The former American 10,000m record holder talks about getting into collegiate coaching, his own competitive goals and much more.
Four years ago, Chris Solinsky ran the race of his life at Stanford University’s Payton Jordan Invite. The former University of Wisconsin standout clocked 26 minutes, 59.60 seconds in his debut at 10,000 meters, winning convincingly over a stacked field of runners. Solinsky’s impressive time was the first sub-27 minute clocking ever by a non-African athlete as well as a new American record by 14 seconds. Since then, Solinsky has struggled with injury and not been able to find the form he had in 2010.
Last week, the 29-year-old announced that he accepted an assistant coaching position for track and cross country at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. While there, Solinsky will continue to train as a professional under the guidance of his long-time coach, Jerry Schumacher, in the hopes of making the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.
We caught up with Solinsky recently to talk about his transition into college coaching, his own competitive goals heading into 2016 and much more.
Why did you decide to accept the position as Assistant Coach at William and Mary?
I’ve wanted to coach since my junior year of high school. I originally wanted to be a history teacher and a high school coach. When I got to Wisconsin, I saw Jerry [Schumacher] make a career out of it, and so my sights kind of changed a little bit. I still went to school to become a history teacher, but that was my backup plan when my running took off. I’ve ridden that running wave as long as I possibly could. I am still trying to run a little bit. I just got to that point where I needed to think about the future. You can only be a professional athlete for so long. Even before I got hurt, I wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t be one of those guys when my career ended, I wouldn’t be scratching my head, thinking, “What the heck do I do now?” When I got hurt, I started taking the steps towards that goal. That was when I was volunteering at the University of Portland. And then this opportunity arose. Steven Walsh, the Director of Track and Field presented me with the chance to take on a more substantial role while training for the 2016 Olympic cycle. After that, good or bad, I think I’m ready to put the running chapter behind me, and focus 100 percent on coaching.
Of all the colleges out there, why William and Mary?
I talked with a number of universities, and the William and Mary setup with Stephen Walsh—he did a really good job of pitching. He said it would be criminal for me to stop running right now. If a university said I had to stop running to get a job, I was willing to do it but it would have been tough. He [Walsh] came to me saying that I can do both things. Obviously there is going to be a give and take. There will be a compromise on both sides. But Stephen told me that he doesn’t just want me on the sidelines. He said he wants me to really dive in and get my feet wet. The program has a great tradition. A lot of really good coaches have come out of there as well as a lot of good athletes. I think the men’s team is making a resurgence to back to their more-successful traditions. And the women’s team is really successful.
But coaching aside, it sounds like you still have your sights on making the 2016 Olympic team, right? You aren’t giving up on that dream?
No. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking the past year. I’ve had mixed results. Sometimes I’ve lost to people with full-time jobs and I was wondering what those people think about me. Now I’m going to be one of those people. I’m still going to train every day. Regardless whether I’m competing or not, running is a part of my life. It always will be a part of my life. That part for me was never going to change. I was always going to run every day. But for the short term there will be goals around this training.
Most coaches observe their athletes from the side of the track with a stopwatch. You’re going to be a different coach in that you’ll be training while taking on the role of supervising runners. Any thoughts of actually leading workouts and setting paces for them?
I would love to. Are you saying pacing or coming up with the workouts?
Pacing. So saying something like, “Let me show you what a sub-60-second closing lap looks like.” The “lead by example” kind of thing.
That’s a discussion that I need to have more thoroughly with Walsh. If that is something that he wants, then I’m definitely game for it. There’s a lot to be said for leading by example. That is one of the things that Walsh and I talked about. Good or bad with my own career, these guys can see what it’s like to be a professional athlete. I hope the runners can rub shoulders with me and see that. To your point, I think it would be a good idea to jump into workouts with them and show them how to conduct workouts—how to stay positive when you’re suffering a bit. Those are the kinds of things that will be a very good advantage. But then there will also be times where I need to be watching from the side to make sure people don’t cross over the line. For as long as I can, I think it would be fine to jump into workouts and get into the trenches with them.
Are you still planning to focus on the Olympic marathon?
Yes. Obviously, we’ve kind of put off this fall. I’m still going to be working with Jerry, so we’re going to talk about what we think is the best fit. It doesn’t have so much to do with pursuing coaching. I’ve been training hard the whole year and my body is kind of petering out. Maybe it’s a fall marathon, but maybe my first marathon could be the Trials and run half marathons before. I don’t know yet. We have to look at the best strategy that will get me ready to compete. The [U.S. Olympic marathon] Trials are in February, so if that doesn’t work out, I can get back to the track and make a bid for that team as well.
So Jerry will be coaching you from afar.
Yes. We’ve had this arrangement before in the past. The year that I got married I was back in the Midwest for about three months. I was in a base-building phase and he was giving me the workouts. The relationship worked out really well. I’m pretty confident that it will still go quite well. The only thing that I will miss out on is his watchful eye where he will say something like “Don’t overdo it,” or “Keep pushing.”
What about your group of professional friends in Portland? You won’t have them to push you. Will you be on your own in Virginia? Are you going to find some local elites to help you train?
I haven’t been able to address that really. Ever since I accepted the coaching position, I’ve been scrambling to get all my affairs in order. If there are people around, I’d love to have them to train with in the morning. But I can run by myself if I have to. I do the majority of my work alone. But obviously on my normal run days, I’ll try to run with the guys on the team. But, yeah, it is going to be tough doing this thing alone. But I have always been one of those guys who trains effectively alone. That’s not to say though that I haven’t benefited from group training for the last 11 or 12 years. I’m definitely going to miss the day-to-day camaraderie of guys like Matt [Tegenkamp]. It will be tough. The hardest part is leaving these guys, because they are like family members. I have to leave them behind. I knew that would happen at some point.
I think the William and Mary mascot is an eagle or a griffin. So will you be teaching the runners there about Eagle miles as opposed to Badger miles?
[He laughs.] I was talking with a couple of the captains for the job interview and the subject of Badger miles came up. I told them I wouldn’t refer to them as Badger miles anymore. Since my nickname in the group is “Slow”, I will just call them Slow miles.
Why is your nickname “Slow”?
When I was a freshman, Tim Keller, one of the fourth-years, thought my name was Slowinsky. I kept correcting him and correcting him. It didn’t work.
When are you moving?
I’m pretty much all packed. I just dropped off my car. Unfortunately for her, my wife will be driving across the country with our two dogs. Her mom is flying out to help. I’m flying out to run the Falmouth Road Race. I will be leaving Portland for good.
What are you going to miss most about Portland?
The friends that I’ve made here. I’ve made a lot of great connections. I will also miss the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. I grew up in the Midwest so I’ve felt a calling back to it. I know that Virginia isn’t back to it, but it’s half the distance in terms of driving.
You talked about Falmouth this weekend. What are your goals there? How are you feeling?
To be perfectly honest, the last couple of weeks have been not that ideal in terms of training, because of what I’ve had to do to get the house packed up. I just I feel something along the lines of not great, but not terrible. I’d like to run faster there than I did in 2012, which wasn’t too quick. It’s the end of the season for me. Not only has my body been getting tired, but also the training hasn’t been ideal. I’m just going to get out there and run as fast as I can.
You are heading into a new phase in your career and your life. You’re going to be a leader, setting an example. Have you thought about how maybe this move to coaching is going to be a win-win for you in terms of becoming a better runner yourself by teaching others?
I definitely feel like it’s going to be a great move for me—as a professional runner and as a coach. It’s going to take a lot of pressure off of me. I will be running 100 percent.