By Jonathan Gault
October 19, 2015
On Saturday, Virginia Tech senior Thomas Curtin sprung the biggest upset of the 2015 NCAA cross country season, running away from Oregon’s Edward Cheserek and the rest of the field to win Pre-Nationals at Louisville’s E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in 23:18. Curtin got out to an early lead, and by two miles he had four and a half seconds on second place (Duke’s Shaun Thompson) and over 12 seconds on the rest of the field. Though Cheserek, Colorado’s Pierce Murphy and the UTEP duo of Anthony Rotich and Jonah Koech would make a late bid to reel Curtin in, they could not overcome his insurmountable lead. Cheserek, the two-time defending NCAA champion, finished four seconds behind in second place.
Though Curtin is far from a no-name in the sport (he owns PBs of 7:52 and 13:38 and finished seventh at NCAAs in the 5,000 in June), prior to Saturday he had never won a cross country race at the collegiate level. Now that he’s got one under his belt — over some of the top runners in the NCAA — he’ll be on everyone’s radar heading into NCAAs next month. I spoke with Curtin over the phone on Sunday as we discussed his race, how Virginia Tech’s team is overlooked and why he races in a pink bandana.
What was your strategy going into the race?
The night before, our coach (Ben Thomas) talked about just sort of running a pace and getting in the groove of that. So he told me to shoot for 4:40 [per mile]. He thought the lead pack might be going at that or faster than that. That turned out not to be the case. I came by my coach at 1k and he told me to keep rolling at that pace, so that’s what I did.
In the last race you had, in the Princeton Inter-Regional, Shaun Thompson won it by about 30 seconds or so (Curtin was second). It seemed like he had a gap on the field sort of like what you had yesterday. I’m wondering did that have anything to do with your decision to keep going or was it just follow coach’s plan?
It was just follow coach’s plan honestly. That Princeton race we had another team-based strategy so we did that at the Princeton race. But I wouldn’t say that played into any effect in this race. It was just stick to that 4:40 pace.
When did you realize you could win the race?
I was actually pretty scared. After 5k, I started to really feel that effort and I was a little worried that I was going to get caught. But I’d say the last 2k, I was able to give a little peek and I saw that gap that I had. I knew that I still had the energy left. The last 2k or 1k, I thought I had it pretty well.
Where does that win rank among the most memorable in your career?
Definitely top five. Maybe first, I’m not sure. It’s hard to say. Individual ACC championships (Curtin has four) have always been really special to me. I think those are fun, especially when our team wins ACCs (the Hokies won ACC indoor titles in 2013 and 2015, with Curtin winning the 5k in ’13 and the 3k in ’15). So those are up those also. It really didn’t sink in that I had actually beaten Cheserek until after my cool down and then it really sunk in.
What were you thinking when you came across the line?
I don’t know. Probably just, “Ouch!” It was awesome. I don’t know if I had really any profound thoughts at all.
What did coach say to you after the race?
Before the race, he had actually said offhand in our little team huddle, “You know Tommy, just go win it” and then he gave the other guys their instructions. And we just sort of giggled at that because I don’t know if we really expected that win exactly. But afterwards, he didn’t say much. He’s a pretty quiet guy. He was definitely pretty pumped about it though.
What’s your goal for NCAAs?
Do a similar thing there. I think the race will play a lot differently at NCAAs with it being a 10k and with the field being a little bit different. But yeah, just roll with the lead pack and see where that puts me.
Do you worry that because you ran away from him yesterday, that Cheserek and those other guys will be extra careful about you or anyone else getting a gap at NCAAs?
I don’t know. I think they’ll definitely take me into account now that I was able to run away with that. I don’t think they’ll let a scenario like that happen again.
Your win wasn’t the only surprise. Virginia Tech, you guys weren’t ranked but you wound up sixth overall. Can you talk about that performance and what the goals are for you guys team-wise this year?
We should be able to qualify for nationals, I would hope. The goal right now is to qualify for nationals and do well as a team and prove those rankings before were wrong. We always seem to be overlooked, so it’s good to finally get some recognition, either individually or as a team. So I hope we’re put up into the rankings.
I noticed you were wearing a pink bandana on Saturday. Is there a story behind that? When did you start racing in bandanas?
Last year about this time, my teammate Amanda Smith gave me that bandana. I didn’t race cross last year so I was just spectating at the Louisville course. She just offhand said something about a bandana or a headband and I asked her if I could wear it. So I wore it all day spectating and then after that I went to give it back to her and she was like “Uh, you can keep that, you’ll get more use out of it.”
Then I decided that I’d grow my hair out and have a reason to wear the headband. I really like the color pink, so that helped.
Do you think it brought you good luck? Are you going to keep wearing it from now on?
I’m not really a superstitious athlete at all. I don’t really buy into funny little superstitions like, “I did this so I’ve gotta do it again.” I’ll keep wearing it anyway because that’s what I would have done regardless of how the race went. The headband will definitely still be around, yeah.
You’ve been a force on the track for a while but I would say this is your breakthrough race in XC. Why do you think it took so long for you to really have this great race in cross?
I was injured two years ago in the indoor and outdoor seasons and then I just wasn’t really back in it in cross. I felt like [this breakthrough] would have happened earlier if I hadn’t been injured, but that really just sort of broke up my running for a while. So it definitely delayed that.
What was the injury?
I don’t really know. I was spiked real bad and I just had a whole plethora of foot problems, plantar fasciitis and all sorts of stuff.
What race were you spiked in?
That was an indoor race, some home indoor race. It was a 3k. I don’t recall. I actually won the race still but the next day after that, I went to stand up and I was just like, “Oh, [I’m] not going anywhere.” I don’t recall which meet that was specifically though.
Do you have a favorite workout that you guys do?
No, not really. They’re all workouts and they’re all not too fun. I know our coach doesn’t entirely like giving away his workout secrets so I think he’d prefer to keep that closed. We do a lot of race-pace interval stuff and I enjoy that a lot. We’ll do race-pace intervals and cruise intervals alternating.
What are your favorite things to do outside of running?
I read a lot of books lately and I drink a lot of tea. A lot of tea, oh yeah. I also have four pet rats that I take care of a lot.
I think you might be the only person I’ve ever talked to whom all of those things apply to.
What books have you been reading lately?
I just finished within this last year The Wheel of Time series, which is like a fantasy novel. And then I just finished the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. And then I’m reading another book by him also currently.
Do you drink tea on race days? Is that something you do before the race, or do you wait until afterwards?
Sometimes. It depends. I did have tea before the race [at Pre-Nats] but I just sort of always have tea.
What’s your favorite kind?
Ooh. I’ve been on a big raw pu-erh binge lately, which may not be a tea that you’re familiar with.
It definitely is not. Where is that from? I’m guessing that’s not an American tea.
No, it’s a Chinese tea.
How did you get introduced to that? Do you search out teas to drink? How did you find out about it?
At first, I started drinking tea earlier on before I was more concerned with nutrition and stuff. I used tea more as a vessel to inject sugar into me as a sweet indulgence. But I’ve gotten away from that; I hardly ever drink tea with sugar anymore. And then it became more of almost a connoisseur sort of thing. I search out new teas to try and any kind of tea, I’ll drink pretty much. I’ll just try them all.