Q&A With Andy Powell: Oregon Distance Coach Discusses the Greatness of Edward Cheserek, Learning from Centro and Salazar & How He Peaks Athletes For NCAAs
By Jonathan Gault
February 27, 2017
An hour after the University of Oregon’s Edward Cheserek broke the NCAA mile record on Sunday, running 3:52.01 at Boston University, I was able to speak to Oregon distance coach Andy Powell in the hallway outside the track. For 12 minutes, we talked about Cheserek’s brilliance, what Powell has learned from Alberto Salazar and former Duck Matthew Centrowitz and how Oregon, which has won three straight NCAA men’s indoor titles, consistently peaks so well for the NCAA Championships. A transcript of our conversation is below, followed by the video.
JG: Oregon coach Andy Powell here after watching Edward Cheserek set the collegiate record in the mile. How are you feeling about the race?
AP: Yeah, obviously thrilled to get a collegiate record. I think that’s his first collegiate record. So big for the program, great for him, just glad everything came together.
We haven’t seen Edward chase these sort of times generally during his career. Was this something that was your idea? Was it his idea? How did it come about?
I was talking with Matthew Centrowitz, we stay in touch and talk every week or so. And he told me about his indoor plan. If things were going well, he was going to come here and try to run a good mile. And I asked him would it be okay if we tagged along and jumped on the back of that. Talked with his coach Alberto and everyone seemed like that was okay. So we were anticipating if everything was going well, we were going to do it. We had to make sure everyone got qualified [for NCAAs], DMRs, everything had to kind of line up well and it seemed like it was trending in that direction.
Ed had a really good week of training, not this week but the week before. So [I was a] little nervous he might be a little tired but his workouts have been really good. Matthew ended up deciding to kind of focus more on the outdoor season and so he ended up not running obviously, but we were already anticipating going and we wanted a good effort, we knew it was a fast track. Called Gags (NJ*NY Track Club coach Frank Gagliano) and he thought maybe he would have some guys that would be interested. His guys have been running great all indoor season, so we just decided we’d give it a go and it all worked out really well.
In terms of how he executed, was that what you wanted to see from him in terms of how he ran the race?
Yeah. The thing I told him was I wanted him to run hard. We just wanted a hard effort. We try to do that once a season. Well, twice a season — once maybe in the middle somewhere and once at nationals. I said, “No matter what, don’t worry about the time, don’t worry about the place. Just when the rabbit steps off, you just go.” And we just talked about trying to run 29s for the last three laps, just really run hard and hopefully callous himself a little bit going into NCAAs. We did that last year at Millrose, that’s why he was right on the rabbit again and he pushed hard when the rabbit went off. So he pushed hard from really a long ways out, 600 out. Luckily [Kyle] Merber had a good close but [Cheserek] was able to hold him off [because of] that early fast pace, I guess.
Has he gotten antsy asking you, like, “Hey, can you finally let me run a fast mile or a fast 3k?”
He wants to run some times. He loves the national championships and stuff like that but yeah, I think this was something that was important to him. He definitely wanted to run a fast time. He’d like to do the same thing outdoor. And we’ll definitely, outdoor we’ll be able to do [it]; I don’t know if it will happen in the collegiate season or afterwards. I think every athlete wants those great PRs. You do all the training, he’s got the wins, does the team stuff for sure but I think it is nice for him personally to have that fast time under his belt.
And that obviously helps him when he gets a professional contract or is searching for one, right?
Yeah, I think that will help. I think that most of the collegiate guys that I’ve coached, they run pretty fast in college but they really do run a lot faster after college. I try to make sure there’s some running left in them. And that’s kind of the next thing for them to do, I feel like. They start getting over to Europe and start trying to establish some fast times. Like Eric Jenkins, I bet you, will run a lot of fast times this year, you just saw Johnny Gregorek do that (3:53 mile at BU). Daniel Winn will do that, Colby Alexander. The collegiate system, it’s hard to do everything. I think you see guys that maybe run fast at Payton Jordan meet but you don’t hear what happens to them at the national meet. So it’s hard to do it all. Our focus has to be the NCAAs. I think that’s what we’re doing in college, we’re focused on the NCAAs, we’re focused on doing our best there. That usually sets yourself up pretty well for after college. But yeah, for someone like [Cheserek], it is nice that he’s able to get a fast time.
You guys, more than most programs though, will peak very hard for NCAAs. I’m wondering how do you do that?
We train, I mean not to bore you with too much details, but we train hard for like six weeks every season and we just finished our six-week block today. And so typically we don’t run extremely fast during that six weeks. It’s impressive how fast Ed ran, you know finishing up a six-week block like that. Some guys respond pretty well to the training but usually they’re pretty tired. Like Mac Fleet would always struggle during the six-week block. I remember Eric Jenkins at Mountain Pacific a couple years ago struggled to anchor our team in 3:57. It’s just really hard efforts. But then two weeks later, it seems like as we taper and finally pull off a little bit the gas, they just seem to really freshen up and that’s why they seem to typically — not all the time, but typically — they run pretty well at the NCAAs.
Is there any workout in particular that Ed’s done recently that was really impressive?
We did [it on a] Tuesday, so like 12 days ago, he did like a tempo in the morning and then he ran five 400’s pretty fast, which is not our typical–
What’s pretty fast?
Like in the 53’s. And that’s not typical for us, at least at that time of the year, but I did want to do one workout like that. I got a recommendation, just something Centrowitz had done. So we wanted to try something like that, we thought maybe it was kind of lacking. So we did that, that was pretty hard, came back a few days later and did some 800’s. But yeah, every Friday we work pretty hard and if we’re not working out, we’re racing and then doing something hard afterwards. But our Fridays are just hard. Hard intervals, they’re running hard, hopefully not quite all-out but it’s pretty close.
And you mentioned it was something Centrowitz had done. Was that something you got from Alberto?
Yeah, I talked with Alberto and I talked with Matthew. Those two, I talk to quite a bit about training and bounce ideas. I think they see some of the stuff that I do, I see some of the stuff that they do. I think it’s good to take bits and pieces from someone like Matthew and Alberto, who’ve had a lot of success. That’s the nice thing with being close with Matthew. It’s nice not to have to coach him anymore, I get to still stay in touch and follow him. We laugh sometimes at the workouts he was doing with me in college because they really have progressed quite a bit. He’s just gotten a lot better. It’s good to see what other people do. I still kind of have my own system that I like to do but yeah, it’s good to certainly get feedback from other people.
Have you decided what Edward’s going to be doing for events at NCAAs?
No. Just trying to see where everyone is on the descending order list, see who gets in and do what’s best for the team and each individual. We can make a last-minute decision at least on the DMR. The other stuff we have to declare in the next couple days. This is the last meet, so then we just see where everything is.
Would you be open to entering him in three events again like you did last year?
I doubt it, unless the DMR’s on the table. He likes the DMR a lot. I think the DMR is certainly something we like to do well in (Oregon has won the last two editions). But honestly, I’ll have to decompress and think of where everyone is and see how everyone’s doing and just see where we are as a whole team too. Look at the other runners, look at the other events, and look at how Arkansas’s doing and Florida and the other schools that seem to be putting together a good indoor season, just see where we stack up.
Last year, he runs the 3k-5k-DMR, you win all of them, but he had sort of a slow start to outdoor. I’m wondering do you think that’s related at all? Did you ask too much of him indoors?
I think it was kind of just the in-between [the indoor and outdoor seasons] probably. He did go hard and had to take a break and then brought him back like how we typically do, ended up having a calf issue. Then that really put a hold on the outdoor season and we had to revamp some things. He’s been healthy and really only been hurt once in his career and it was really just a week or two thing [though] it seems like forever. Just keep trying to keep him healthy. I think there will be a focus probably for more like NCAAs and beyond for him in the outdoor season, so just see what makes sense.
But he’s going to run hard at the indoor nationals. I mean, everyone’s going to run hard. We’ve always just run hard at that meet. We don’t typically double and triple people throughout the regular portion of the season, not at the MPSF, not at the Pac-12. But we do run hard at that meet. And it’s part of their training and part of how we look at things and they run hard and then we give them a break and then we build back up. I think if you have three NCAAs, I think you can run hard at all three, you just gotta be smart about it.
He just ran 3:52 for the mile. How do you think his fitness right now compares to in the past when you’ve seen him?
I think it gets a little bit better each season. I think in the cross country season, I think he was probably in the best shape he’s ever been in in that time of year in the fall. I think this indoor he’s probably the same, if not a little better. I think each year, things kind of grow on each other. He’s continuing to get better, continuing to get stronger. He continues to amaze me in races and in practice. I expect him to just continue to progress.
Obviously, it was a surprise that he lost NCAAs in cross country. Mentally, did you see any sort of after-effects from that?
I mean, he was fired up to get going in training. He had a good winter break. I made him take some time off and put the brakes on for a little bit but he was motivated and excited to get back. I think it was actually, in a weird way, was a positive thing. Not like a relief but, it’s hard when you’re on top and that’s all you can do. Hopefully, people see that and see that he’s human. I’m a Patriots fan, you know being here in Boston, a lot of people don’t like the Patriots but that’s because they’re good. Same thing why a lot of people don’t like the Yankees. It’s a tough spot to be in but I think in some ways it’s kind of been a relief almost to maybe not win every single race. I never think it’s bad for an athlete to lose. You don’t want them to, you certainly don’t want to do that at the nationals, but that’s part of the sport. You’ve got to get used to that, the winning and losing.
Do you get the sense though that people don’t like him because he wins all the time?
No, I wouldn’t say that. I think a lot of people do like him. But you’ve always got people that are going to cheer for the underdogs and I’m one of those types of people when I’m watching basketball at home. I think it’s like, I don’t want to compare him to Tom Brady, but I think, at least in our community and our town, people really appreciate what he’s done and I really do. Just for our sport, and for what I’ve seen the last four years, it’s been a really cool thing to watch and be a part of. I’m proud of him and I think he’ll continue to get better.
Full interview with Andy Powell below: