Kyle Younkin: New coaches and a talented, coachable athlete, surprise everyone at NB Nationals

Sometimes a workout becomes legendary in a program.

It is hard enough to get everyone's attention.

It is effective enough to produce consistent results – even records.

It is memorable enough to stay with its athletes for years after they did their final one.

Sometimes, it is so legendary, it gets its own name.

At Slippery Rock University, it's fondly referred to as the "Go Rock Workout."

Nearly 20 years after current Somerset HS boys head boys' coach Cliff Kitner completed his final "Go Rock" at Slippery Rock - the images; and results; from those painful hill repeats are still burned into his memory.

Photo of the start from New Balance Outdoor Nationals by Maroon News

"It is a Papa original", Kitner says. Giving credit where credit is due to his college coach John Papa, Kitner credits the workout with helping him become part of the school-record 4x400 teams both indoor and outdoor. The indoor mark was eclipsed in 1995... but the 3:15.00 from 1992 still remains the time to beat at the school.

The workout uses the hill on campus where the football fanatics paint "Go Rock" on a boulder.

Intensity and quantity and rest are all variables in the workout. But the essential results of the workout are core and confidence.

Kitner never dreamed he'd have a chance to do his own version of the Go Rock.

A recreation director for the City of Johnstown, Kitner was laid off this past year. So he had some time on his hands.

The worlds of Slippery Rock and Somerset come together.

Somerset's first-year head coach Bill Stuart had coached for three years at Connemaugh Township. When he got a job teaching at Somerset, he decided to wait a year before approaching the AD about any coaching aspirations.

There is no indoor program at Somerset. But Stuart took over as head of the outdoor track & field program this season.

He needed a sprints coach – one who had the time to be the head boys' coach, as well.

He knew someone who worked with him as a referee in basketball games. Someone with a track background that included a record or two at a respected collegiate program.

Photo of Kyle's position with 75 meters to go
at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals by Maroon News

He called his friend Cliff Kitner.

"Over the years of working together, Bill had heard of my track abilities," says Kitner. "Even though it would mean driving 60 miles a day, I jumped at the chance."

There are great athletes in every school. They simply need some great coaching.

Kyle Younkin had been a pretty successful athlete by all standards. After a year playing football in 7th grade, he would play soccer in the fall throughout high school. He played basketball in the winter. And beginning in 10th grade, he added outdoor track to his resume.

With distance training workouts his junior year, he dropped from a 52.90 in early May, to a 50.13 and District 6 AA title in the 400 meter dash. His 52.83 at states did not get him to the finals.

Coming into this outdoor season, he was still playing basketball in late February. 

When workouts began, the two new coaches agree that Younkin stood out. "Everything we asked, he was always the best," says Kitner. "But we didn't know how good he was until our first dual meet at Westmont Hilltop."

The layout at the school is like many where a track is squeezed to accommodate a football field. The visitor's bleachers are in front of the track – which makes it difficult to watch a 400 meter dash from start to finish.

Photo of Kyle nearing the finish at the
New Balance Outdoor Nationals by Maroon News

Younkin took off with the rest that afternoon, and as Stuart and Kitner watched the runners disappear behind the stands, they could only wait for them to emerge to know the possible outcome.

Younkin emerges. Alone. The coaches looked at each other as Kitner asked the obvious question, "where is everyone else."

"We really knew we had something special" says Kitner.

At that point, the school record for Somerset was 49.7. That day, Younkin went 50.1.

Kitner asked Younkin if he wanted that record. Younkin nodded to the affirmative.

"I told him that if he listened to me, I could guarantee that it would happen."

The transformation from 50.1 to top 20 in the country and all-American began that day.

After the requisite talent, the key elements of Kitner's coaching philosophy involve core and confidence.

To build Youkin's core strength, they began a lifting program. Most Saturdays, Younkin was the only one there. "Every time he raced, Kyle's shoulders would hurt," shares Kitner.  So building core strength would be essential.

The workouts were also designed to help with core, along with the obvious benefits of speed and strength.

But the ultimate result of the workouts was rapidly increasing confidence.

For the race itself, Kitner tries to keep it basic.

In his words, "going out easy or hard is not clear. Open your race with a strong, open stride. You'll run more relaxed. If you run relaxed, you'll run better."

Klye says that Kitner coached him to go out strong, with that open stride, for the first 250 meters, and then to "gear down" a notch in preparation for the final push. The instructions for the final 100 meters? "Bust it!"

Kitner remembered his college days when, during his best races, he'd come around the corner toward the final straight either even or behind other runners. "But when you go by in the last 100 meters, it's disheartening."


With all the dual meets and invitationals to plan around, Kitner would give Younkin one hard workout a week. These included a ladder of 400-500-600-500 and 400; three 400's and three 500's; and race-pace 500's, usually around 60 seconds.

But the one that athlete and coaches agree was the most effective, and most memorable is the as yet unnamed hill repeats, patterned after the "Go Rock."

Kitner found a nasty local hill, and marked off approximately 150 yards from bottom to top. When they started the workout, Younkin was running the ten-repeats, two-minute rest in about 25 seconds each. The ultimate goal of Kitner was to have him hitting 22 seconds. By the end of the season, Younkin was going well under 22; or as he recalls, "19 to 20 seconds every time."

The quality of these workouts, and the steady diet of positive feedback and advice from his coaches, led to some amazing drops in time over the season. After his opening 52.26 at the cold, late March Altoona Igloo Invitational, he totally obliterated the Somerset school record of 49.7 with a 48.96 AA win at the West Central Coaches meet at Altoona in early May.

He went 48.49 to win his second consecutive District 6 AA titles. And then, going into the state championships with a full head of confidence, he busted a 48.58 in the prelims, and came back the next day with a then-PR of 48.03 to win the state title.

But the 400 was NOT the only thing on his plate at the state meet.

Photo from PIAA T&F State Champs by Megan Clugh

Younkin had added the 100 and 200, and qualified for states in both, winning the 100 District title and taking runner-up in the 200 to rising star Nicholas Patton, a then-sophomore from Tyrone. Patton pushed Younkin all season, and was also under 49 at the district meet.

At States, Younkin never anticipated making the finals in all three events, a grueling journey of eight races over two days. But make the finals in all three is exactly what he did.

By the time the weekend was over, he had three state medals - a 4th in the 100 in 11.09; a 2nd in the 200 (to Patton) in 22.41 (21.98 semis); and the 400 meter championships, over 2nd place Patton.

There was one more goal for Younkin before his season would be complete.

Younkin wanted to test himself at the national level, racing at the New Balance Outdoor Championships, three full weeks after his state meet.

Kitner says they backed off for ten days, and then started an abbreviated session, cutting any specific workout in half – so five hills instead of ten.

By this point – even though Younkin is a very quiet person by nature – Kitner says his star pupil was brimming with confidence.

"On the drive down to North Carolina, Kyle told me he as going to get top three. It was simply a statement, because he is very humble."

With his seed, Younkin made it into the next to last heat. But he was in lane seven, not a place he was used to running.

His 47.33 held up for 3rd in at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals by Maroon News - US #20

"He was a bit scared with the lane," shares Kitner. "So I told him that he had the shortest race of everyone except lane eight, that is, IF he stayed on the line."

The little reduction in the anxiety level seemed to work. Younkin came off the final turn even with two other runners. But from there on, it looked like everyone else was running backwards, and Younkin busted the 48 second barrier to PR in 47.33.

The time held up for third overall.

He didn't get to enjoy the awards stand, because he was sprawled on the infield after the race. "I never ran in that kind of heat. But I think I would have had a shot at a better time in the final heat because of better competition."

The late bloomer makes some late decisions.

As the season progressed – and his times dropped – the number of colleges courting his future attendance changed from smaller programs, to the large D1 kind. He took his first official visit to Clemson this past weekend, and plans one or two more before making a final decision.

Ultimately, Younkin believes he is a true 400 runner, with his sites set on the 44 to 45 second range. He laughs at the mention of the two-lap (distance) race known as the 800.

But for now, Younkin will go down in Somerset school history as only the second state champion in its history. He believes the first was a javelin thrower in 1944.

There is also another way in which he'll probably be remembered.

His season has helped to get others in the school excited for the sport. "Kids were coming in this spring asking about off-season," says Stuart. "We are seeing a lot of interest."

Which means some of those athletes could be doing a certain legendary hill workout next year. One that Younkin swore he did every week this season – but one Coach Kitner says was only once every five weeks – one that could very well become known as the "Thanks Kyle Workout."