the runners will run in the direction of traffic, and McMillan will follow them in his pick-up with the emergency flashers blinking.  He'll provide fluids, splits and encouragement.

The seven athletes who will be running in Houston --Stephanie Rothstein, Natasha LaBeaud, Emily Harrison, Gotcher, Martin Fagan, Nick Arciniaga, and Alvina Begay-- range from marathon debutantes (LaBeaud and Harrison), to an Olympian (Fagan, who is Irish).  Arciniaga, who set his 2:11:48 personal best at the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in San Diego last June, will be pacing Gotcher in Houston, part of McMillan's team approach to success.

"It's great," said Gotcher, who wears his blond hair long and sports a beard.  "It's great having your training partners out there in a very kind of uncomfortable situation.  You know, you're out there and you're running hard and a long ways, and you look over and you've got the guy you've been running with everyday, and working out with, and it's just kind of makes it fun and less stressful, I guess, than if you're out there racing a bunch of guys you don't know."

Instead of grumbling about his pacing assignment, Arciniaga has embraced it.  McMillan said that Arciniaga "needs to get faster," and his turn at the marathon will come later.

"I wanted to do Houston anyway because it's the Trials course, and it's a good time of year to train for it," the quick-talking Arciniaga explained.  "But, I suggested it to Greg as well as an option that I would be interested in because I'd like to help Brett out and Martin out to try to get a fast time.  Greg saw it as an opportunity for me to run at the front of a marathon and kind of control it and feel comfortable so I can have that experience the next time I go about it.  So, that's the main reason."

Because McMillan trains his athletes as a group, Gotcher's marathon breakthrough at Houston last year has lifted the aspirations of the entire team.

"Last year there were just three of us --Brett, Paige (Higgins) and I-- and trained everyday, and see him when the weather was miserable, and go out on the roads," said Alvina Begay, who ran a 2:37:14 personal best at the Rock 'n' Roll Phoenix Marathon last January.  "Just to hear about his PR it really got me fired up and excited because I was doing the same things.  His making a big breakthrough made it seem like I could do it, too."

McMillan is clearly aiming high, some say too high.  His program hasn't yet attracted the big name NCAA champions like the Mammoth Track Club, coached by Terrence Mahon, or the three factions of the Nike-funded Oregon Track Club coached by Mark Rowland, Jerry Schumacher and Alberto Salazar.  But McMillan is clearly confident in his approach.

"Our group has always been very aggressive with its goals," he said leaning forward at the lunch table.  "Maybe some would criticize us for being so aggressive with what we want to achieve.  But, we feel if we want to help USA distance running we have to raise the bar pretty high."  He continued: "So, we're satisfied that we're improving, but we're not going to be satisfied until we can do into any race, any major marathon, and feel like we have just as much chance to win as the other ten or twelve people who have a chance to win.  So, that's sort of always been our mindset, even though we're not there yet.  That's our mindset.  We live that already, but we're not there."

As the lunch broke up, the athletes began to talk about today's tempo run.  Snow began to fall and swirl around the plaza outside of the restaurant which had been decorated for the holidays.  Gotcher folded his arms across his flannel shirt and looked at Arciniaga.

"Could be cold out there tomorrow," he said before the two walked off in opposite directions


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