BRECKENRIDGE ” It is 13 degrees out, and dark. The man dressed in camouflage with a black mask over his face stops to ask if the teenage girl is OK.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she says.
“Are you sure?”
She insists. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
The man glances back at the Subaru Forester following the girl with its headlights on. There is an older gentleman with blonde hair behind the wheel.
The camo’d guy turns to the girl. “Well who’s this dude?” he says, pointing suspiciously at the driver of the car.
“Oh him?” the girl replies calmly. “He’s my coach.”
Whitney Anderson tells this story with a grin on her face. She knows how odd the situation must sound ” or look, in the case of the passing snowmobiler who questioned her that cold night near French Gulch ” to those unfamiliar with her running career.
In reality, though, it happens all the time. Just because it’s cold out and the sun goes down early, doesn’t mean the training stops. Not when you’re Anderson, shooting for the top of America’s high school distance-running totem pole.
Under the guidance of her personal coach, Lyle Knudson ” the blonde behind the wheel ” Anderson has trained since August. The four months of tough, tireless effort has taken her all over the country to run.
It comes to an end on Saturday.
On that day Anderson will take on the best of the best, the top 40 high school cross country runners in the nation, under the sunny skies of San Diego. The Foot Locker National Championship is as big as it gets in high school running, and Anderson is largely viewed as one of about 10 who could take the title.
She wants to win, just like the other 39 who qualified. But regardless of result, for Anderson the race will cap a year of remarkable rise, one due in part to her unmatched commitment but also to Knudson and his four-decades-old training program that has nearly vanished from the running world.
The road to Saturday began last summer, in a small Alaskan fishing village called Chignik Lagoon.
Anderson’s father is a fisherman based out of Chignik, and the family joins him there for the summer months.
Whitney completed her first formal workouts on an airstrip just outside town. It’s a barren place, almost entirely removed from society, a place where wild still rules. In fact, oftentimes Anderson’s only audience are the bears who take a break from eating berries to watch her run.
Week after week she completed Knudson’s two-week training cycles, the venue shifting from Alaska to Summit County as fall dawned. It wasn’t easy ” enduring pain never is ” but her goals demanded that she stay committed.
Anderson had been home-schooled in recent years, but decided to enroll at Summit High School for her senior year. She wanted to compete with the Tigers cross country squad, as well, and this made it easier.
Anderson won the 4A state championship on Halloween Eve, and it wasn’t even close. Three weeks later she took second at the Foot Locker Midwest Regional, on a course as muddy as they get. Her 5K time of 17:29 was four seconds back of the winner.
Now comes nationals. After reading about their exploits the entire season, Anderson finally will get to race against others like her.
Fox Sports will be there, its post-race spotlight up for grabs. Still, Knudson, like he always does before a race, will tell Anderson there is no pressure.
“I’ll tell her she can finish first or she can finish 40th, and she’ll still get a hug at the end,” he said.
The relationship between runner and coach, in this case, is a special one.
Knudson, who holds a doctorate in sports science with an emphasis on biomechanics, has coached seven Olympians. He started the women’s track program at CU-Boulder, and has coached at a number of other Division 1 universities.
A bit shy in person, the 63-year-old is nonetheless a knowledge bank when it comes to running. He was influenced early in his career by the Soviet Union’s system of developing an athlete’s multi-event talents, and now, 42 years since he began coaching, he still dissects the sport as much as anybody.
“He’s very much like a scientist,” said Whitney. “He’s very simple, but he’s very complex. He knows so much, but he tells it in simple terms.”
The training program that Knudson uses is one “more suited to the ’60s and ’70s,” he said.
It is called modified interval training, a program designed in two-week cycles with alternating easy and hard days. Whereas 99 percent of today’s running coaches employ a pyramid approach, interval training has almost fallen off the map.
“American distance running is a joke,” Knudson said, referring to what he perceives to be the pyramid method’s failures. “In the ’50s and ’60s we dominated middle distance and distance running, and now we can’t beat anybody.”
Knudson said Anderson’s talent hasn’t gotten her where she is. In fact, he said, there were at least two or three others on the Summit High cross country team with as much talent as Anderson.
“If somebody thinks all she is is a bunch of talent,” he said, “that’s a bunch of garbage. She has developed her talent.”
He is not pointing the finger at himself, but rather at Anderson’s want and the effectiveness of the training.
Ah yes, this training. It is based on quality, not quantity, and thus Anderson doesn’t put in as many miles as other runners might. All of her running is based on a 1-mile pace; anytime the pace changes there is a term for it.
Phrases such as “over-over distance,” “under-under distance,” “over distance” and “under distance” describe the varied paces.
Most notable, however, is the terrain on which Anderson trains. You won’t find her running up Hoosier Pass or tearing through trails.
Instead, she runs from the top of Vail Pass toward Copper, from Breckenridge to Frisco on the recpath, or on a treadmill in the gym.
“Almost all of our training is done downhill,” Knudson said. “At this altitude you can’t run fast enough to simulate sea-level running unless you do it downhill.”
And, Knudson added, “The only way you can get good is to run fast.”
Anderson meets this requirement. Her times, in fact, have caused quite a stir among the nation’s cross country followers, especially the 16:56 she ran at the Colorado high school regionals Oct. 23 in Delta.
Only one other girl in state history has broken the 17-minute barrier.
“In the distance-running community, everybody in the nation knows about Summit County now,” Knudson said. “She has put the community and school on the distance-running map ” way more than anybody realizes.”
SHS principal Frank Mencin allowed Anderson to compete for the Tigers despite the fact that she was training primarily with Knudson instead of the school’s coach. He said he did it because she is, quite simply, one of a kind.
“There may not be somebody up here like her for another 20, 30, 40 years,” said Mencin, an accomplished cross country runner and coach himself, who led Lake County High School to 10 state titles.
Proof of that can be seen in the demand for Anderson among college coaches. She has plenty of full scholarship offers, with the frontrunners appearing to be Duke and Southern Methodist. (SMU used the same training program as Knudson last year to reach the NCAA’s top 15, even though its athletes were largely regarded as average.)
‘Not all roses’
Despite all this, all the recognition and victories and glory, Anderson’s year hasn’t been without difficult times.
Her devotion to running has left little time for other, regular exploits. She is independent by her own admission, but working to be the best nonetheless requires sacrifice. It weighs on the teenager’s mind sometimes more than she’d like.
“There’s been a lot of times where, before we can even practice, we’ve had to talk for a while and get her smiling again,” said Knudson, who coaches Anderson for free and has become a part of the Anderson family. “It’s not all roses.”
Still, this has led to a tight bond between athlete and coach. Anderson’s success is big enough for the two of them to share; the mutual respect between them runs deep.
It’s almost sad for them, the committed athlete and caring coach, to think about the story ending. When they talk about Saturday’s race, they don’t focus on what number might be next to Whitney’s name at the end. That would go against their philosophy of never ranking a performance by its result.
What they focus on instead is the journey, the struggle to maximize potential. This is where Anderson’s achievements are most magnified. This is what makes Knudson most proud of his student.
In fact, even if Anderson were to win on Saturday and fly home as national champion, you have to wonder if the victory could eclipse all that it’s taken to get there.
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