Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor are not just the favorites to win Sunday’s P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon. They are also teammates on the Mammoth Track Club based in the remote mountain town of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. In addition to the men’s American record holder in the half marathon (Hall) and the women’s American record holder in the half marathon and marathon (Kastor), the team’s ranks also include three-time Olympian Jen Rhines, 2009 New York City Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi, multiple NCAA Division II national champion Scott Bauhs, multiple NCAA Division I national champion Alistair Cragg, 5K national champion Sara Hall, seven-time NCAA All-American Amy Hastings, 2008 Olympian Anna Willard, and steeplechaser Jonathan Pierce.
The Mammoth Track Club is coached by former UCLA cross-country and track coach Bob Larsen and former 2:13 marathoner Terrence Mahon, who is also married to Jen Rhines. Mahon spoke to Run Now from his home in Mammoth Lakes shortly before leaving to Phoenix to watch Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor race P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon.
Run Now: How did the Mammoth Track Club get started?
Terrence Mahon: It was right after the nonprofit organization Running USA was created [in 2000]. At that time U.S. distance runners were doing very poorly internationally. We had sent only one woman and one man marathon runner to the Sydney Olympics. So this group saw that as a call to arms to try to put together a project to bring back U.S. distance running.
The model they looked at was what worked well in the ‘70s and ‘80s with all of the clubs and post-collegiate support systems that were out there. This was around the same time that coach Vigil had retired from Adams State [College in Alamosa, Colo.] and Bob Larsen had retired from UCLA. They were asked if they would be willing to coach such a program and that’s how it started.
You began coaching the team in 2005, after Joe Vigil retired. What was that transition like? I imagine that you and Vigil have many similarities in terms of coaching styles, but also some differences.
As an exercise physiologist, coach Vigil taught me all of that stuff and that’s still what we use to this day. What I brought to the table was that at that time I was doing a lot of strength and conditioning and sports therapy, so I started to integrate that more into the system than we had in the past. Then over the past couple of years I have started to bring biomechanics into the mix.
Right now the big difference with us is that I integrate all of that into the program, whereas it was sort of contracted out in the past—Deena had her own personal trainer, Meb had his own personal trainer, and so forth. It’s much easier for me to oversee everything because I know what’s going on and how to cycle all those different components from a stress standpoint.
The biggest rivals your athletes face on an international level are the East Africans. There are a million different explanations for their dominance, one of which is their group training system. Do you see your team as an answer to that advantage?
Yes, but the difference is that the Ethiopian and Kenyan training camps are very federation driven. So if you want to go anywhere and do anything you need the federation’s permission. But at the end of the day you have large groups of athletes training under one system, and that’s what drives the bus and leads to continued success year in and year out.
In our group you see the same thing. The young athletes are learning from the older athletes. There’s a camaraderie in training, and they push each other, so that everyone is getting just a little more out of it every day.
What special advantages does your location in Mammoth Lakes offer the team?
Mammoth is very unique in the United States in terms of elevation. Mammoth [elevation 7,900 ft.] is a little higher than the other training sites in the country. Flagstaff is a little bit lower [7,000 ft.], Boulder is significantly lower [5,200 ft.]. We have to deal with things like snow, but we are uniquely situated so that we are able to get to lower altitudes where there is much better weather very quickly. We can do our own “high-low” model based on an individual athlete’s need or just on what’s going on with the weather. We don’t have to move all the time, like, “OK, it’s wintertime, now we have to go to Florida.” We can just go up and down the mountain.
The other part of it is that, at least at this point, Mammoth is a very secluded town. There’s not a lot to do: one movie theater, one grocery store. So when athletes are here, they know they are here to train. Coming off the mountain takes a little bit of work, so when they go to race, they don’t race just for fun, or just to get one in; it’s because they’ve trained for it and they’re ready and it’s serious. It makes them think twice before planning some random race, because it’s often a two-day trip to get there.
It’s similar for the Ethiopians and Kenyans, where they are flying to the U.S. or London or wherever. You’re talking about an 18- or 20-hour plane ride, so you leave home only when you mean business.
You alluded to the benefits of your athletes pushing each other in training. But is there also some risk of their overcooking themselves by racing in training?
That’s a combination of two things: one is athlete maturity and the other is coaching. The job of myself or Bob Larsen as a coach is to control the athletes when we see that’s getting a little out of hand. At the same time, as the athletes get a little older and more mature and self-confident, they know what they need to do to get from A to B. Sometimes that means competing a bit and other times it’s letting the other guy go or sitting in behind the guy who’s stronger that day and getting pulled along.
There’s a transition with every new athlete that comes in. Typically they were the best athlete wherever they were—in college, their prior club or wherever. They’re not used to getting beaten in practice. So the transition over the first year is getting used to that and finding how they can work within the system so they don’t feel like they’re racing every day.
I imagine one of the other challenges you face is balancing group training that takes advantage of the team environment with individualized training that meets the needs of each individual athlete. Is that a tough balance to strike?
Yes and no. It’s just a little more time consuming from a coaching standpoint. Each one of our athletes has an individual training program. But 70 or 80 percent of the time, they are training with one another. It may mean that one runner does segments of some other runners’ run, or they do one interval or two intervals together that fit their common need and then do their own thing for the rest of the workout.
I think most of the athletes would say that it’s a good combination—they get the benefits of individual and group training at the same time.
Besides performance, what other factors do you consider when selecting new athletes to join the team?
We take a look at the [athlete’s specialty] event, and how that fits in the scheme of what we have here. Sometimes it gets a little redundant if you have six people running the same event. That doesn’t make much sense. I like little clusters of people running the same event.
Age is also an important factor. I’m a big one for a mentoring system. I like to have athletes of different ages in the same event.
Other than that, it’s two things: A) Does this person have the talent to be a world-class runner? Because our orientation is definitely toward not just developing national-class runners but runners who can get on the podium internationally. And B) Does this person work well within the dynamic of our team? We have to make sure that everybody there knows what the overall goal is for everybody. Because they spend so much time together, if there’s not a good harmony there it’s bad for everybody.
How is your team funded, and can paying the bills be a headache for you?
Our goal with the program from the get-go was to be an outside-the-box type of program. What I look at particularly is that athletes have a limited number of years to earn an income in this sport. The typical career is four to six years, and you get the unique ones that are eight- to 12-year careers. Some of the other teams are sponsored by a shoe company. You’ve got the group in Oregon that is sponsored by Nike and the Hansons’ group that is sponsored by Brooks. We never wanted to limit an athlete’s ability to earn an income in a free market society. So we didn’t want to lock ourselves into working with only one company. The downside to that is that it’s much harder to get sponsorship because we can’t offer opportunities to have sponsor logos on an athlete’s uniform because that’s driven by the athlete’s contracts.
So we’ve had to look elsewhere. The town of Mammoth Lakes has been tremendously supportive of us for the past four years. And we’d probably be nowhere without all the help of the New York Road Runners. While we have athletes like Ryan, Deena, and Meb who make a good living in the sport, we do have trouble luring a sponsor in to see that our goal is to produce many great athletes. That’s a three- or four-year process for the new athletes. Look at where Ryan was when he first came out of college. He needed assistance. Scott Bauhs—a new kid like him needs assistance. If we’re only looking at the top guys we’re missing the big picture, that this is a long-term plan.
We want to keep this going for years and years to come, and that’s where the funding is needed, to create both the infrastructure for our group and to create a scholarship system for the young ones to get up to the level where Deena is now.
Find out how your company can sponsor the Mammoth Track Club at mammothtrackclub.com.