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Five Questions on the Farm: Sitting down with Chris Miltenberg, Director of Track and Field and Head Coach of Cross Country

We chatted with the head honcho of track and field at Stanford

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Miltenberg is in his fifth year coaching Track and Field and Cross Country at Stanford. He came to Stanford from Georgetown where he served as Assistant Coach for Men’s Cross Country and Head Coach for Women’s Cross Country. He led the women’s team there to the NCAA title in 2011. Before Georgetown he coached at Columbia where his teams won two Ivy League titles. He is a graduate of Georgetown and a native of New York.

Since Miltenberg arrived on the Farm, Cross Country has excelled. He has coached 45 All-Americans. The Men’s team finished in the top three in 2014 and 2015 and the Women were third nationally in 2013. In each of Miltenberg’s first four years at Stanford, both men and women qualified for the NCAA championships, which extends the school streak to 22 years of NCAA play. From Olympic trials to Rhodes Scholars, Miltenberg’s teams have, in typical Stanford fashion, excelled in the arena and in the classroom.

Coach Miltenberg was kind enough to give Rule of Tree a few minutes out of his busy schedule to talk Cardinal Cross County.

Rule of Tree: I was doing a little research and ran across an interview with Jim and Joe Rosa who have become Stanford legends, if nothing else for their competitiveness. They spoke about not worrying about rankings or titles, but just focusing on the team. If they worry about team first, all else would take care of itself.  This reminded me of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick's mantra "do your job," which gives a player a single focus and relieves them from the pressure of high expectations. It really paid off at the end of last year for the team. Could you discuss that a little?

Chris Miltenberg: Its something we have to talk about every day here. I think when you have the kind of athletes we have here who were all incredibly successful before they got here. Obviously we are bringing some of the best recruits in America into our program. Getting them to focus in the process of growing, developing everyday. getting a little bit better everyday. And also being part of something bigger than yourself. And I think for a lot of our kids that’s exactly what they came here wanting, because they all came from backgrounds where there was nobody on their high school team who could really train at their level. The big thing we look for in recruiting is come here because you want to be part of a great team. I think in a lot of ways with the kind of kids we have, it liberates them in a way, because they don’t have to think about hitting individual home runs every day. Just put in the best fight you can on a given day and if all of them do that then we are a really good team. Put in the best team day you can, and ironically that’s when the best individual results come, too.

RT: The Stanford Cross Country training camp at Mammoth Lakes (alt. 7,880 ft) has become an annual tradition that pays dividends for the team. Could you explain what it does for the team, mentally and physiologically?

CM: Its one of the key pieces to our season in that we lay the foundation of our season there. Ironically, the altitude component with the amount of time we are there has minimal physiological impact. But we get a huge boost out of it in a couple of key ways. One, and most importantly, its where we have all our guys together, men and women, for two weeks, off-campus, up there. We’re hanging out every day, they’re cooking meals together, they train together. I think it lays the foundation for great teamwork for the rest of the year. It's great for our freshmen because that’s their first experience before classes start or anything. They’re with their team for two weeks up there.

From a training perspective the altitude gives us benefit in that it holds everyone back a little bit in September. When you go up to 7,000 feet even if you're in phenomenal shape, that first two weeks you’ve got to be really patient. That’s exactly what I want our guys to be doing in September, and so my hesitation is that when we get them together for the first time, they’ve all been training alone this summer and now their fired up to get together and no matter how much we try to put the leash on them, they try to do too much. The altitude reins that in for the first two weeks. Which I think works out in our favor. Let’s be steady and consistent in September and lay the groundwork to be really good in November.

RT: Stanford is one of few schools nationally that has remained on the quarter system of class scheduling and not the more widely used semester system.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of this schedule on your teams?

CM:You know its got certainly far more positives than negatives, the quarter system and the September thing. There are a couple of wrinkles to it that are a little quirky. For our guys everything changes again September 25. All of the sudden we now have moved into our dorms, and we have classes starting up, and the Freshmen have orientation whereas if you are on the semester system everything has settled down by September 25. So we have a flow for almost four weeks on the front end, then that gets completely disrupted and we’ve got to find an entirely new flow at the end of September. After you’ve been here a couple of years you understand this and we build our training around the changes in our routine.

RT: The casual observer might look at Cross Country and see a simple strategy: run as fast as you can.  But there's a great deal more complexity to team formation and race-day strategy.  Could you explain that a little bit?

CM: The big thing is to watch the team race play out. To me that’s what makes cross country so awesome and makes it different than Track & Field is the team component. For the casual observer its going to take a little while to figure that out and understand team scoring. Look for teams running together. Look for teams moving forward over the second half of the race and executing their plan. That's the most important part of it, identifying the team race happening within the larger race.

RT: What are you looking forward to the season? Are there meets that stand out in your schedule? What has you excited about the coming season?

CM: To be honest with you, the thing I’m most excited about, especially on the men’s side, is how this team feels.  This is now my fifth year At Stanford, so now we’re on a cycle where its an entirely different set of guys than when I arrived here, a set of guys we’ve recruited. We’ve had great people come through here over the last few years, but this is a new team, completely. And its a team that we talked about building for several years. The part I’m most excited about is to see on both sides the leadership emerge. We’ve been grooming great leaders on both sides over the last couple of years. There have been young guys like Garrett Sweatt and Jack Keelan and Sean McGorty on the men’s side. On the women's side, Elise Cranny and Vanessa Fraser. Now it’s their team and it’s their chance to really take over. Above all else that’s the part we’re most excited about, seeing these teams really take ownership of their success this year.

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