By Jonathan Gault
December 6, 2018
Last week, Loudoun Valley (Va.) High School, competing as “Purcellville,” won its second straight boys’ championship at Nike Cross Nationals. The win was historic for two reasons; not only did it represent the first repeat victory by a boys’ school in the 15-year history of NXN, but, for the second year in a row, Loudoun Valley set the meet record for lowest score, tallying just 77 points.
The masterminds behind Loudoun Valley’s success are married couple Marc and Joan Hunter, who took over a struggling program in the fall of 2014 when their son, Drew, was a junior on the team. The success of Drew — who won the 2015 Foot Locker national title and ran 3:57 for the mile as a high schooler — helped draw attention (and bodies) to the program, and even after Drew graduated in 2016, the program continued to improve, culminating with back-to-back national titles. Another son, Jacob, was a member of both of those teams.
Both Marc and Joan are accomplished runners in their own right. Marc owns a 13:36 5,000 pb and was fourth at the 1977 NCAA XC meet for Cleveland State, while Joan has won masters national titles in the 400 and 800.
On Monday night, LetsRun.com spoke with both Marc and Joan Hunter for almost an hour in a phone interview. We’ve broken the interview into two parts. In part I, we talked about the team’s success at NXN, how they built Loudoun Valley into a powerhouse, and their training philosophy. In part II, which can be found below, we spoke about supplemental work and what the team does to improve outside of running and why Loudoun Valley has so many transfers on its team (three of its top five at NXN this year were transfers).
What sort of supplemental work do you guys do in addition to running?
Joan: We do a lot of different supplemental stuff. We have [elastic] band circuits. We mix in a lot of different things. For kids that are having injury issues, they all have a little band routine that focuses on mostly hips and glutes type work, monster walks, squats with elastic bands, different hip type of stuff. We also do hurdle mobility, we try to get that in once a week or so. We do weight room, we have two different weight routines. We try to get in the weight room at least twice a week with our top kids. Our freshmen generally stick with body weights or band circuits because we can’t get everybody in the weight room. Our first-year kids are not in the weight room, but we do lots of general strength type circuits throughout the whole season.
Marc: To build on what Joan said, I would say our first 30 to 40 minutes [of practice], we aren’t running. We do these foot drills, we do a lot of barefoot before practice starts. Actually, the shoes are off for the first 30-40 minutes. We do foot drills and a lot of lunging and then a slight warmup jog and then we do a set of drills and finally after all that, it usually takes 30-40 minutes, the kids put their shoes on. In fact, our freshman spend more time during a workout not running than running, usually up until halfway through the season. By halfway through the season, they’re doing about as much running as non-running drills, activities, and exercises.
And those drills, do you guys do those before every single practice?
Marc: Every single practice, yep. We’re locked into those. And we know that the cause of many injuries are weak feet and weak glutes, so we focus on those. We test kids that we suspect are really weak, especially with their glutes, and they’ll work on their own at home if we suggest that to them. We want to prevent injuries. We want to keep, as Joan says, “keep the ball rolling” and really keep the kids healthy for four years. And if we can do that, then we’re going to have a good team.
I truly believe that the guys that make Olympic finals, guys that make World Championship finals, guys that make NCAA finals, make state finals, are those that stay healthiest the longest. I think if I ever get a study of that, I can prove it. They’re not necessarily the most talented, but I think they stayed healthy, they kept the ball rolling, they kept increasing their mileage and staying healthy and training consistently, all those things that help [one] excel at our sport.
What do you guys tell the kids about recovery and nutrition?
Marc: We’re always talking to them about sleeping because they’re all really good students and so they want to do well in the classroom. It’s mainly about putting your phone down, putting your electronics down and getting your studying done as soon as you get home. We often bring food to practice and drinks to practice, especially during the postseason, so the kids are getting something in their bodies right away, protein in their body right away to refuel. We don’t want them going to the weight room, going home, taking a shower, and sitting around for an hour before they eat and so we’ll often bring food to practice, like I said, in the postseason. We stress nutrition but obviously we can’t monitor it. We just are not home. So we give them the basics and we tell them it’s another thing that will make you better, another thing to add to your toolbox that will help you be a good runner.
Joan: I’m noticing with the nutrition piece, like at NXN, our boys, with a couple of exceptions that I will not name, have really bought into eating healthy, just looking at their plates of food. When we were at NXN, our boys would all load up on salads and healthy things, whereas I remember looking at another kid’s plate [from another team] and everything was beige. He had no vegetables, no fruit. I think it was like macaroni and cheese and a piece of garlic bread or something, like that was what the kid was eating. We just really emphasize eating healthy whole foods, and most of our boys have really bought into that.
Some are struggling. They try, and they’ll put a little tiny bit of salad on their plate or whatever. My one who is really not a good eater, at NXN, I saw he put little shredded carrots on his plate. He didn’t want salad but he knew I’d probably say something so he put this little pile of carrots on his plate. I was like, oh! Vegetables!
Marc mentioned that you guys bring food to practice during the postseason for them to have right after practice. What foods do you usually bring?
Joan: I would usually go and I would get tart cherry juice for them to drink, chocolate milk for some of them, high-protein chocolate almond milk for those that couldn’t do dairy. Those RXBARS, KIND bars, these grain-free granola bars that I can’t remember what they’re called. Pistachios. I’d always try to bring a combination of something with protein and something with some carbohydrates, but not anything horribly processed or sugary. Chocolate milk is kind of sugary but we didn’t bring enough of that for them to guzzle it. They might have a cup of that and they’d have something like a handful of pistachios or maybe one of those grain-free granola bars to go with it.
Do you think that there’s anything you guys do in your program that other programs don’t do?
Joan: Anything that we do that other programs don’t do. That’s a great question. Hmm…We run wickets. That’s kind of weird for a distance team.
You run what?
Joan: They’re called wickets. It’s kind of a sprint drill. Doug Soles (coach of Great Oak in California, who finished second to LV at NXN) has his HIIT workouts that he does, nobody else really does those. We do wickets, which are just a little drill to teach good sprint mechanics where you space out little six-inch hurdles and you just take one stride over each one. I set up different spacings of them so that the little tiny short slow kids have their own set of spacings whereas my big fast boys have another set of spacings that matches more their stride. And it’s just a really great way to kind of teach sprint mechanics, stepping over the hurdle and applying force to the ground and running tall. We like to use those about once every week to 10 days during the season. The kids actually sort of teach themselves how to run fast properly, when they do the wickets.
So you guys mentioned this earlier, the transfer thing. I have to ask a couple questions about that. I was looking at the roster, and three of your top five from NXN transferred in within the last few years — it was Sam Affolder, Connor Wells, and Carlos Shultz. What was the reason, individually, for each of them coming in?
Marc: Sam moved because his dad was moving to the Pentagon. And it’s very interesting, the dynamic that has happened with transfers over the past five or six years since we started coaching. This is a very transient area, a lot of military, a lot of intel community, obviously for politics, turnover and regimes, a lot of IT, and so it’s very transient, typically. We’ve had kids leave our program too. Nobody talks about those.
So Sam, they were moving down here because his dad got an assignment at the Pentagon. So they wanted to run for a good program, so they chose Valley. In previous years, those kids chose the bigger schools in Fairfax County — the Lake Braddocks, the West Springfields, the Robinsons and so forth. Now they want to come to Valley because we’re really successful.
Connor, their rent was up. They’re military too. Connor was injured at the time. He was in suburbia and they said, let’s move out to the country. They knew we had a good program. They actually moved before they told us [he wanted to run for the team]. This is how it happened: I got a call from Mrs. Wells. They said, we’re moving to Hamilton, Virginia, and we’ll be in the Loudoun Valley school district.
Carlos moved down here from Pennsylvania. His parents are trying to build property down here to build a Montessori school. And his parents were unhappy with the school system up here. I know he went to three different schools. Is this school #4 for him?
Joan: He’s on school #4.
Marc: So they wanted him to go to a good school, they knew they wanted to start a Montessori school down here. So they knew we were kind of in the country and that’s sort of where they wanted to build the school. So they’ve been searching for property for the Montessori school and Carlos wanted to go to Valley because of our program.
How many of the kids on your roster have transferred to Loudoun Valley?
Marc: The whole roster?
Marc: Ten, if you include girls and boys.
How many of them are moving solely for their kids to run for you guys at Loudoun Valley?
Marc: I think that’s zero. I’ll go back to it’s a transient area. People are moving to this area all the time and they’re leaving. Matter of fact, we’re going to lose Affolder’s brother next year because his dad’s moving to another assignment in the South. I would say zero moved here just to run. I know everybody thinks that the parents are moving here so their kids can run for Valley and that’s not the case.
Late spring, early summer, we get a call or I get a call or an email, almost on a weekly basis, from kids that want to transfer here. And I actually have talked several out of transferring, because if they want to transfer for only athletic purposes, I say that’s not a good enough reason. The first question I pose is, If this fails from an athletic perspective — so if your kid does not run well, gets sick, gets injured, falls out of love with the sport — will this still be a good move for the family? And if they can’t immediately tell me why this would be a good move, even if their kid fails athletically, then I suggest that they probably rethink the reason for coming down here. The last six families that have moved in have moved without even talking to me. I haven’t even had a chance to talk to the last six families. They’ve already moved. They know they’re moving to the area, their kid is an average runner and they just want to be part of a good team. They moved, they get a call, they say we’ve just moved into the Valley school district so we just want to know what it takes to come out for the team.
Among those kids, among the families that are already moving to the area but choose your district because of the reputation you guys have developed as coaches and the program you have, how do you feel about that? That they’re choosing a school because of you guys, because of the program. Do you feel comfortable about that?
Joan: On the one hand, it’s kind of flattering. On another hand, there’s pressure that comes along with that. One thing — and this is something that concerns me a lot — we don’t know how much longer we’re going to be doing this. And the idea that a family might move to our district because they have a ninth grader that is already involved in running and wants to be on a good team and they’ve decided to move without even — as Marc said, most of the families, I think because of all this chatter about having so many transfers, people think that we’re recruiting these kids, which nothing could be further from the truth — parents are trying to spare us that, and by doing that, I think what they do is they move in and like Marc said, call us. The problem with that is it seems like everyone kind of assumes that we’re going to be there forever. And that makes me a little nervous, to be honest with you. It would be terrible for a family to uproot and move and we coach their child for a year and then we decide it’s time for us to retire for whatever personal reasons we might have to decide that. That concerns me.
Marc: We’re honored that people would think so highly of us that they would want to transfer. By the way, we’re not the only school that has transfers. Every good school has a transfer or two. And we were in that situation with Drew. When Drew first expressed interest in running and we noticed some talent, the program at Loudoun Valley, it was bottom of the barrel in every way. And we’re thinking, Oh my God, what are we going to do with this kid?
We looked outside at maybe a private school or somehow giving him another school in Loudoun County.
Joan: We even thought about sending him to live with Grandma in Ohio, where Marc’s brother is a coach. I know this happens. Any parent of a child that has a talent in anything, whether it’s running or computer coding, they’re going to probably look for a school, if they have the ability to do so, where their child’s interest can be nurtured. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Joan, you mentioned you’ve heard that some people have accused you of recruiting these kids. I’m wondering, where is that coming from and how does it make you feel when they say that about you guys.
Joan: A lot of it comes from the LetsRun boards.
Marc: All of it does, actually.
Joan: Well I won’t say all of it. We’ve even been accused of that by local coaches.
Marc: We’ve had a local coach accuse us of recruiting. First of all, it’s ethically wrong. We would never. If you think what recruiting entails: calling a kid, calling a parent, seeing a kid at the meet saying, Hey, you should run with Valley, seeing a parent at a meet, You should run with Valley. I just can’t imagine myself ever doing something like that. That’s unethical. That’s someone else’s athlete. Who am I to think that I should try to make that kid run for us? It’s ridiculous. And by the way, we’re good enough without them. If you take all the transfers [from every school] away last year, we would have easily won the national championship last year.
(Editor’s note: That’s not actually true. We looked at the top three schools at 2017 NXN — LV, Fayetteville-Manlius, and Mountain Vista — and determined that if you removed every transfer from all three teams, Mountain Vista would have defeated LV, 151-153. LV had two transfers in its top five, F-M had two, and MV had none. We did not try to determine the results if every transfer from every school in the field was removed, but given that none of Mountain Vista’s top five were transfers, even if there was some minor shuffling in the places, Loudoun Valley would not have won “easily.”
(Looking at this year, with three scoring transfers, obviously if you removed all three LV wouldn’t have won as they wouldn’t have a team score, but the same is true if you removed one of the transfers. If you removed a single transfer from their team this year, they would have finished 4th. If you removed two transfers, they would have finished between 8th and 14th depending on which two you removed.)
There’s something to be said for having four years with your kids, developing them over four years. It’s a unique feeling for a coach to have success with that. But again, my goal as a coach is to coach the kids I have, whether they’re transfers, whether they’re kids that just came out [for the team], whether they’re kids we’ve had for four years. My goal is to make them the best student-athletes that they can be.
What is it like for you guys to coach your son Jacob? And is it difficult for him not to compare himself to Drew considering how accomplished Drew has been in his running career?
Marc: We’re extremely proud of Jacob and the way he’s handled it all. He’s very proud of his brother. Unfortunately he looks a lot like Drew so he’s often mistaken for Drew, but he’s got used to that. He’s his own man. He’s so different compared to Drew and his abilities and some of the things he has to struggle with that not a normal athlete has. Jacob’s a Type 1 diabetic. There are very few, if any, that we’ve come across running at his level with that disease.
It doesn’t bother him at all. He’s proud of his brother and he’s his own man. He has been such a blessing to coach. He still calls us Mom and Dad at practice, which is kind of cute. He doesn’t call us Coach. But he’s a joy to coach, he really is.
Joan: He’s always been a very easy-going kid. Just a very even-keeled guy. Doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low. And very easy to work with. I think if you ask him, he completely enjoys having us as his coaches.
Well I think that’s pretty much everything I wanted to go over. I really appreciate you guys finding the time to talk to me tonight. Is there anything important that we didn’t talk about that you want to touch on or feel is important to mention?
Marc: We’re so proud of our boys and our team and the way they’re able to overcome things. We’re blessed coaches and we know that. We’ve got a good thing going here at Loudoun Valley. I’m not sure our program, at the national level, is sustainable, because we are a small school, but obviously we’ve done well so far. We should always be able to compete at our state level, compete for a state championship, but the run so far has been extremely fun.
Joan: One thing I really appreciate about our boys is their ability to have fun with all this. The pressure just doesn’t really seem to be a really major thing. I don’t feel like they dwell on it at all. They’ve just managed to really have fun with all this and they’re fun to be with. They’re fun to be around and we really, really enjoy them as people, not just as athletes.
Marc: Last year, Joan and I both thought they were the loosest bunch at nationals. We saw some very stoic teams and some very serious teams and our boys were just being themselves and we saw that. And this year, I think they were even crazier. I actually thought they had too much fun this year, but I was obviously wrong because they ran well.
In fact, when we got off the plane and landed in Portland, we got off the plane, got into the bus, they were just having a great time on the bus going to the hotel. And at one point, they were singing and just having a good old time, and the bus driver one time asked me if those boys had been drinking on the airplane. [Joan laughs] And a lot of our boys are big, they’re big kids, and I think he thought they were in college — and I said, no they’re in high school and they better not have been drinking on the airplane. I didn’t notice that because I was sitting behind them. You have to have tough skin to be around this team because they chide each other, always joking around. I’ll leave it at that.
Talk about this interview on our world famous fan forum / messagebhoard: MB: How to win NXN two years in a row? Joan and Marc Hunter Q & A
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This interview has been condensed for clarity.
UPDATE: In the section where Marc Hunter discusses transfers and Loudoun Valley’s 2017 NXN title team, his comments have been clarified to reflect that he was talking about what would happen if every school had its transfers removed from the results, not just Loudoun Valley.