College cross country: How little-known Northern Arizona became a distance running powerhouse
When Matt Baxter first decided he wanted to move from Auckland, New Zealand, to the United States to finish his schooling and run cross country for an NCAA program, he’d never heard of Northern Arizona University. He was familiar with the country’s big-name athletic programs; Michigan, Stanford and, of course, Oregon, the paragon of collegiate distance running. But this public university in Flagstaff, Arizona? It had neither the big name or the reputation.
What it did have was another New Zealander. Baxter spoke with Geordie Beamish who, while a year younger, had spent 2015 redshirting at NAU after leaving Havelock North, a five-and-a-half-hour drive from Auckland.
“The main draw was Geordie, and being able to talk to someone like me, and really get honest feedback,” Baxter said. “The more I learned about NAU and altitude training, I started seeing this school — even though it’s not renowned for its athletics — there’s lots of resources they put on the running side of things.”
That’s putting it lightly.
Despite its relative low profile, Northern Arizona might be the best men's distance running program in the country. This season, coming off the school’s first NCAA Division I championship, the Lumberjacks are again ranked first in the country.
Since 1992, Northern Arizona has:
- Won 20 of the last 25 Big Sky team championships
- Won 17 of the last 25 Big Sky individual titles
- Posted the first perfect sweep of the Big Sky championship since 1988
- Produced three multiple-time Big Sky champions
- Won the first NCAA championship in NAU history in 2016
The Lumberjacks have been dominant for the past 25 years. Flagstaff, situated 6,910 feet above sea level, is a haven for runners looking for the cardio-pumping advanatges that altitude training brings. (Eugene, Oregon, in contrast, sits just 430 feet above sea level.) The best runners in the world travel to Flagstaff to train. The city is populated with running fans, rabid for the latest Northern Arizona info.
“From the student body, to the administrators, to the knowledge in the running community, it’s everywhere,” first-year head coach Michael Smith said. “People downtown at a coffee shop on the sidewalk will ask you about the Top 7 this weekend. 'How the heck do you people know about this stuff?' It makes for a special thing for the runners.”
Baxter didn’t know about Flagstaff’s running culture until one day during his first semester when he returned from a run to see his teammates sitting together in the bleachers by the track.
“I asked what they were watching, and they were saying they were watching guys do workouts on the track,” Baxter said. He looked down to the track.
“I was like, ‘Is that Mo Farah?’” Baxter recalled.
Farah, the most decorated British athlete in history, a multiple Olympic gold medalist and one of the best distance runners in history, was working out on NAU’s campus. Baxter’s teammates weren’t fazed. This was, they explained, a common occurrence.
Baxter sat and watched a legend crank out repeats. A year later, he’s getting used to the abundance of pros around town, but the novelty hasn’t worn off yet.
NAU Sprinters & Hurdlers made it to the top of Humphrey's Peak Trail at the San Francisco Peaks today. Oh you know, just at 12,633 feet. pic.twitter.com/Toogn74BXq— NAU Track & Field/XC (@NAUTrackFieldXC) October 9, 2017
“It makes Flagstaff a really cool place, a place that has this really cool vibe,” Baxter said. “They seem to enjoy running, the atmosphere of running here, and everyone who comes here contributes to that.”
Plenty has gone into turning NAU into a running powerhouse, but not much is more important than the city's location. Running at altitude, former head coach Erin Heins explained, can be a slog. Even the best runners will struggle to adapt to the thinner air at first.
If an athlete is struggling, Heins likes to tell the story of David McNeill, who came over from Australia during Heins’ first season as NAU’s head coach.
“He was upset because he was running slower than he thought he should be,” Heins said. “He’d traveled halfway around the world to get here. He didn’t feel like it was paying off. But then his first race of the season was down near sea level in Minnesota, and he finished second behind [future Olympian] Lopez Lomong. He felt great, and had this huge smile on his face.
"He said, ‘OK, I get it.’”
When he was coaching, Heins liked to keep his runners in the mountains, 6,000 feet from sea level, for four to six weeks before the beginning of the season.
“When they get down, they feel amazing and they start to buy in,” Heins said.
Baxter has a similar strategy coming from New Zealand. The altitude was the allure of NAU, but the benefits of tougher training are easier to reap in theory than in practice. The adjustment was brutal. But the coaching wasn’t.
“I think what they do really well is they ease you into the training,” Baxter said. “They don’t throw you straight into the training the older guys, with with expectations that I could train with these guys at 7,000 feet. It took a semester or so for my body to get used to running up here, and how to push myself and keep up with these guys. The coaching staff here shows a lot of patience if folks aren’t running as well as they’d hoped once they get to the altitude.”
That culture of patience — and NAU’s running culture writ large — is something that student-athletes like Baxter appreciate, and something Heins said he tried to institute.
“It’s just us trying to prepare them mentally, because the athletes are going to run a lot slower than they’re used to,” Heins said. “They’re also going to be more tired even through they’re running slower. It can be discouraging.
“I think I learned that, when I came from growing up in Ohio, I was pretty hard on myself as an athlete, then as a younger coach I was hard on the athletes and wanted to get them doing the same thing. What I learned through the years, from previous NAU coaches and from my experiences, is that you’ve got to let the athletes be who they are. There’s such a wide variety of dynamic mentalities, personalities, belief systems — you’ve got to encourage that.”
Smith, the Lumberjacks’ latest head coach, had the opportunity to overlap with Heins before Heins left the program to move to Houston with his family. Heins had announced his intent to leave after the season, and Smith had been brought in as his heir apparent.
Immediately, on top of learning what makes Flagstaff a great city, Smith could tell he needed to pay attention to what Heins was doing with his runners. There was something special happening on NAU’s campus.
“I think there are very few college campuses like this in the country,” Smith said. “Very few places like this for distance runners. I think a really important thing to understand about college coaches is the unique time we’re intersecting with young men and young women. It’s a very formative time, and a lot of times there’s lots of growth in finding out who you’re about. I think the place you do that in is not a little thing. The place you’re in encourages you to find your voice, foster creativity, find who you are.
“Flagstaff, Arizona is a safe place to find out who you are. Then you put college kids in the middle of that, it’s a phenomenal opportunity. You put college runners in there? It’s a special thing. It’s a place that really tells them to define themselves.”