Proceed With Caution: Exclusive Interview With Ray Treacy

Ray Treacy has coached 13 Olympians. Photo: New York Road Runners

Learn more about the man behind Molly Huddle’s recent American Record.

Ray Treacy spends most of his time as the Director of Track and Cross Country Operations at Providence College in Rhode Island, where he has been coaching distance runners for 26 years. His long career at the helm of the Friars’ program has been nothing short of illustrious, having coached 134 All-Americans, 11 NCAA individual champions, 142 Big East individual champions and 13 Olympians.

In addition to guiding some of the best collegiate distance runners in the country, Treacy also lends his assistance to a small group of post-collegiate professionals based in his adopted hometown of Providence. A few of those athletes include Ireland’s Mary Cullen, former American record holder and U.S. Olympian Amy Rudolph, New Zealand Olympian Kim Smith and former Notre Dame standout Molly Huddle, who broke Shalane Flanagan’s American Record in the 5,000 meters on Friday night in Belgium, running 14:44.76.

Competitor.com caught up with Treacy last week before Huddle’s record-setting run and learned the secrets to his star pupil’s recent success.

Competitor.com: Molly Huddle is having the biggest season of her career thus far, having run under 15 minutes for 5K twice now. Why do you think this is?

Ray Treacy: I really think it’s the consistency of training that she’s had over the last 16 months. The beginning of last year, she had an Achilles injury. That went on for about two months and she didn’t get back into running until March of last year. She’s had consistent training and so she’s been consistently getting better. She’s had no breaks in training at all that weren’t planned–let’s put it that way. She had a very good summer last year on the roads while she was getting her strength back up. We had a plan of action in the wintertime and that was doing World Cross Country. Since it wasn’t a championship year on the track, her whole focus was on running at the World Cross Country Championships. She ran really well there. She’s been getting better and better all the time. She’s been able to handle a better workload and better workouts. She’s been running really well now since January. Back then, she ran 15:20 on the track indoors and then 15:05 at Mt. Sac. She got better and better and then ran 14:51 in Paris.

When you say consistent training, do you mean she’s been staying injury-free?

Oh yes. She’s been injury-free since she got over the Achilles injury since March of last year. She’s had no breaks at all. I don’t think she’s ever had that much consistency in training.

So she hasn’t been doing anything different workout-wise or mileage-wise, then?

No. She’s just been able to handle it better. She’s been able to handle the workload, as she got fitter. Her workouts got better. The mileage got just a bit higher. As she got fitter, she was able to handle more. She got more confidence because of that. She’s been getting used to the way I do things as well.

When she spoke to me about you as her coach, she told me that you aren’t necessarily a hands-on coach. Is that true?

What I do is give her specific workouts. I might not be available all the time and be with her at every workout, because my first priority is the college team. And that’s one of the reasons that everything works. She doesn’t need to be babysat. Kim Smith is the same way. That’s how it works. I’m there a lot of the time, because she lives in Providence. But there are times when I can’t be there, because of my commitments with the college. I’ll give her a specific workout, like a tempo run for a specific distance at a specific time, or a track workout at this time of the year. She gets track workouts at this time. And she’ll do it. Right now, she’s over in Europe. She’ll report back to me with what she did in the workouts I give her.

What kind of track workouts were you giving her leading up to this outdoor season?

After world cross, we transferred over to the track, but not too much. I didn’t want her on the track too much, because she was training for cross country for three months previously. As we got ready for Mount Sac, like in April or May, she was going on the track once a week and then doing other workouts that she was used to during the winter as well.  My philosophy—and it’s the same for the others—is that we work out every fourth day. As we got into June and July, she was getting on the track twice a week.

To prepare to race the 5K, were you having her do 800s and quarters in her workouts?

We had her doing a lot of different distances, but we had her covering 4 miles to 8K of pace work—maybe kilometer repeats at faster than three minutes, maybe 800s in 2:21-2:22. In combination, it might be eight 800s or seven or eight 1000s, finishing the last one a bit quicker. We go all the way up the mile, but before a major race, she obviously likes to do 400s, which is not the most important workout of the cycle anyway. The last workout before the race, she’ll do a series of maybe 400s, like eight to ten–things like that.

Molly is within striking distance of [Shalane] Flanagan’s American record in the 5K [14:44.80]. What do you think about the prospects of her breaking it? (Editor’s note: Huddle broke Shalane Flanagan’s American record in the 5,000 meters this past Friday, running 14:44.76 at the final Diamond League meeting in Brussels, Belgium. This interview was conducted prior to that race.)

She’s going to need a specific type of race. Even in Paris where she ran 14:51, the Ethiopians and Kenyans pulled away and she led the second pack and ran 14:51 off that, which suggests to me that she has a few seconds in her. She’s toyed around with 14:52 pace. She just needs to go with a pack that is going at 14:50 pace for about ten laps. She always finishes strong. She’s always been able to peak at her last lap. No matter how bad she’s feeling, she’ll be able to run 65-66 seconds on that last lap–so, she would have to get those seconds on the last lap. In London, she was the only one who went with the pacemakers. Everyone was kind of playing around and she went with the pacemakers, because the pacemakers were going 71-72 [seconds per lap]. Then the pack came on from behind and she hung on pretty well. She ran under 15 [minutes], which was pretty good given that she went out with the pacemaker. I think she needs the right type of race. We may be another season away right now. The goal is consistency—to be consistently under 15:00. Then we’ll go away and do another block of training during the fall and the winter, and take the next step. That will be the goal at the 5,000 and 10,000. Another year of consistent training will bring it to another level. There is no doubt in my mind. That would be a definite goal for next year.

So let’s assume she gets her PR down to 14:48-14:49. You keep stressing consistent training, but would you then have her work out at a different pace? Or is it just more of the same?

It would be similar, but as she has gotten stronger over the last year with her training, the times of her workouts have come down as well. All that will come naturally as she gets stronger and as she gets her consistent training. My philosophy is that you get better every day, as long as you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. If you take a rest on the day you are supposed to take a rest, then on that day, you are getting better. If you are supposed to do a long run, and you get it done, you’re getting better—as long as you are doing what you are supposed to do, you are getting better every day. So if she stays consistently healthy, then she will get better and stronger. As the winter goes along and into the spring she’ll be a different athlete next year than she was this year, just as she was a different athlete this year than she was last year. That’s the goal. I believe a distance runner is at their best in their late 20′s, so she has a bit to go yet. As long as we keep doing what we are doing right now, there’s no reason why she can’t get that record next year.

How would you describe your own coaching style?

I supposed my style is to be very patient. I always err on the side of caution. If I was trying to get specific types of workouts into a two-week cycle and I wasn’t sure if I could get in an extra workout, I would never do it. I would always wait. I would always err on the side of caution. If an athlete came to me and they were not feeling well, under the weather, coming down with a cold or something like that, I would tell them to put off the workout for a couple of days, rather than doing it, rather than taking the gamble. I look at the long term with everyone I coach. Being patient is something I’m always conscious about.

You have coached a lot of athletes. Inevitably you’ve had to deal with a runner who reaches a plateau and can’t seem to make a breakthrough. What advice do you give to someone in that situation?

I know what to do with my own group of athletes. I obviously never give advice to someone I don’t work with–it’s not the right thing to do. Dealing with my own athletes, I can say that there’s always a reason. If you are training well and you’ve reached a plateau, there’s always a reason and you have to find that reason—especially if you’re not injured. With the college kids we do blood tests to see if their iron is low. Sometimes people get to that point, to that plateau and it takes a good block of training to get through that. And that is very hard to explain to a college kid when they are looking at time, time, time. Time is the most important thing to them in this day and age. They want to be getting better as far as times are concerned. You have to communicate to them that there are years ahead of them yet. You want to enjoy your sport; don’t put so much emphasis on running faster times all the time. That is my biggest issue with college kids. They always want to be setting PRs. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. I keep emphasizing that the competition is what it’s all about—competing well and winning races. If you win a race and you run a little bit slow don’t be unhappy because of your time. You won the race. You took care of business. There’s different ways to approach it and I think there’s too much emphasis on times with the younger group right now, probably, instead of competing and winning the races you are supposed to win. I try to tell them about patience. If you are training well, it’s always going to come around. It might take a little bit longer, but keep working at it.

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Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, was recently released.

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