Today we chat with SF University coach, Carin Marrs (top left). Over the past few seasons, University has continued to be one of the top Division V teams in the state including multiple league and section championships. At the CA state meet, the University girls have continued to record podium finishes while the boys recorded their first boys' state championship in school history in 2017. Marrs followed legendary University coach Jim Tracy and has more than spectacularly filled some big coaching shoes.
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 play any other sports?
I started running in 8th grade after doing a lot of other sports before that time. I especially loved basketball and played in some pretty competitive leagues, but my freshman year I quit to focus on cross country and track. My proudest high school race was my senior year at the state XC meet when I won the individual state title and my team took first. I went on to run in college and was lucky enough to be a part of a great program. But it was a difficult transition for me and I had an average college career. Although I did have some great races during that time, they were pretty sporadic.
2) Who were the coaches that had the biggest impact on you and what did you learn from them?
I went to high school in central Virginia, where I was fortunate to be coached by the absolute best wife-husband team, Cherie and Chuck Witt. They were focused on making distance running fun- we played games every single week- but were also highly competitive. Our cross country team won state titles 3 of my 4 years, once with a score of 23 points! And while our team was nationally ranked for most of my high school career- a tribute to our incredibly tight pack- all of my teammates were incredibly humble people. In my coach's' words, each race was just "a tempo run with uniforms on" which took meant we could relax and just do what we did in practice every day- push each other hard without unnecessary stress. They taught me that I was a teammate first and that my individual race was important mainly because it was part of a bigger picture. One of my coaches was also my math teacher who taught me how to analyze race statistics and the importance of mental math for running. He could spout off 400 splits for a 5k or add up finishers for a team score in about 2 seconds. Probably the biggest thing I learned in high school XC was the importance of pushing during "bad" races- when you know you're not having a great day. If you throw in the towel on a "bad" day, 40 people might pass you. But can you keep fighting and only let 5 people pass you because your team needs those points? That kind of team-centered thinking was central to my high school coaches' philosophy.
3) What led you to coaching and what was your first experience? What did you learn from that experience? (Daily Progress photo above)
I worked a bunch of little jobs the year after college and asked my old high school coach if I could volunteer as an assistant. I was immediately hooked on coaching and after one year of being an assistant, I took over as head coach of that program. The biggest thing I learned was that I was passionate about coaching and working with high schoolers. I remember dealing with some tough interpersonal issues affecting our team chemistry and celebrating the day a girl broke 8:00 for the mile just as powerfully as I remember the days we won state championships during those years. I was in law school three of those four years but I may have spent more time and energy on that team than I did studying- I know I arranged my class schedule to be able to get to practice every day which was not easy to do.
4) How did you hear about the University coaching job? Was there any hesitation on your part before you accepted the job?
I did legal and social work in the bay area for 7+ years before having my first son in 2012. I was dying to get back into coaching and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to start over so I google searched "cross country high school San Francisco." I came across the Jim Tracy ESPN clip and was intrigued. I thought the program looked competitive, so I cold-called the athletics office and asked if they needed a volunteer assistant. At that poin, I found out that the school's long-time head coach, Jim Tracy, was dying of ALS and I was hired as a deputy head coach to work with him. Being a co-head coach sounded complicated, especially in a program with 10 girls' state titles and many years of tradition that I knew nothing about. I knew my coaching style would be radically different than Jim's and I'd only worked in larger public schools, so I was somewhat concerned.
5) What was your experience during the first year? How difficult was it for you taking over for Jim Tracy?
I had the privilege of working with Jim for about 7 months before he passed away in April 2014. I learned his quirky but effective methods and inserted some of my philosophy into the team that year. But the cross country team struggled big time with the coaching transition and from a competitive standpoint it was a rough season. Our boys didn't make it to the state meet and our girls' performance there was lackluster compared to the many podium finishes of the past. Jim passed away early in track season of the following year which was devastating for the families who had known him as the team's iconic leader for many years. It was really hard taking over for Jim, we have very different personalities I didn't have the credibility with the kids or program that comes with year-after-year state championships and rebuilding trust took a few years.
6) Looking back at this past season, what were some of your biggest highlights?
We had the highest combined finishes at the state meet of any teams in our school history, so that was huge. Early in the season we were shooting for 3rd/5th, but as I saw kids progressing throughout the season I thought it was 1st and 2nd were possible if we ran smart races but it would take a day when all the stars aligned. The boys were in 13th place at the mile- and then took off. My 3rd and 4th guys passed a total of 142 guys in those last 2 miles. I was super proud to see the guys execute our season-long race plan so well on the biggest stage when nerves can take over. On the girls' side, our team captains- Christina Howard and Claire Jackson- each had remarkable seasons and truly led the team in every sense of the word. If I had done cuts, Christina would not have made the team her sophomore year. She was running 25 minutes for 5k. She was our critical 4th girl at the state meet in a time 5 minutes faster than 2 years ago! Claire (9th at CIF) has battled so many serious injuries and setbacks for 3 years and it was awesome to see what she could do when she got some uninterupted training under her belt this year. Consistency was a theme for our teams this year and those girls were great models for that.
7) What are your expectations for your runners during the summer? Any running camps?
I have three levels of running programs for the summer months- returning varsity, 2nd-year runners, and new runners. They are all minutes-based and are purely aerobic runs that get pretty long towards the end of the summer. We meet 3 mornings/week for kids who are in town. My goal is to create our own team camp at some point, but we don't have one right now.
8) Who have been your coaching mentors during your coaching career?
I have so many. As I mentioned, my high school coaches are my biggest mentors and I still see them and pick their brains whenever I'm back in Virginia. Juli Henner Benson (1996 Olympian in 1500) coached me for 2 years in college and she showed me what it meant to care about your athletes as humans first. She also taught me that running 9-minute miles on recovery days works for Olympians- no one cares if you win the easy run! Finally, the coaches in our league have supported and inspired me in my work at UHS. My assistant coach, Kevin Cruikshank has a wealth of experience in this program and can draw on his memories of the legendary Jim Tracy days whenever the kids need humor or inspiration. Jeff Gardiner at Lick-Wilmerding and Mike Buckley at Convent/Stuart Hall have supported me when I was a new coach in the league and have been motivators for me and my athletes from a competitive standpoint in both cross country and track with their perennially strong programs.
9) What does a typical week look like for your runners? Any morning runs? Typical weekly mileage? Distance of longest run for your experienced runners? How often do they do strength work?
We usually do a tough strength workout and an easy run on Mondays. Tuesday are a hard/faster workout- sometimes a tempo run, intervals, hills. Wednesdays we do our long run- I stole this non-traditional day idea from Chris Williams at Dublin HS and it made all the difference this year. Thursday is a longer recovery day and Friday is usually a pre-meet easy run with strides. Saturday is either a meet or another hard workout- tempo/intervals/fartlek/hills. Sundays are always off. I firmly believe that high schoolers don't need to run 7 days a week and it makes the other 6 days higher quality. I think most serious runners can continue to improve in college if they are not run into the ground in high school. We usually do minutes-based long runs with 80 minutes being a standard for the top group. This can mean anywhere from 9 to 12 miles depending on how fast the group is going and where we are running. The Presidio has a ton of hills and we do incorporate those trails into most of our long runs. We do a focused, hour-long strength session on Mondays and strength and mobility work every day after running. The top guys were at about 50 mpw at the end of the summer and the girls were around 40. Their mileage varied during the season but it was never quite that high after August. The strength work and focus on quality were a big reason I think we had zero serious injuries this year.
10) Since your running days to now, what are the biggest changes that you have seen in cross country and track and field (positive and negative)?
I think that the internet and specifically social media and has impacted the sport in negative ways for sure. It's so easy to go down the rabbit hole of comparison when you see a competitor or even elite athlete posting a workout or a race time (and the cute accompanying photo that makes it seem like the workout/race was a breeze) and start feeling discouraged without really knowing anything about their circumstances. It was easier 20 years ago to focus on improving yourself rather than becoming consumed with what others say they are doing (it's very likely fake!). However, the internet has positively impacted the sport by bringing athletes, coaches and fans together to uplift each other on sites like yours.Another positive change is that I see a lot more strong, powerful, well-fueled high school girls than when I was in high school. There are still many young people suffering from disordered eating and it is still one of my biggest concerns in the high school distance running world. But I believe that now there are fewer coaches emphasizing "thin = fast" and more awareness around the long-term destructive nature of restrictive eating.
11) What would your advice be for a new coach taking over a team?
Take nothing for granted. Just because you have a great experience one season doesn't mean everything will stay the same next year so celebrate the highs in real time! On the flip side, it only takes a couple of athletes making positive changes to turn a mediocre team into a group of incredible athletes, even though "rebuilding" seasons can seem so disheartening. Finally, believe in every athlete who is willing to work hard. I know that consistency and passion trump talent when it comes to improvement and when the stakes are high, you can rely on the gritty kids.
12) Anything else you would like to add.
Thank you, Albert, for all you've given to bring recognition and respect to a sport that doesn't get enough press!
Thank you very much for your time Carin! AJC