Deb Aitken on cross-country women, a stunning season, and ways her runners stay healthy

By Robert Gillespie
Photography by Fred Field

Coach Debra Aitken, who received the NESCAC Coach of the Year award and whose team finished fifth in the NCAA Division III national cross-country championships, talks with College Editor Robert Gillespie about her team's ranking, consistency, training, recruiting, health, and goals.

Congratulations on both the NCAA fifth place and the NESCAC Coach of the Year award. That must feel pretty good.
Yeah, actually, it felt great. And it was just a bit of a surprise. I think all of us as NESCAC coaches just truly realize how difficult it is to have a top-five team. It's just such a competitive game that if you can break into the top five or six, you know that in any other region in the country you could probably be a national-qualified team.

You were fourth in the New England region, right?
We were ranked fourth until the New England qualifier, where we actually knocked off Amherst and were a third place team. You know, I have to say I just felt very strongly about our people, but whether we were third, fourth, or fifth, that was beside the point.

Deb Aitken, center, with members of the women's cross-country team.
Photo by Fred Field
But when you went to nationals you were ranked ninth.
When we were ranked ninth I was like, ooh, maybe we deserve that ranking, I don't know. What had kept us strong the whole season was the fact that we had always, every single meet, seven strong individuals who were able to run in close proximity to each other, and that is really a strong point of our team.

Were the top seven runners all year the same top seven runners?
Yes, the same seven all year. I don't think we had the same exact placement of all seven runners in any one race all year long. And even with our second seven, eight through fourteen, that group stayed the same, but interchanging positions.

Did your team run that way the whole year, packed up pretty closely?
Yes, we were about a minute difference between one and five in the first race, and at nationals we were forty-five seconds. So, yeah, we were really consistent. We were usually about fifty seconds between one and five and very seldom much more than a minute between one and seven.

Do you have a training program for them during the summer?
Oh yes, they're all on a very specific training program. I send it out June first, and they pretty much follow it.

You don't specify particular workouts for particular runners?
No, I don't do that until they get back, and then I'm very specific. I do individualize my workouts. But during the summer the focus is to just build your mileage base. . . . I send out a very detailed explanation of why they're doing their workouts, a whole explanation. Plus, they know my training program; they understand that I train energy systems; they know exactly what I'm looking for.

How do you go about recruiting them? What do you look for?
First of all, you look for times, but I look as much for potential and just their overall attitude, how running fits into their life, if they have a real love for running. I'm weary of people who are coming off high-mileage high school programs that have kids running, sixty, seventy miles a week. I've had a few, and most of them are burnt out by the time they get to college.

What mileage do you do in a week?
We're not running much more than forty-five miles a week. I haven't found anything to substantiate that running sixty or seventy miles a week is going to make them better 5K runners. I don't think the benefits are worth the time and effort and the compulsive behavior patterns that it tends to develop.

You keep pretty close tabs on things like eating disorders?
Yes, and I think any cross-country coach, any running coach, will tell you that probably one of the biggest obstacles that you have to face is keeping these young, highly motivated athletes"and students, because they're the same way in the classroom"keeping them from stepping off the cliff. I always tell them, "I'm going to push you to the edge, but I'm not going to let you step off." And we talk a lot about nutrition. . . . I think one of the things that I pride our team on"and I talk to the team about this all the time"I think we were the healthiest team out there, the healthiest team at nationals. We talk a lot about keeping our lives in balance, because I think balance is what keeps us healthy. And that includes eating.

Do runners learn how to discipline themselves?
I think most of them are at least somewhat aware of it, but I'm really pretty close to my athletes, and I don't hesitate to bring them in and say something individually to them. Compulsive behavior is something that you see because running is a double-edged sword. The more you do, and the more weight you lose, for a period of time you are going to run better, you are going to run faster.

Until you break down.
Until you hit the breaking point. Whether it's becoming anemic, or getting stress fractures, or having lower leg problems, something is going to happen.

So when you say that you thought your team was the healthiest team out there, you're talking the entire body?
I'm talking their entire body, mentally as well. I'm talking no eating disorders"or disordered eating habits, because I think there is a difference between eating disorders and disordered eating. Our normal eating cycles in this country are to eat way too much fat, way too much sugar. So you can have eating habits that are very healthy that to many people look disordered, or out of the norm, because they might eat a lot of smaller meals, or they might eat more fruits and vegetables. They're not eating French fries and soda and, you know, junk.

How do you hear about these kids in the recruiting process?
Well, I try to send a letter at the end of the junior year to anyone who has placed in a state meet in cross country and in track. In cross country, I'll go at least through twenty or twenty-five places in all the divisions, class A, B, C. We do this for all of New England, and that will generate a lot of questionnaires coming back to me. And then if, academically, they're also sound, I ask them to return a questionnaire with academic as well as athletic information. The Web site has generated a whole new recruiting base, because anybody can tap onto it and send questionnaires. And there's another whole set of people who visit the campus, and running is important to them so they try to set up a time to meet with me.

Do you add to their times to compensate for cold weather?
I think the majority of students that we have"and we have runners from California, Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, pretty much all over the United States"most of them are cold-weather runners. Our team was happy when the weather finally turned cold. They don't like the heat. I think it's an advantage for us to be here. And there's a whole pool of students out there looking for small, liberal arts colleges with great academic reputations and an institution where they can continue their running.

They come here, they're academically motivated, they've all been runners, they have certain skills already, certain personalities?
They're driven in the classroom just like they are driven to run well. And I think that many of my runners are perfectionists: they just want to be as good as they can be at everything and with everything that they do. I've got at least ten runners right now who are either in med school or are now doctors, and every one of them has run all through med school, every one of them. Well, you know, running is part of your life, who you are. It's almost like brushing your teeth.

What does it look like for next fall?
Well, everybody on that top-seven team put it all together very quickly and said, "Next year we're coming back even harder," so in their minds they're already setting their goals for top four. I think that's a team goal. The key: I try to never take anything for granted because you never know when injuries are going to come, or something can happen. But with the six people that we have returning, and with a pretty strong group of second-seven runners that I know will improve over the course of the year, if they choose to put time and effort in, and realizing that we've got some incredible talent coming in, too"yes, next year could be good, too.