What does it take to get to Foot Locker Nationals?
Most would agree that it takes a little bit of luck, a ton of talent, and at least a rough race plan for regionals. But there is something else that each of the three Pennsylvania guys who qualified for the 2009 finals had that is probably the most important ingredient of all. Desire.
Senior Brad Miles of North Penn, senior Rad Gunzenhauser of Mount Lebanon, and junior Ryan Gil of North Allegheny have all of the above. They each approached the race in different ways, but with similar results.
Two other top PA harriers – junior Jacob Kildoo of Grove City (12th), and senior Chuck Lockwood of Dallastown (19th), got close.
This is the story of their post-season runs for a trip to San Diego.
Brad Miles won the state AAA title. But he had to work the last mile hard.
Rad Gunzenhauser had a plan that he executed to perfection. Get away from Miles and anyone else near him before the final hill... and then accelerate on the hill. "I usually get out-kicked, so my plan was working, but Brad had a whole other gear."
That other gear was making up a 30 meter deficit at the bottom of 'poop-out' hill – PA's 200 meter mini-monster that starts the final 400 meters of the race – and passing Gunzenhauser with 40 meters to go.
Ryan Gil was just 14 seconds behind for 3rd, and Chuck Lockwood would wrap up 4th two seconds later.
Another top contender at States was Grove City junior Jacob Kildoo. He awoke in the morning to find he was sick. But he followed his usual routine, toed the line and took off. Everything was fine until the mile. He was 4th in the lead pack at that point, but when he went to make a push up the hill, nothing was there. He dropped to 26th by two miles, and "gutted out" the rest of his disappointing day to finish 45th.
Each of these guys had something to show at Foot Locker Regionals.
The three weeks that make or break a Foot Locker performance.
Unlike New York and New Jersey who compete in their championship season the two weekends before the Foot Locker regional, PA's season is done by the first Saturday of November.
Plenty of runners have shown the way to regroup, and stay sharp for the extended period. This year's group was no exception.
After a rest day or two, Miles jumped right back on the mileage, going for 60 to 75 minute runs during the first of the three weeks. The middle week, he sandwiched his long runs with speed workouts on Monday and Wednesday, then through in four 1000's on Friday going three minutes hard. And he discontinued his season-long work of eight-ten minutes of continuous abs five days a week. Miles had experienced some deep breath problems the last mile of races leading up to states, and said the layoff from the abs work helped him at States.
This season Miles has been moving away from a big taper before races. He finds he responds better to race conditions that way.
During this time he did a two-mile time trial in 9:17, going 4:40 and 4:37 with a closing quarter of 63. He also did a community 5K race, improving from last year's 15:35 to a 14:52 this year.
He knew he was fit.
For Gunzenhauser, it wasn't just a matter of planning the three weeks. He actually wasn't even sure he wanted to do regionals. After the experience of sprinting a difficult hill and getting passed as a reward, he was "shot" after states. For the first time in his running career, he was tired the entire week after the race.
But his doubts were soon erased. Friends urged him to give it a shot. But Gunzenhauser says it was a contact from his high school's distance record-holder James O'Toole that convinced him to go for it. "He contacted me over the internet and along with a lot of other alumni, told me I could do it."
O'Toole, who graduated in 2004, was 16th his senior year at the Northeast Regionals, and told PennTrackXC during a post-race regionals interview in 2003 that he had not pushed hard enough in the back hills at Van Cortlandt Park.
So his words of encouragement to Gunzenhauser carried a lot of weight.
Rad took off the two days after States, and then went right back to his base of solid, slow road runs. He did a tempo workout eight days out, and during the week of the Regionals, he did some mile repeats.
He felt he was ready.
Ryan Gil also took a couple of days off following his state race.
His coaches had him ramp up his mileage quickly. "That was hard," he admits. The first week he did one hill workout along with the long stuff.
He did some tempo work and intervals weeks two and three. "Not as hard as the ones before States," he said. He finished with short tempos with short intervals, followed by his taper.
Gil was confident, but far from thinking he was a lock.
The real dark horse for PA in this was Jacob Kildoo. The Grove City junior was incredibly disappointed by his state's performance. All year he had been racing locally in northwestern PA, and had been running alone. He had been looking forward to States to finally be able to tell what kind of shape he was in. "I was working harder than I ever have in season and I was never fresh for any of my races, so it was hard to say where I was."
But there was no doubt he would do the regionals.
"I wanted to redeem myself, mentally," he shared.
He was pretty well shot from racing while sick for the first week after States. He took three days off, and like the others, went right into distance. The 2nd week, he added some track workouts. On Tuesday, he did 7 intervals of 1200 meters at quicker than 3:35, followed by a short rest, and 400's at 65. On Thursday, he did a mile-and-a-half at race pace, hitting a 4:47 and a 2:13.
A 5K during his hard week helped his confidence, going 15:37.
The week before the meet, he rested and tapered.
He was ready to give it everything he had.
The race plans went from aggressive to conservative...
with all hoping to hear nothing but numbers under ten.
All four guys had the same goal coming into the race, and that simply was a top ten finish.
Miles had read about all the top runners who had won the Northeast Regionals, and says he could never really imagine himself winning it. "It takes something special."
Approaching the mile, Brad was in the front pack. He felt good at the top of the first hill, and says the long downhill really helped with a quick recovery. As he exited the picnic area for the next-to-last time and started up the base of Cardiac Hill, Miles was still feeling good. So with about 200 meters to go near the two-mile point on that nasty hill, he put in a little surge just to see if anyone would go with him. No one did.
As he crested the last hill on the course, he continued to take the downhills hard. "At that point, I knew it was my race to take."
Miles says the hills of PA's Belmont Plateau and state championship course at Hershey helped prepare him for Sunken Meadows, not only physically, but mentally.
With a large lead... "I didn't hear anyone coming down the last trail," Miles says he coasted so he could take it all in.
Gunzenhauser was only thinking about place. And his plan was the most conservative of the group.
O'Toole had advised him to go out in 40th place or so. Approaching the mile, he was in 32nd about 30 meters off the lead pack. While he knew both Miles and Gil were in the race, he didn't look for them at any point. "Going up the first hill, I was just trying to survive" he said. Because some of the hills were pretty sandy, he tried simply to conserve his energy.
Gunzenhauser's race strategy involves using downhills for all they're worth.
"Gravity is free" he coyly notes.
So on that first downhill, he let it go and passed 15 runners. "That's when I saw Ryan (Gil). "Then I started to hear '15' and knew I had to move up. I didn't do it by speeding up. It was them slowing down."
Heading up Cardiac Hill, he was just off Gil's shoulder in 11th place. "That's when I knew the top group was coming back to me. I certainly didn't surge."
He passed Gil and Kildoo on Cardiac, and by the time he reached the top, he was in 7th.
At the crest, he invoked another racing philosophy that he has been coached to do. "Run through the hill. Don't think it's your break."
So he accelerated over the hill and then continuing his 'gravity is free' mantra, he passed two more on the way to his eventual 5th place finish.
"I practice accelerating over hills on my tempo runs. It makes your legs get used to it."
He was somewhat disappointed that the ground was so loose on the downhill after Cardiac. "I really wanted to go, but you couldn't fly on that."
Once he heard 5th and 6th places, he just wanted to get to the finish. "It was very painful. I just tried to stay with the kid ahead of me."
What he found most satisfying is that unlike States on the final straightaway, or as he says usually happens, he didn't get out-kicked. In fact, no on passed him the entire race. "That was really satisfying, mentally."
Gil didn't really have a plan other than to stay close to Brad, "because he's a smart racer."
"Brad went out too hard."
So he keyed off the other PA guys, Kildoo and Gunzenhauser. When Rad went past him on Cardiac, he tried to go with him for a little. "I remember feeling bad at the top, but it wasn't too bad recovering."
Gil also considers himself a great downhill guy. He says that's the way he is coached, and it comes naturally to him, as well.
He likes to press the pace, but felt that this race went out too fast. Approaching the top of the first hill, though, he felt under control.
He knew he was 8th with about 1200 meters left, so he just concentrated on the runner in front of him, and didn't look back.
Kildoo came into the race with redemption on his mind. He was 9th at the top of Cardiac Hill, but several runners were close.
He likes to drive from that point on, but says the first mile of the race caught up to him during the last mile.
"Gil passed me on the downhills, which were the worst part of my race. If I ran better downhills, I'd be going to California."
Kildoo would really like to get better competition early in his season so he could gain experience and check his fitness level. In other words, he'd like to travel a bit.
One of the main problems he experiences is the courses are not as 'dynamic' as the championship ones in the state meet or post-season. If he had experience on the multiple uphills and downhills, he believes he'll have the experience to do well on a course such as Sunken Meadow.
If all goes as hoped next year, he'd become the 2nd Grove City athlete to compete in Foot Locker. Mike McWilliams qualified twice, finishing 6th as a junior and 4th as a senior.
That was the first time three PA boys had qualified in the same year. The 2nd time was in 2007. And 2009 marks the third time. PA girls have qualified three on three occasions, 1989, 1995 and 2007, making '89 and '07 the only six-qualifer years.
Gunzenhauser, as did Miles and Gil, expressed nothing but respect and happiness about their fellow qualifiers, including Pennsbury freshman Sara Sargent.
"We (PA), don't get the credit in cross. PA is not perceived to be as good as we really are."
See you all in San Diego!
Race Flow for top PA Boys:
Miles in front pack at start
Approaching mile in pack
Whitehall junior Matt Kacyon 20th
Perkiomen Valley senior Vince Perozze 26th
Gunzenhauser 32nd about 30 meters off lead pack
Entering picnic grove for 2nd time
Gil 12th, all in touch with top group
Gunzenhauser 17th about 30 meters off Gil
Entering Cardiac Hill
Miles 1st, but with a lead pack of nine
Kildoo 10th just off lead pack
Gil 12th about 10 meters off Kildoo
Gunzenhauser, 11th just off Gil's shoulder
Top of Cardiac Hill
Kildoo 9th 5 meters off Gunzenhauser
Gil 10th 5 meters off Kildoo
1 Miles, Bradley 12 Hatfield PA 15:52.8
5 Gunzenhauser, Rad 12 Pittsburgh PA 16:05.7
8 Gil, Ryan 11 Pittsburgh PA 16:10.8
12 Kildoo, Jacob 11 Grove City PA 16:20.5
19 Lockwood, Charles 12 York PA 16:31.0