Jerry Schumacher: The Man Behind The Magic

Photo: Courtesy of University of Wisconsin Athletics.

Schumacher responsible for recent record-setting runs by Oregon Track Club athletes.

A few weeks back at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational, Oregon Track Club coach Jerry Schumacher had a night many coaches only dream about. In the men’s 10,000 meters, he watched two of his athletes shatter national records. Simon Bairu bettered the nine-year-old Canadian record by nearly 13 seconds, while Chris Solinsky became the first sub-27-minute 10K runner in American history.

The former University of Wisconsin head man has enjoyed nothing but post-collegiate coaching  success since leaving the Badger State for greener pastures in Oregon almost two years ago. In February of 2009, Tim Nelson came within an arm’s reach of beating the great Meb Keflezighi at the U.S Cross Country Championships, and last September, another of his athletes, Matt Tegenkamp, became the third American ever to run under 13:00 for 5,000 meters.

After a ten-year stint at the University of Wisconsin, Schumacher left the collegiate coaching ranks in 2008 to join forces with Alberto Salazar and the now defunct Nike Oregon Project. Solinsky, Tegenkamp, Bairu and Nelson all followed their coach to Portland, and since landing in Oregon, Schumacher has added the likes of former NCAA champions Shalane Flanagan and Josh Rohatinsky to his stable of athletes. Competitor.com spoke to Schumacher recently and got his thoughts on Solinsky’s recent record-setting performance, his coaching philosophy and the advantages of training in Oregon.

Competitor.com: How surprised were you by Solinsky’s record?

Jerry Schumacher: I think when anyone runs a performance like that it comes as a surprise. Based on the way the guys were training and working out for the better part of this year, I think they were in shape and I know that they are fit and they were ready to race. But I didn’t go into it anticipating something like that. So does his performance come as a surprise? I’m not surprised he was able to do that, but was surprised it happened the way it did. I’m just trying to get these guys to be the best athletes they can be on a regular basis and let the results speak for themselves.

In a recent interview with Competitor.com, Chris talked about “zoning out” in the race and how running relaxed and not worrying about time helped him break the record. Did you work with him on this mental outlook during training?

I think that athletes at all levels have always had certain ideas or beliefs in what they can run. Times are part of that and so it’s really hard to divorce yourself from the time game. I think that first and foremost you have to be a competitor. I’ve tried to push that with all these guys from many years back. I’ve always said, “Let’s just worry about racing and let the times take care of themselves.” And we all get caught up in the time element every now and then. That is just part of it. If times weren’t important, we wouldn’t start a watch before every race, right? So we know times are part of the sport, but the more important part of the sport is to get in there and try to compete.

That is something that came easy to Chris this race, because he had never run a 10,000 before. It was uncharted territory for him and so he was able to forget about the whole element of time and worry about the competition. It will probably be harder for him to do it the next time out, but if there is anything he learned from it, he learned that not worrying about time was the way to do it. He knows. I’ve been telling him this for years. It’s just not easy to do under most circumstances.

Chris has said that he had to talk you into letting him run the 10,000 at Payton Jordan. Is that accurate?

I guess. I don’t know if it was anyone talking anyone into it or convincing me to let him do it. I think I’ve known that Chris has had the possibility to be a pretty good distance runner. It’s been part of his makeup going all the way back to high school where the longer the event, the better he ran. I don’t think it was a stretch that he’d be a good 10,000 meter runner.

Going out there and executing a good 10,000 and saying you are capable of doing it are two different things. As he rolled along this season, and as he was training and working out, I think he gained aerobic fitness. I think he started to see that it would be a pretty good year. And that it would be pretty exciting to give the 10,000-meter event a try since this is not a championship year. Obviously, I was definitely on the same page as him with that. It was just a matter of when and if it was going to present itself. The way the season unfolded, Stanford just seemed to be the time and the place to do it.

Chris can go a lot of directions right now. He can stick with the longer-distance events. He also mentioned he wants to go back down to distances as low as the 3,000 meters, where he hinted at trying to run under 7:30. And he can go to the steeple — the event you had him originally pegged to run [at Stanford]. What is your take on him getting into the steeple now that he’s proven himself in the long-distance events?

Chris could be a tremendous steeplechaser. He’s got the hurdling skills. He’s got the flat running ability; you’ve seen that already. I think he possesses all the necessary skills to be a very, very good steeplechaser. He’s getting a late start in his career. We don’t know if we will necessarily go down that road. It’s hard to say. We’ve kept that skill set of the hurdling and the drills. We’ve kept that going with him just in case that is something we want to pursue. I can’t answer whether or not we are going to continue down that road or not at this time. Last year would have been a for-sure year that we would have done it.

He had a setback with an injury that he got last winter that’s kind of put the steeple as a bigger kind of question mark, whereas it wouldn’t have been a year ago. He tore his PCL slipping on the ice. When he did that, it kind of ended any chance he had of running the steeple last year and delayed it by another year. This year sounded like a good year to do it since it’s a non-championship year. Like I said, based on our training, we probably would have done that sooner based on the way things were going, so we opted to go the 10,000-meter route. We’ll see based on how things come together and if we feel the need to put the steeple back in the plan. I’m not sure.

You have Chris doing a lot of mileage. He has said during his base phase that he’s been pushing upwards of 120 miles a week. He’s talked about how his build helps him handle that. Do you look at this monster aerobic base he built from all the mileage as a key factor in his breaking the record?

Chris saying he is doing 120 miles a week and Chris doing 120 miles in one week are two different things. It’s kind of like the stories you would hear about Chris running 100 miles a week in high school. When you really talk to Chris, he ran 60 miles a week and one 100-mile week in the summer. Chris has run 120 miles a week before, but at most he’s done one or two weeks like that ever. Otherwise, most of his running is 90-100 miles. He’s not a mega-mileage guy. He can handle it and he will do more if he continues to mature and gets older and better, but that is not something we push for the sake of pushing. It all comes down to the confidence of what is right and when. His aerobic foundation is very strong. He’s been that way since high school. He’s constantly working on that.

Are you ever concerned about Chris’ weight?

No. I think he’ll be just fine.

There’s a big debate out there on the Letsrun.com message board about whether or not Chris ran a 12.1 in the final 100 meters of his record race. Can you confirm or deny this rumor?

I honestly can’t tell you. I didn’t even start the watch for the race. I was just watching the guys race and compete. I really wasn’t too concerned about any elements of time that night and so I have no idea. When he passed me with 100 meters to go, it looked like he was moving pretty good.

How would you describe your philosophy as a coach?

I’m very heavy on fundamentals. It’s like any other discipline. You have to be good at the fundamentals first. You then make the small tweaks when you get the fundamentals down. Every day of practice is a way to get better as a distance runner. I think the guys do that. I think they do that really well. I think the whole team is very fundamental-oriented. They are very disciplined in their approach. They know the things I expect from them on a regular basis and the things I want them to continue to work on. I don’t think you can ever be too good at the fundamentals.

Wisconsin winters have been known to do damage to runners in terms of injury and the potential to hamper their schedules. You have been out in Oregon since 2008. Do you feel that Oregon is a better place for elite runners to thrive? Do you think Chris’s being in Oregon has somehow contributed to his running faster and healthier?

I don’t want to say that their injuries were due to weather or anything like that. I don’t know if that is completely accurate. I coached collegiately there for ten years. I will say what I’ve said over and over again. I don’t think there is some Utopian collegiate training place. I think all of them have their really, really bright spots and their things that aren’t so great. The collegiate environment is really all about fit for each individual student athlete; it’s about finding a place that is right for you and it will probably work out just fine. Never once when I was a collegiate coach there [in Wisconsin] that I felt like I was limited as a collegiate coach. I think collegiately, student-athletes can get everything they need to be good there and just as well as anywhere else in America.

Now, when you talk about moving to the next level, your elite level of running, I thought there were some things that we needed to do in order to make sure we were factors on the next stage and that next level. And you know, I felt like Oregon was a better fit for trying to achieve at that level. The winters really allow us to take our training to a place that most collegiate athletes don’t train at anyways, because they can’t. You know. They are younger; they’re inexperienced. So really it’s allowed the most experienced collegiate athlete to train at a higher level than they could have. And I think we are able to do that here. There’s no doubt that the weather’s a little bit easier in the wintertime. That’s been a great thing.

The resources that Nike has provided across the board—they impact the professional athlete’s life and performance. They have really been incredibly helpful. It made sense. It was a good move for the athletes that aspire to be at that level. So yeah, it’s worked out really well. Like I said, I’ve got nothing but great things to say about Wisconsin and what we did and all the training we’ve done there. I’ve also got nothing but great things to say about Oregon as well. It’s been a really good fit for us.

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