Sunday, January 27, 2008

Coach Chris Straub

Chris Straub:

Elizabethtown Cross Country and Track Coach

Tough Love

By: Ryan Mulcahy

“Boys, today’s workout is the infamous ‘Will Power.’ It is our chance to go old school and forget about all that physiological bullshit and find out what demons you have inside. This is your first chance of the year to let those bastards out. There are a few guidelines that you will follow; No freshman will exceed 8 x 1,000m repeats. No upper classman will exceed 10 x 1,000m repeats. This workout is designed to test you mentally as much as physically. It is the hardest workout you will ever do and I can almost guarantee that no DIII schools in the nation are doing anything like this.”

“Gentlemen, you will begin today’s ‘Will Power’ workout with 4 miles at lactate threshold (LT). Your first mile will be at slow end, and you will control your rhythm and drop at least 5 seconds per mile over the rolling hills to Maytown. Upon finishing the 4 miles at LT, you will have a half mile jog recovery to the Maytown Park where your spikes will be waiting for you. This leads to our second stage of the workout. Once you are spiked up, you will begin 1,000 meter repeats on the cinder path outlining the park. Your recovery time is 90 seconds and you will begin at goal race pace for 8k and continuously drop 3 seconds per repeat to carry on this section of the workout. When you cannot continue this progression, you will be pulled from this section of ‘Will Power.’ Put your training shoes back on and help encourage your teammates who are finishing their repeats. When every member is finished, you will take the half mile jog recovery back to where you finished the 4 miles at LT and begin the 3rd section by doing 4 miles back to the vineyards. You must run within 1 min of your LT time from the first 4miles. You will be given the next section of the workout after you finish this.”

On September 21st, 2004 the men’s team of Elizabethtown College set out on this journey of a workout. I was a young freshman who came into the program as one of the top recruits ever. This isn’t saying much. Most of the best athletes were 4:50 milers and 10:40 two milers out of high school, but I was determined to make an impact. Needless to say, I was a bit arrogant. I had a chip on my shoulder. It didn’t help that my older brother Sean, a senior captain the previous year, told the team I would run top 7 by Nationals.

How many high school runners are doing workouts longer than 5 miles? Not many. The longest workout I had ever been faced with was a mini ‘Will Power’ Sean had designed 2 weeks before my league meet in high school. That workout totaled 5 ½ miles and I collapsed upon finishing. So, what am I to think when this 5’8” man with dark hair and an excited voice says to me, “Mulcahy. You were 18 seconds slower on the 4 miles back. Spike up!” Spike up? What the hell is he talking about? I’m done. I am exhausted and pissed off at the world. I have already done 11 miles of sub 5:50 pace today.

At this point I am too tired to unlace my double knotted shoes. But when senior captain Chris Williams yelled out, “Let’s fucking roll boys!” I somehow found the energy to rip them off of my nasty blistered feet and pull my spikes on. This is the essence of ‘Will Power.’ Taking more pain, more volume, and more discomfort than you ever have before. It truly makes you feel like a badass in your own mind.

“Do not look at your watch! You are to run on guts and desire. Forget about dropping 3 seconds every repeat and just fucking hammer this! This is your chance to prove to me, to your teammates, and especially to yourself, how tough you really are. Ready? GO!”

Christopher Straub has been the head Men’s Cross Country and Track Coach at Elizabethtown College for 10 years. In 2007 he became head coach for the women’s team. Born in Camden, New Jersey, his family moved to Pennsylvania when he was 6 years old. He grew up in the town of New Cumberland along the Susquehanna River. It is here where he attended Red Land High school, the birthplace of his running adventures. After graduating high school in the late 80s, he attended James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Straub with his 2007 NCAA qualifying women’s team. They were ranked 8th in
the region and finished fourth, earning an at large bid.

Chris placed 9th in the AAA Pennsylvania Cross Country State Championships his senior year on the tough Fort Indiantown Gap course. He was recruited by two schools, James Madison University and Bucknell. The legendary coach of Bucknell was Art Gulden. He was known for taking blue collar, mediocre high school talent and making them into D-I All Americans. Who wouldn’t want to be in a program like that? Coach Gulden called Straub one evening and asked him to visit Bucknell on a day when all of the other recruits were visiting. When Straub arrived he was led to the field house with the other recruits to view a spectacular event.

At this particular time, Bucknell had a miler who was teetering on the 4 minute mile barrier. On the 200m oval of a track inside the field house, Gulden had an Engineering student rig up a revolving beam of light that was synchronized on 60 second quarter mile pace. Gulden had all of the lights dimmed, instructed his miler to stay in the single beam of light for one mile. In the last 25 meters the miler’s stride and pace slightly buckled causing him to finish in 4:01. “If this doesn’t get the recruits here, I don’t know what will,” Gulden retorted.

In the end, JMU was financially a more comfortable fit for Straub and his family. He was coached by current Georgetown coach, Pat Henner who employed a blue collar coaching style. He made his athletes tougher and meaner than rattlesnakes. In 1992, Straub became the captain of JMU’s cross country team. He was named the team MVP after breaking 25 minutes for 8k and placing 3rd at the CAA Conference meet. On this particular day, JMU beat their rival school William and Mary and won their first ever men’s cross country title. Straub graduated from JMU in 1993 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. He then earned his Master’s in Sports Science from Miami University of Ohio.

Like many college graduates, Straub bounced around with a few jobs outside of his specialty. He was debating on pursuing his Ph.D. while working for his father in an accounting office. This is when he found a love for running again. There was a sense of dissatisfaction from his running career and he wanted to see how fast, how far, and how much his body could handle. “ULTRA” running flashed through his mind. He had already run a few marathons and decided to dive right in on 40 mile runs on the Appalachian Trail (from Maryland to Boiling Springs, PA). He would carry a few snacks, waters, and a quarter to call his wife, Traci.

Straub’s first “ULTRA” race was a 50 miler which he did extremely well in -- until 48 miles in. The last two miles were “death.” He was cheered on by a long time friend Matt Holthaus. It was not enough to just finish the 50 miles. He had to compete! Straub had to see how much pain he could take and break all barriers or limits he had previously set. He wanted to win! He finished 4th and was persuaded to run a 100 mile race several weeks later. With the same mentality, Straub went for the win. From miles 60-70 on an old fire road in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia he began running 6 minute miles. This was the beginning and the end. 92 miles in he was finished, after falling in a creek, losing all of his toe nails and getting yelled at by a military drill sergeant, he finished his “ULTRA” marathon running career.

As a coach at Elizabethtown College, Straub has had the opportunity to work with many hard working athletes. He has guided the program from non-existence to a force to be reckoned with. His formula for success starts with realistic goal setting for the team and individuals. Great student athlete leadership is essential to motivate and share Straub’s expectations away from practice with other athletes. This leadership came to fruition in the late 1990’s when Senior Larry Bullock led the team to a Conference Championship and a 2nd place team finish at Regionals to qualify for Nationals. This leadership and vision has continued on with countless others including; Dustin Scott, David Berdan, Sean Mulcahy, Steve Sanko, Chris Williams, Mike Zwatty, Jose Miranda, Matt Rockwell, Greg Wetzel, Patrick Donovan, Jason Theobald, and Drew Graybeal.

However, like any developing program, there were tough times. A Coach may ask himself, “Is this worth the effort?” In 2005 the Distance Medley Relay was ranked among the top D-III teams in the nation. They were fit and on a quest for the national title after running 9:58 on Valentine’s Day weekend. By the time nationals came around, two of the four athletes were down for the count; ill and injured. The stubborn athletes said nothing to Straub and went forward with their plan of attack. E-town had the lead through the first two legs with some of the best talent yet to come; future All American Tyson Evensen lining up to run the 3rd leg with XC All American Steve Sanko bringing it home. Things did not work out and E-town fell to 9th place. “After this race, I was so distraught. I didn’t know if I wanted to coach anymore. I thought to myself, ‘I have failed them.’”

Good ole southern Virginia! Summer of 2006 in Grayson County State Park, the home of Mt. Rogers (highest point in VA). From left to right, Straub, Dave Bresnahan, wild pony, Tyson Evensen.

Straub has had many accomplishments and success stories within his program at E-town. David
Berdan progressed from a 10:40 two mile time in high school to NCAA runner up in the 10k. Straub has coached roughly 20 All Americans in cross country and track & field. In addition, he has mentored 2007 NCAA pole vault champ, Kevin Clark, has a winning streak of 8 cross country conference titles, and was named the MAC coach of the year 16 times during his first 8 years.

Straub and his boys in 2004 after winning a 6th straight MAC title!

Of all of this, there are two accomplishments that stick out in Straub’s mind. The first was the Regional Championship his cross country team claimed in 2002 on the Salisbury, Maryland course. Against powerhouse Haverford College, E-town took control using their 1-2 punch; Senior Captain and All American Dustin Scott (24:55 course record) and sophomore sensation Matt Rockwell (24:59). The top 6 runners from E-town were among the top 18 of the region. “It was an amazing day. I was even yelling at the guys to shut it down in the last mile,” says Straub. This was not out of arrogance; he just wanted to save it for the next weekend in Northfield, MN. This sure as heck put the program on the map. Haverford at the time was ranked 10th in the nation. The E-town men were tough as nails and knew they had an outside chance for the podium at nationals!

The other accomplishment is the alumni. “This is why I have continued to coach,” said Straub. “When the many alumni return to various cross country and track meets, it gives me a sense of satisfaction. It makes me feel like I have made a positive impact on their lives. Ultimately, as a coach, this is my goal.”

Any serious coach will understand that there is success and failure on a daily basis. Everything should not be focused on athletic performance, but rather the impact on a student’s life. As a coach, you are a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. You only have a short time with any athlete and you need to cherish it and help them develop not only athletically but also personally. Many coaches and athletes do not take the time to look at the grand scheme of things, but this coach-athlete bond is something you will share for the rest of your lives.

If you would see Coach Straub at a meet you would think he is high strung and extremely competitive. He is! But away from the training, away from the racing, away from the team drama, he is a very down to earth individual. He has many different interests and hobbies and is a proud father of two little girls. He has a love for the outdoors and feels at ease on old mountain logged trails or in his hip waders in the middle of a trout stream with his 8 foot fly rod. He even plays a mean game of Monopoly. In addition, sometimes he ventures on the online running message boards to get new attack plans. It personally took me some time to get through his tough love demeanor. But, I do look up to him. Like one of the all-time great tough love, blue-collar Pennsylvania coaches in the business, the late Arthur Gulden of Bucknell, Coach Straub is a molder of men and builder of champions.

Ryan Mulcahy (pictured) currently attends SUNY Geneseo. His Contact information is 570.332.5741 &