A Look Back at a Championship Year

Chris Johnson is the head coach of the boys team at St. George's School in Vancouver, which won the 2010 B.C. High School Cross Country Championship on Saturday in Victoria led by a 1-2 performance from lead runners Will Cliff and Christian Gravel. (Results can be found here). TnfNorth caught up with the coach this week.

AM: What were your expectations heading into the season?

CJ: Given that we won the BC High School Championships in 2009 and had 5 out of our top 7 from that team returning, expectations were high. There is no doubt that we all wanted to repeat as BC High School Champions and this seemed like a realistic expectation. Having said this, we were well aware that there are no certainties in sport and that a lot of work would have to be done to give our team the best possible chance for success. We have always tried not to focus on outcome goals for our team. To have an optimal outcome you need to have an optimal process and this is what we work on achieving. Heading into the season, we also knew that Will Cliff and Christian Gravel were capable of winning the individual title at the BC High School Championships. Although we didn't necessarily expect it, we had a strong desire to go 1-2 in the individual race.

We expect our runners to make a strong commitment to training and to approach each workout with a positive attitude and a willingness to run at the prescribed intensity for the day. We also expect our runners to compete to the best of their abilities in competitive outings and to understand that individual success leads to team success. Lastly, we expect there to be a positive team dynamic on our team and we try to create a fun, light-hearted atmosphere throughout the season.


Will Cliff (left) and Christian Gravel (right) finished 1-2 leading their team to a provincial championship


AM: What sort of training sessions and volume did the team do this year?

CJ: The training sessions and volume varied considerably from athlete to athlete. This variation was based on age, past training experience, and involvement in other sports. We have several runners that play other sports and it is impossible to train them the same way as you would train someone that specializes in cross country. Will and Christian ran 4 days a week and averaged 45-50 km. We supplemented this with 90-120 minutes of cross training per week. We did a fairly typical blend of interval work, steady state running, long aerobic runs, and hill repeats.

AM: What were your expectations heading into the provincial meet?

CJ: The team made steady progress throughout the season and appeared to be in "peak" form heading into the BC's. We had some great results at the Puma Cross Country Classic in Portland, Oregon and this proved to us that we were ready to go. Expectations were high and we knew we were the favourites to win the team title. We also knew that Will and Christian were both ready for a shot at the individual title. Our expectation was that everyone run their best possible race at the BC's. This would mean running a smart, well executed race and to ensure that you finish knowing that you put forth a maximal effort.  We believed that if we could all say this after the race then we would be the winning team and that Will and Christian would go 1-2.

AM:  What was the strategy for each runner heading into the provincial meet and how did they execute?

CJ: For Will and Christian, we talked about the importance of racing instincts and discussed different scenarios that they may face in the race. We felt that they needed to run with the leaders until the end of second of three laps. The emphasis was to be relaxed as possible but to ensure that they were in very close contact with the leaders. We figured that if they felt good they could make a strong surge with roughly 1200m to go in hopes of breaking the challengers. They were instructed to control the race up the final hill and save a gear for the final 400m. We didn't want the initial move to be so big that had nothing left for the home stretch but we wanted it to be aggressive.

Things did not go exactly according to plan but they did finish 1st and 2nd. Will actually got dropped towards the end of the second lap and Christian took a commanding lead with roughly 1400m to go. Showing great grit and determination, Will managed to draw even with Christian at the bottom of the last hill (roughly 700m to go). They ran together up the final hill and then Will exploded for home. He had a great kick and opened up a lead to win by 9 seconds. Christian hung tough and kicked home in 2nd ahead of Jack Williams of Semiahmoo.

The other runners were instructed to get out well and work together. We figured they should be somewhere between 25th and 40th during the first two laps. Runners 3 through 7 on our team have been quite close this year and we thought it best that they work together. Once they got to the third lap, they knew it was every man for himself and that they would have to fight through the discomfort to beat as many runners as possible. The other runners executed well although they were not all able to stick together. Regardless, everyone gave it their all and we were a proud team after the race.

AM: What are the goals the rest of the year?

CJ: In addition to coaching at St. George's, I also coach with the Vancouver Thunderbirds Track and Field Club. A few of my St. George's athletes will train with the Thunderbirds over the winter and prepare for the spring and summer track season. The goal is to use the great endurance base we built during the cross country as a platform for a great track season. We would like our runners to be able to achieve personal bests in each of their track events (typically 800m, 1500m, and 3000m) and to prepare for a weekend of great racing at the BC High School Track and Field Championships in June. The endurance work that was the focus during the cross country season will gradually decrease as time goes on and they will be exposed to more specific work for their primary track event.