Highlighting some of the top female coaches in California, here is our interview with Santa Rosa HS coach, Carrie Joseph.
Today we catch up with Santa Rosa High School Cross Country and Track and Field head coach, Carrie Joseph. She has been coaching the very successful cross country and track and field teams at Santa Rosa HS along with Doug Courtemarche since 1997 until she took over the reins of both programs in the last few seasons. Joseph competed at the University of Michigan and is a mighty proud Wolverine alumnus. Her twin sister Tricia who also caught the coaching bug is an outstanding assistant coach at Menlo School. Over the past three years, Joseph has also coached her daughter Lael in both sports and will be joined by younger brother Adam in the fall. Thank you to Carrie for answering my questions below. I know many of you will enjoy reading what she had to say as much as me.
1) What was your own running experience? How did you get your start into running? Highlights and proudest achievements during your competitive period? Did you participate in any other sports?
I had your average 1970s/80s suburban midwestern childhood -- a lot of untethered free time biking around, dabbling in sports (tennis, soccer, swimming, basketball).
A very observant 4th-grade teacher (shout out to Mr. Seidenkranz) noticed that my twin sister and I were faster than most of the boys (even older ones) in the school, and he encouraged us to give age-group track a try. We ran unattached at summer meets and were introduced to the world of marathon multi-day meets (without sunscreen or understanding "hydration"). When we moved from Minnesota to Ohio in middle school, we joined a very well-known age-group club called the Kettering Striders (future Olympic LJer Joe Greene was a member. I watched him do 20 ft "pop up" jumps -- plus he was ridiculously nice too... too bad he chose Ohio State though...).
I really hit the jackpot at Centerville High School though. Our high school coaches, Rita and Criss Somerlot, are Hall of Fame coaching legends in Ohio, and they have also managed or coached many US teams (including the US Olympic team in Athens). CHS regularly fielded teams of 200+ (and they still do, now coached by their son), and the Somerlots created a culture of excellence and commitment that I had never really experienced before.
• April of 9th grade -- Breaking 60 seconds in the 400m (well, it was a relay split, so...) and jumping 17'11 1/2" (quickly followed by the lowlight of blowing out my ACL the next week...).
• 2nd place as a team at the Ohio HS State Champs (Class AAA, now Div 1) and having to book it from Columbus to Centerville in time to graduate!
• 4th place in the 4 x 800m relay in the Championship Race at Penn Relays for the University of Michigan.
• Indoor Big 10 Champion and 7th place at NCAA Championships 4 x 800m relay member and also school record holder (fun fact -- the school record has been retired and will never be broken because they now run the DMR indoors)
• Scoring member (#4) of 13th place team at NCAA Cross Country Championships in 1991 (hosted in Tucson, AZ). Very proud of that contribution as I'd never run cross country in high school.
2) You have a twin sister (Tricia on the left in photo) that participated in different track events than you (I believe?). How did both of you end up competing in the events you chose and how competitive were you two against each other?
We were both jumper/sprinter/hurdlers on the age-group scene until I blew out my knee in 9th grade. I think it's fair to say that we were competitive with each other but not in an unhealthy way (but let's just say I was a tad faster...). We certainly made each other better athletes ("iron sharpens iron" as they say). My injury was particularly bad, and I needed 4 surgeries over the course of 2 years (including a then ground-breaking cadaver ligament replacement -- this was 1985). So Tricia kept hurdling and jumping and I transitioned to being a long sprinter. I really didn't come back to full strength until my senior year in high school, and we were able to race on the same relay teams. Tricia placed in 4 events at the Ohio State meet (the only girl in any division to earn that distinction that year).
She went on to become a top heptathlete in the ACC at the University of Virginia (3rd place one season if I recall) and also long jumping and doing both hurdles. I gravitated eventually to the 800m (well, when I walked on at the University of Michigan, they told me that was really my only chance of staying on the team). Trish and I now have some very spirited debates about which event is tougher: the 400m hurdles or the 800m. It's OBVIOUSLY the 800m. DUH.
3) Who were the coaches that had the biggest impact on you as an athlete and what did you learn from them?
Rita Somerlot by far. She was my high school coach at Centerville and later coached at Ohio State (I have forgiven her for that ...). I still don't know how she organized practices with over 100 girls. She was a master motivator who made everyone feel special. I still have handwritten notes from her that would arrive via an office TA during the school day. She would have typed up split sheets (even 4 x 100m splits!) and motivational re-caps the day after every meet. She was tireless, devoted, and deeply knowledgeable in every single event. She taught me to believe in myself.
Current Michigan Head Coach James Henry saw my potential in the 800m (thanks?), but Sue Foster was my event coach at Michigan. She was a multiple All-American at Michigan and only about 10 years older than most of the team. She captured that "approachable authority" coaching style that really resonated with me (and a style I try to cultivate too). We are still connected via social media and I hold many, many dear memories of her (especially kicking our butts during workouts). I was a lowly walk-on but she never made me feel like it. She taught me that I mattered.
When Sue got pregnant with her 2nd child, Mike McGuire stepped in and took over the program and is still in charge of the Women's distance squad. He had a very different coaching style that was initially hard to transition to, but ultimately easy to accept and adjust to because his results speak for themselves. I challenge anyone to find a more consistent and dominant mid-distance team than Michigan over the past 25 years. Mike is able to identify "blue-collar" grinders and elevate them to national prominence. (Classic example, my teammate Jessica Kluge was a 5:10/2:17 high school runner who eventually ran 2:03 and was also a XC All-American... fun fact: her daughter Anne Forsyth was Big 10 Freshman of the Year in XC for Michigan). Mike taught me that hard work and commitment to a methodical process are how an athlete reaches her potential.
4) What led you to coaching and what was your first experience? What else do you do aside from coaching? What are some of your biggest challenges as a coach?
After college, I discovered that I liked being in the orbit of teenagers and earned my Masters of Art in Teaching at Duke, where I helped out a local high school track team during my student teaching. I also felt like my love of track and field was still untapped. Coaching seemed to be a natural extension from my role as a high school English teacher. (Plus there was all that extra $$ as a high school coach!!).
I moved to Cleveland with my husband who was in medical school, and I landed my first real job as a teacher/coach at Olmsted Falls High School. I had wonderful mentors there, especially Rae Alexander (mother of current pro/Oregon Duck Colby Alexander, who was just a toddler back then!). I also took careful note of how she managed life as a coach/mom.
Aside from coaching, I spent nearly 20 years teaching HS English, and I retired from teaching 4 years ago. In addition to coaching, I currently help kids with the college recruiting and admissions process.
Biggest challenges as a coach .... every year and season presents new and unique challenges. Recently, the biggest challenge has simply been trying to complete a full season. The last 3 cross country seasons have been impacted by a series of devastating fires, forcing us to suspend our training right in the middle of our competition phase. We lost 26 instructional days.
The 2017 Tubbs Fire, which destroyed over 6,000 structures in Santa Rosa, also took the homes of 10 athletes on our team at the time (and on our current team, at least 6 more). It's hard not to get emotional thinking about the challenges these kids have faced, especially knowing we will face the same threat every fall. I will never forget tracking down our athletes in those early chaotic days after the Tubbs Fire -- I was trying to figure out where they had found refuge, what resources they needed, and if they needed a new uniform. Every athlete who had lost their home had miraculously grabbed their uniform as they fled their homes that terrible awful night. What a testament to their commitment to our team.
And now it looks like this season will be at the mercy of not just the winds, but COVID-19. Rising seniors on my team have also dealt with two active shooter lockdowns as well. These kids have learned to take things in stride (pun definitely intended) and I have no doubt that whatever Mother Nature or human nature throws at them, they'll rise above it all and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
5) You have coached with Doug Courtemarche for many (23!!) years. How would you describe Doug to somebody that doesn't know him and why do you feel you both worked so well together as coaches?
To the uninitiated, I usually explain Doug like this: He is 1/3 Gandalf, 1/3 Dumbledore, 1/3 Yoda ("YoDumbleDalf" or "GanDumbleYo"?). Doug is the guiding light for not just Santa Rosa HS track/cross country, but the North Bay region. First and foremost, he is a relentless optimist. He sees the best in people and finds ways to bring out that "best." In a sport that requires athletes to endure pain and embrace suffering, a sport that requires a long-term outlook and incremental progress, who doesn't want to be around someone with a smile, a sunny disposition, and an unwavering belief in you?
I started coaching with Doug in 1997 right after Julia Stamps graduated and Danny Aldridge left to start up the Maria Carrillo HS program. Even though our numbers were small (maybe 20 kids total...), I could tell that the kids on the team loved Doug and would run through a brick wall for him if he asked them to. So as a young coach, I paid attention. His guiding philosophy is "It's all about the kids." And fortunately, Doug was not territorial about his coaching boundaries and basically started letting me (and a volunteer assistant, Sean Fitzpatrick, who later coached at Sonoma State and was extraordinarily helpful when my coaching focus was blurred by having two children) design our training plans very early on. I think Doug and I worked so well together because I valued and appreciated his intangible qualities: Doug's lack of ego, his flexibility, and energy, his meet management wizardry, his treatment of the kids, I could go on and on. In turn, he valued and appreciated me.
Side note: I am currently pushing through a proposal with Santa Rosa City Schools to name the SRHS track the Courtemarche Track.
6) Looking back at your time at Santa Rosa, what have been some of your biggest highlights and proudest achievements for your athletes and teams?
In a general/abstract sense, I am proud of our program every time I see growth and progress, whether it's on a macro level (the growth of our team numbers over the years or winning team pennants) or on the micro-level (individual PRs or mastering hurdle mobility drills lol). In cross country, I love seeing athletes make that transition from runner to racer. I'm proud whenever kids make the connection between commitment/persistence and personal achievement. I'm also proud when I see alumni out on the local trails, still putting one foot in front of the other, or connecting with them on social media and seeing what amazing people they've grown into.
Besides team championships (most recently the 2019 NBL and Redwood Empire Girls Track and Field Champions), the biggest highlights for me are when school records get broken or kids break into our Top 10 List for Track and Field or the Top 50 List for Cross Country. When I look at the years of the performances on these lists, there are fewer and fewer marks from before the year 2000. What better concrete proof of growth and progress can there be?
7) What are your expectations for your runners during the summer? Any running camps? Any fun traditions at camp?
Our typical Slurpee Runs, Pancake Runs, and other summer shenanigans have given way to checklists, temperature guns, masks, and social distancing. We were allowed to start meeting with our team under very limited circumstances in mid-June, and the turnout has been excellent (60 different kids, with 40-45 usually showing up). We typically use the summer to establish not just an aerobic base, but to establish routines, traditions, and team bonding. This has been really challenging given our new limitations, but I think we are making headway and the new runners are starting to buy into what our team is about.
It was a crushing blow to cancel our annual cross country camp at Humboldt Redwoods State Park -- a camp that has been ongoing for 30 years, a camp that nearly all team members will say is one of the highlights of their high school life. We usually have 45-55 athletes, plus 10 or so alumni counselors, and we are in tents and cooking for ourselves. We follow the same training schedule every camp, so seasoned veterans know how to handle the balance between work time and playtime. The main event is the Grasshopper Climb, a 7 mile, 3000 ft ascent that about 1/2 of the kids run and 1/2 "mule" (power hike carrying food and water to the top). The school record last year was toppled by our mountain goat Andrew McKamey. I truly believe he was going to crack the 60-minute barrier this summer... but perhaps he will get a chance at it as an alumni counselor. Our Camp "Talent" Show is also a highlight; being an arts magnet school, we have some truly talented kids (singers, dancers, actors) who strut their stuff... but more often than not the acts are short on talent and long on confidence (Doug is still King of the Snorting Contest... don't ask...).
COVID-willing, we will be offering a "camp simulation" in a few weeks that will cover the 3 main efforts of camp: a drop-off run, a mountain climb, and a 2-mile time trial.
8) Who have been your coaching mentors during your own coaching career?
So many to choose from... Besides Doug, we are lucky to have a deep well of coaching knowledge up here in Sonoma County: Danny Aldridge (Sonoma Academy), Luis Rosales (Piner), Greg Fogg (Maria Carrillo), John Anderson (Rancho Cotate) to name just a few of the long-timers whom I've gone to for advice over the years. I bug younger coaches like Melody Karpinski at Montgomery, who has a more "millennial" handle on things like team communications and newer trends. I love picking the brain of Peter Brewer (I call him the "Doug of the East Bay") and of course you, Albert! Your website and commitment to our sport are so inspiring! Other mentors...My sister and I talk track ALL. THE. TIME. (ask our children... they know it's true...). My fellow SRHS track coaches are also amazing resources: Paul Troppy is the go-to guy for all things throwing, and Jim Veilleux is the godfather of girls pole vault in California (the USATF even honored him as a "trailblazer"). My new assistant cross country coach, Eric Bohn, actually coached with Doug for a couple of seasons in the mid-90s and was the top road racer in the area for a while (a sub 2:30 marathoner). I value his input and perspective tremendously. And last but not least, the late great Bob Shor -- starter extraordinaire, old school curmudgeon, dedicated track nut, and champion of age-group youth track.
9) What does a typical week look like for your runners? Any morning runs? Typical weekly mileage? The distance of longest run for your experienced runners? How often do they do strength work?
Getting the training groups calibrated by experience, training age, and fitness level takes a few weeks. Like most big teams, we've got kids who can compete in college and kids who can only run a few minutes at a time. Every run or workout is scaled/modified in a way that (knock on wood) doesn't discourage or injure the newer runners but is also challenging enough to make them see the value of a hard effort.
Our week usually incorporates one hill-oriented workout, one tempo effort (or fartlek for the newer kids), and one long run -- with the intermediate days being recovery or moderate runs. Older runners who want to bump mileage will incorporate morning runs 2x/week. Weekly mileage will vary from 15-20 miles/week for the rookies to 40-45 miles/week for the most experienced. I am not a huge proponent of really high mileage for high school kids due to their developing bodies, etc., but every once in a while I have an athlete who is ready for more. I have rarely had a girl regularly run 40+ miles/week. I understand the physiological reasons for this high risk/high reward approach but also encourage cross-training as a way to get more miles in. Distance runners typically carry very heavy academic/extracurricular loads, and I would MUCH rather have my athletes sleep more and focus on self-care than run an extra 5-10 miles/week. I have had some pretty great runners thrive on a moderate-to-high dosage of mileage with minimal injuries (Luca Mazzanti, 4:15 1600m, 5th place at the D2 State Meet in XC and current Captain of West Point's XC team, comes to mind...).
Our long runs for the most experienced runners usually range from 8-12 miles, but I will allow kids to go longer if they communicate with me about their plans and it makes sense with their current level of fitness and experience. We are fortunate to have Annadel State Park in our city limits, with over 50 miles of trails and a lot of elevation gain. I also live adjacent to the park, so my house is often ground zero for these forays.
Strength work usually takes place in the form of bodyweight routines. I've been focusing more on hip mobility and yoga routines in recent years too. We want to encourage kids to be athletes, not just runners.
10) You have coached your daughter Lael (showing off juggling skills to the left) for the past three years. What have been some of your highlights and/or funny moments from getting to coach your daughter? Any advice for other coaches who may be coaching their children in the near future?
My daughter Lael will be a senior this year, and my son Adam will be joining us as a freshman this year, so I get to coach both kids now! Coaching your own child has its difficulties, but the rewards easily make up for them. I knew early on that I would have to draw a pretty firm line between being in "coach mode" at practice and "mom mode" at home. My kids are both very insistent on making sure there is no sign of special treatment, and I probably go even further to make sure that doesn't happen. I can also pick their brains about practice logistics and use their input. I feel so lucky and privileged to have a front-row seat to watch their development not just as athletes, but as people too. I'm sure I'm not the only coach who tells their team that what they learn from cross country can be applied to all other facets of their lives. I've got proof -- I see it every day.
In terms of funny moments or highlights... My kids have been going to our annual cross country camp since they were babies, and they have been roped into more "talent" show acts than they can probably count (When Adam was 7 he tried to dethrone Doug as King of the Snorting Contest-photo to the right... bad idea). Then there is the Joseph Family "Four-Headed Alien" act (not going to divulge the secret to that act though...). I have also always juggled while reciting original Haikus as my "talent", and starting about 4 years ago, Lael started joining me in my juggling act. We had big plans for this year's act, but we will just have to keep sharpening it for next summer's camp.
Advice for other parent/coaches? I say embrace both roles if both you and your child feel comfortable doing so. Keep the lines of communication open and understand your child's perspective and feelings too.
My children have grown up in the world of high school track and cross country, and I'd be hard-pressed to think of a better group of teenagers for them to be around and observe. Coaching them has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
11) Your teams repeat several workouts during the season. Can you explain the logistics of those workouts and how often do you do them during the cross country and track and field seasons?
We repeat 2 different "benchmark" workouts: Cobblestone and Michigan.
Cobblestone (named because of the trailhead parking lot we use) is the brainchild of the great Danny Aldridge, and it involves 3 parts: a fast 800 (on a service road in the state park); 4-9 hill repeats (~250m gravel climb and challenging); and a mile time trial back on the road. I have run this workout many times, and I can attest to how hard it is. But it's designed to be a confidence-builder. Some of the times these kids run on the mile TT are just incredible -- and it's AFTER the hill repeats! It provides them with proof that they can push that "final mile" of any race they run. We keep track of all the kid's times and # of hill reps so they can map their progress over the course of 4 years. We do it once in mid-September and a 2nd time in late October.
The Michigan is a staple workout from my college days, and it was created by Michigan coaching legend Ron Warhurst. It has been adopted and modified by many other college teams over the years, and I introduced a watered-down "high school" version to the team shortly after I began coaching at SRHS. It is designed to mimic the ebb and flow of a cross country race: aggressive start; settle in; surge; settle in; kick. We start with a 1600m on the track faster than 5k pace;; ~ 1 mile off-campus @ tempo pace; 800m on track very fast (the goal is to hit the same pace as the mile); ~ 1 mile off-campus @ tempo pace; 400m all out. The rest between all intervals is a 300m jog (mainly determined by the entry/exit locations of the track) so there should not really be any stopping. We also modify the volume for newer/rookie runners (shorter track volume or shorter off-track loops). Note: the college version has considerably more volume. Like Cobblestone, we record all the times and archive them. We run the Michigan in early October and then usually during the 2-week break between league finals and the NCS meet.
12) What would your advice be for a new coach taking over a team especially during these uncertain times?
Be patient and methodical as you build your program. It's ok to start small. You don't need huge numbers to have an impactful program. Find the local "Doug" in the area (someone experienced, knowledgeable, and willing to share ideas) and pick his/her brain about practice logistics, communication methods, and training locations. Soak in as much wisdom as you can from your fellow coaches. Develop a good working relationship with your Athletic Director so he/she sees your commitment and value.
Stay positive and upbeat with your kids. Cross country and track are not sports for the weak. Remember that kids who have chosen to come out for your team are taking a courageous step. As opposed to sports where athletes could theoretically run around on a field, never touch the ball, and still take credit for a win (or loss), cross country/track forces athletes to be front and center with their effort and performance. There is no hiding place. It takes courage and guts to run (jump, throw, vault, hurdle, etc.). In cross country, every day (even the "easy" or "recovery" days) might be really challenging and hard for some of the kids on your team. Believe in your athletes and make them feel like their efforts matter. Make them feel like they matter.
Coaching is both art and science. Find a happy medium as you develop your training philosophy. It is important for athletes to know the "why" of your methods, and you can explain the science behind a threshold workout to a captive audience. Some will eat this science up, but most of your athletes will be recreational-level runners just seeking a way to test themselves. Crafting a training regimen that attracts kids who willingly put themselves in discomfort and distress, writing a workout that tests them physically and mentally but leaves them with a self-satisfied smile and more confidence -- that's more of an art. When all is said and done, build a program that creates athletes who will see running as a valuable pursuit and a rewarding source of joy as they move through the phases of their lives.
Anything else you would like to add.
I want to give a shout out to my parents, Vern and Patty. I think they initially found age-group track bewildering but devoted many, many hours to supporting our development as track athletes (even though they had 3 other kids too!). My mom even missed her college graduation to take me and Tricia to a track meet in Iowa! They will be the first to tell you that they became track nuts and eventually attended every Olympics from 1984 - 2004. I see them in every parent who volunteers to help run the finish line, who brings popsicles for end-of-practice fun, who makes sure their kid doesn't miss the team bus, who brings coaches easy-to-eat food at meets we host because they know we don't have time to eat, who returns long after their kids have graduated to work our meets, who endures the tremendous ups and downs that kids experience in a practice/week/month/season of track or cross country. Parents are the super glue to every team I've coached, and my parents were (and still are) my super glue.
Side note: Vern recently turned 85, and he has been a top-ranked US track age-group athlete since his early 70s (He is very excited to be in a new age group this year!)
Thank you very much for your time, Carrie.