At Johns Hopkins, Coach Bobby Van Allen turns runners into champions

Team-first culture has yielded four national Division III titles in five years for Blue Jays women's team

Felicia Koerner leads the pack at a training run at Druid Hill Park.

Image caption: Felicia Koerner leads the pack at a training run at Druid Hill Park.

Credit: Photography by Marshall Clarke

It's 8:30 a.m. in the lobby of downtown Louisville's Galt House Hotel, a grand two-tower high-rise on the banks of the Ohio River. Five days before Thanksgiving, the place is already decked out in Christmas poinsettias, wreaths, garlands, and ornamented trees. Later in the day, Galt House will host the Guinness World Record's largest gathering of fairies: 936 children and adults with tutus, wings, and wands assembled to make enchanted history.

Talk of the imminent fairy jamboree offers a brief distraction for the 18 members of the Johns Hopkins women's and men's cross-country teams, now huddled in the lobby's lounge. They're waiting on their coaches and the four rented minivans that will transport them to the 2016 NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships, to be held 14 miles away at a state park. In a few hours, 32 teams will line up for the single race that defines their season. A half-year of preparation—hundreds of miles of training runs, weekly cross-training sessions, hours in the weight room, recovery days running in the varsity swimming pool—will come down to one frenetic race through fields and woods. For most, it will be over in less than 26 minutes.

Dressed in their black warmups, some of the Jays wipe sleep from their eyes. Most have brought down a remnant of breakfast—a cup of coffee, a muffin, a bagel, or banana. Some check the weather on their phones. The day before, temperatures in Louisville reached a record 81 degrees. Overnight, the temperature dropped to 35, with predictions of 40 mph wind gusts. Not ideal, but these are athletes accustomed to cold 10-mile morning runs dressed in barely there shorts and tank tops; for the men, shirts usually seem superfluous.

The men's co-captain Schaffer Ochstein slumps his 6-foot, 150-pound frame into a leather chair and finishes his customary oatmeal and apple. He is a graduate student, and the upcoming race will be the last of his collegiate career. A few feet away, Felicia Koerner, a standout sophomore from Munich, Germany, who the previous night was named U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association's Mideast Region Athlete of the Year, battles with a blue-and-white ribbon meant to keep her hair up. The ribbons, handmade by a team parent and personalized with each runner's name and the Blue Jays logo, have become part of the women's team uniform, worn at every competition. "I can't get it tight. What if it comes off in the race?" says Koerner, who finished first in the Centennial Conference and the NCAA Division III Mideast Regional championship. Fast and only getting faster, Koerner is averaging 5:40 miles in cross-country and can sprint 5-minute miles on a flat track. This wardrobe malfunction is her first show of nerves. A teammate rushes to her aid.

Van Allen addresses the women’s team before the Centennial Conference Championships.

Image caption: Van Allen addresses the women’s team before the Centennial Conference Championships.

Image credit: Photography by Marshall Clarke

For the Johns Hopkins women's cross-country team, this marks their 10th straight trip to the NCAA National Championships and a chance at their fourth national title in five years, all under the leadership of coach Bobby Van Allen, a three-time NCAA Division III Women's Cross Country Coach of the Year. After winning three straight titles, from 2012 to 2014, the Blue Jays finished a disappointing fourth in last year's NCAAs held at the Lake Breeze Golf Club in Winneconne, Wisconsin, on an even colder day. The men didn't make it to the 2015 nationals at all, failing to secure an at-large bid and breaking a streak of four consecutive appearances. Both teams are eager to redeem themselves.

Van Allen and fifth-year assistant coach Kimberly Lewnes enter the lobby. Van Allen, 40, has been coaching at Johns Hopkins for 17 years. The past five have made him a legend. Were he to quit right now, which he has no plans to do, he'd already have cemented his legacy as one of Division III's all-time greats. He stands 6-foot-1, has short black hair, and looks younger than his years. A former collegiate track star himself, Van Allen now plays the role of (slightly) aging jock, still trim but large compared to this group of ultra-fit runners who collectively would have trouble filling a tin cup with excess body fat. He smiles and checks his watch.

Just before we drive away, I ask Van Allen if he still gets nervous at nationals, and what's going through his head. He pauses for a few telling seconds. "You know, it's actually a bit bittersweet," he says. "For the ladies, this now feels like all or nothing. Even second place would be a huge disappointment for them. They're here to win."

Van Allen's athletic center office could use a shelf or five, and a few picture hangers. Piled on the floor are plaques honoring his many coaching accomplishments. He's a seven-time Centennial Conference Cross Country Coach of the Year. He also has 10 USTFCCCA Mideast Region Coach of the Year awards, to go with his national coaching honors. He has coached 22 All-Americans. There are also trophies from his growing number of Centennial Conference indoor and outdoor track championships (20)—he coaches those teams, as well. Most of his honors are for working with women, and he desperately wants the Hopkins men to share the limelight. They're getting there. In 2013, the men won the Centennial Conference and the NCAA Mideast Regional, and finished 11th in the national championship, thanks to All-American Max Robinson and then sophomore Ochstein.

Sitting on his cluttered desk is a well-worn copy of Daniels' Running Formula, the 1998 book by Jack Daniels, dubbed the world's best coach in 1996 by Runner's World magazine and the NCAA's D-III Women's Cross Country Coach of the Century. Van Allen and Daniels are the only two NCAA Division III coaches to win three or more consecutive women's national titles, and Van Allen finds it hard to believe he's creeping up on the records of the legend on whom he's based most of his coaching philosophy. "I take a lot of stuff from him. A lot of what he says is breaking down exercise training physiology, and what each workout is supposed to do at the cellular level. That makes sense to me," says Van Allen, who earned his bachelor's degree in kinesiology from the University of Maryland. "I haven't sat down to read it cover to cover in about 10 years. But I reread a chapter here and there to make sure I'm doing things the right way."

Just four years before Van Allen came to the university, Johns Hopkins sent individual runners to women's meets but often didn't have enough participants to compete as a team. The university had only part-time coaches for all its track programs. He joined the track coaching staff in January 1999 as an assistant assigned to develop women distance runners, who numbered only seven at the time. "Now I might only have a few minutes a week with each runner to sit down and chat, and I need Google Doc sheets to keep it all straight." This year, he's in charge of 110 athletes competing in cross-country and track and field.

When he came to Johns Hopkins, Van Allen was just 22, off a stint as a volunteer assistant coach for the University of Maryland's track team, where he had been a fine varsity runner. When Johns Hopkins called, he says he didn't hesitate. "I figured I'd help out for six months and then see what happens," he says. Six months later, the university asked him to be head coach. Tom Calder, who stepped down last year as athletic director after 21 years in the job, says Van Allen immediately impressed him. "When I first interviewed Bobby, I knew he was going to be excellent. With some people you can't tell, but I could just tell with him up front. He was passionate. He had the experience as a Division I runner. He was intelligent. I could tell he would care about his athletes. And I just had this feeling he was going to be very successful." What especially stood out to Calder was Van Allen's innate sense of when to push runners and when to pull back and let their bodies recover. "He just had a good feel for the calendar and how to train year-round, especially for the middle and distance runners, so they would be as fit as they could be when it counted."

The men's and women's cross-country programs were separate until Van Allen took over head coaching duties of both in 2000. He became the university's first full-time coach of all cross-country and track teams two years later. Calder recalls that when he made Van Allen the full-time coach, the 25-year-old had a surprising response. "He told me, 'Now I can win a national championship.' I thought that was very impressive. He had this self-confidence in how he wanted to coach but also in the kind of kids he would attract here to run."

Ten years later, Van Allen made good on his promise. On November 17, 2012, in Terre Haute, Indiana, the Blue Jays won the NCAA Division III Women's Cross Country Championship by 63 points, the greatest margin of victory in a women's Division III championship since 2002. The title was the first women's national championship in any sport at Johns Hopkins. Van Allen vividly recalls the day. He says the team seemed to feel no pressure. They sang on the ride to the race and kept singing even on the starting line, where the runners joked and danced, led by Lewnes, then in her first year as an assistant, who did a chicken dance. "And then we did enough to win," he says.

Moments before the start of the women's race at Louisville's E.P. "Tom" Sawyer State Park, more than 3,000 spectators do whatever they can to stay warm as the wind blows off hats and turns faces red. Some ignore the elements. A pack of hardy male students from Washington University in St. Louis come dressed only in capes and Speedos. A few dozen supporters of the SUNY Geneseo Knights also mostly eschew winter wear for knight costumes, or go shirtless, letters of the school name painted on their chests. There's a party atmosphere. Music blasts across the field from loudspeakers, and fans march over the course screaming school names. At the starting line, the seven Johns Hopkins runners line up against the other 31 teams in the field, including reigning champion Williams and former No. 1–ranked Geneseo. When the starting gun goes off, 280 runners explode up an inclined field like a Civil War battle charge. After the first 100 yards, a cluster of women start to separate from the pack as they turn left onto a trail. When the runners pass, fans sprint to the next vantage point; some will cover up to 3 miles as they zigzag over the course to keep racers in sight.

Cross-country fandom means active participation. There are few seats. No tickets. Most teams host only one meet per year, so in a sense the season is all away games. A small but loyal fan base drives several hours week by week to root them on. Van Allen says the NCAA D-III championship is unlike anything in collegiate sports. "Most of the time it's 20 or 30 degrees out when you get there. People barely wearing any clothes except body paint. And then you have 3,000 to 4,000 fans swarming over the course. It's intense and it's crazier at Division III than in Division I. It really is something you have to see for yourself."

The season leading up to the championship is more of a slow burn, with teams working toward peak fitness and their fastest times at the end-of-the-year meets. The schedule begins in early September and typically includes five to seven invitational meets. Most of the races Johns Hopkins competes in take place in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland, though Van Allen often schedules at least one long road trip. This year he decided to participate in the Greater Louisville Classic to expose the team to the same course where the NCAAs would be held. "I wanted my top runners to familiarize themselves with not just the course but the entire experience," he says. "Same airport. Similar flight. We stayed in the same hotel." He had little doubt they would be back for the nationals.

Cross-country runners are sometimes referred to as harriers, an English term coined in the 1860s to refer to a schoolboy game where "hounds" chased "hares" through woods and hills. In this sport, any outdoor natural terrain will do. No two courses are the same. One week you're running on an urban golf course, the next at a rural college campus covered by an inch or two of snow. And there is the occasional animal involved. During the NCAA Mideast Regional men's cross-country race held at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, a herd of at least 10 deer ran into a line of runners and knocked a Gwynedd Mercy University senior off his feet. The collision was captured on video, which went viral. (None of the Johns Hopkins runners were hurt in the race, which they won by one point over rival Haverford College. In fact, the team didn't find out about the cervine hit-and-run until the next day.)

Women's races are mostly 6 kilometers over open country; the men mostly race over 8 kilometers. Teams accumulate points—one point for the first-place finisher, two points for second, and so on. As in golf, low score wins.

Van Allen prides himself on his teams' depth, and often brings a full roster to the meets, even if that means transporting 60 runners. "On the men's side we have so much parity, with little separating everyone," he says. "My 12th guy can easily beat my 5th guy on any given day. I think it's nice to have those opportunities to run even if you're the slowest on the team."

"Slowest" is a relative term. Each year, Van Allen recruits some of the top runners in the nation, luring some of them away from Division I programs. At any given time, he is in contact with 800 high school juniors or seniors. He spends an inordinate amount of time responding to email and texts; you can often find him across from campus at One World Café with a laptop and cup of coffee as he plays catch-up. In summer 2015, Van Allen had his first child, a daughter named Olivia. "We had to make laptop rules," says his wife, Lindsay. "No checking emails after 10 p.m. Before, he would be on his computer until midnight, and then be up at 6 a.m. and back on the computer. He still seems to work 24-7, but Kim [Lewnes] has been a big help, alleviating the everyday stuff."

Each year, Van Allen recruits some of the top runners in the nation, luring some of them away from Division I programs. At any given time, he is in contact with 800 high school juniors or seniors.

Van Allen has the luxury of being more selective in whom he recruits these days, but it's still a challenge to convince talented runners to choose a D-III school. "I feel that as long as I can get them to visit, I think we have a good chance. Once they're here, I can really highlight everything we have. I tell them my priorities of them being a student first, to be able to keep them healthy. I discuss our team culture and the opportunities they get here to compete in big meets against Division I schools, and I think that is a big selling point." Van Allen says he looks for grades first, then race times and character. He wants to know their best high school times, but he's also looking for a runner's progress. Did they peak in their freshman year? Or are they showing steady improvement? And he looks for traits harder to quantify, like passion.

He also wants to gauge how they'll fit with the team's culture. The cross-country programs are like one big family. Van Allen often gets recent alumni to come back and volunteer coach. The program's biggest booster is Paula Boggs, A&S '81, a Johns Hopkins trustee emerita and former Starbucks executive. Boggs, who co-founded the women's team in 1979 and was its first captain, helps fund the team's never-ending need of shoes, in addition to helping pay for transportation and to renovate the women's locker room. Parents frequently bring snacks and lunches to meets to feed the team post-race. Van Allen's wife often leads the team's yoga sessions and designed their T-shirts. The men's and women's teams encourage each other in practice and cheer each other on at meets, breathlessly sprinting across the course to be seen and heard. "They like each other and hang out together outside of workouts," Van Allen says. "It'd be nice if they didn't date each other, but good luck with that."

Assistant coach Kim Lewnes at a pre-meet strategy session.

Image caption: Assistant coach Kim Lewnes at a pre-meet strategy session.

Image credit: Photography by Marshall Clarke

All-American Tess Meehan says she chose Johns Hopkins because of the culture Van Allen has created. "Here, everyone really wants the team to be successful. We all have the same goal," she says. "That definitely builds a great camaraderie and excitement to come to practice every day." Hannah Oneda, A&S '15, who had a standout career at Johns Hopkins, was a high school track star who had an offer to go to Columbia University. She says Van Allen has a knack for recruiting. "I think it's the fact he was so relaxed," says Oneda, who this year volunteered to come back as a coach. "He knows people come here foremost to get a really good education. I knew right off I wasn't going to be owned by the sport. He attracts a lot of people who love running but don't want that as the top priority all the time." And he wins over parents, who appreciate Van Allen's matter-of-fact style and commitment to their children on and off the track. "You hear a lot of horror stories about bad fits with coaches, and we've been extremely happy with Bobby," says Kelly Smith, mother of junior Caroline Smith. "From day one, he was a straight shooter with us. Caroline's gotten so much faster. She was good before but never broke free. He worked on the mental part. He was like, 'You can do this. You should be up there toward the front.' And then she was."

For a race, Van Allen keeps his instructions simple. Start strong the first 100 yards, then settle into a "comfortable" pace and pack up. Some races, he says, are won or lost in the first 35 seconds, when a runner gets off slow, suddenly finds herself in 100th place, then spends the rest of the race fighting through a congested pack on narrow trails. He tells the runners to push through the inevitable pain and try to delay the runner's high from released hormones until they need it most. His favorite two words are "not yet." He says, "You put yourself in a mindset where you focus on any positive. Get excited about that lap split. Get excited that you just extended your lead, or you picked someone off."

Start Van Allen talking about cross-country and his voice gets a little louder. "I think cross-country is the ultimate team sport," he says. "People might think much of it is based on individuals, but it's not. These races are about how the team feeds off one another and looks for each other on the course. Your score is not complete until that fifth person crosses the line"—only your top five finishers score points—"and you're out there in the unknown most of the time. Every course is different. You're packed together. There's more strategy than people give the sport credit for."

He has few rules. Don't be late or miss a practice. Listen to what the trainer says. Other than that, he says, the students police themselves. "The juniors and seniors who have gone through the culture of this team pass it down to freshmen and sophomores," he says. "They tell them, 'This is what you need to do to be successful.'"

Alex Doran doing squats in the varsity weight room.

Image caption: Alex Doran doing squats in the varsity weight room.

Image credit: Photography by Marshall Clarke

In a sense, each year's cross-country program begins on June 1. Van Allen and strength-and-conditioning coach Ryan Carr send out a three-month summer program to incoming freshmen and returning athletes that includes weightlifting, core training, and a weekly running schedule. And they run a lot. During the fall season, Monday will be a UA (upper-body aerobic) or threshold run. On Wednesday, an easier recovery run plus 45 minutes with a life jacket on, running in the deep-water training pool at the Newton White Athletic Center. Pool running serves to remove lactic acid from tired legs, and also improves technique. Then there are tempo runs, hill sprints, and other aerobic fun.

Tuesdays are killer. The runners meet at Goldfarb Gym to stretch and get their instructions for the day's workout. Then they're sent off to run 2 miles to the workout's location, either Baltimore's Druid Hill Park or Lake Montebello. On one early season Tuesday, Van Allen had them run a series of six or seven 1,000-meter loops around a hilly section of Druid Hill Park behind the Baltimore Zoo, with just short breaks between laps. He asked them to run the last two laps the hardest. When they're done, some collapse on the grass. Many gasp for air with their hands on their knees. One or two might duck off to the woods to discretely vomit. After practice, they run back to campus for a 45-minute weights or cross-training session. "Tuesdays are intense days," Van Allen says. "That's when we really beat them up. It's also the day that probably makes us the best."

On Sundays, they run long, anywhere from 10 to 16 miles. "But I preach so much to them, 'Don't get caught up in how many miles you're doing. You're not training for a marathon,'" Van Allen says. "We have certain goals, and that means we have certain days we need to take off. And if that means your mileage is going to take a drop, so be it. As a coach, I'm tracking what we're doing week to week." The goal every year is to stay healthy and be in peak fitness come late October on into November, working the slow burn toward championship weekend.

In cold, windy Louisville, the women, per their strategy, stay packed together. But the challenging course and conditions wear them down, and a few begin to fade near the end. Their faces show the pain of burning muscles as depleted oxygen levels produce lactic acid. Some collapse at the finish line, having pushed themselves to the breaking point. Meehan finishes in 17th place, followed by Koerner (20th), Natalia LaSpada (21st), Ellie Clawson (33rd), and Caroline Smith (37th). Before the final stretch, the leader board goes blank, leaving the crowd in the dark as to who won. Judging by their faces, the Johns Hopkins women looked defeated. But then the board lights up and displays the final official scores, with Johns Hopkins on top as national champion again. The worried faces turn to smiles as the women hug and jump and cry. Meehan's personal-best time of 21:10, also the fastest time in program history at the NCAAs, earns her All-America honors for the third consecutive season, making her the first three-time All-American runner in Johns Hopkins history. Then, in the men's meet, Johns Hopkins finishes eighth, the best result in program history. Ochstein records the team's top time at 24:59:08, the first Blue Jay to record a sub-25:00 time at the NCAA finals. Senior co-captain Tom Pavarini finishes second among the Jays with a PR of 25:12.06.

That night, the teams and parents celebrate with a victory dinner at a downtown Louisville restaurant. Van Allen, soon to be named NCAA Division III Women's Cross Country Coach of the Year for the fourth time, speaks, starting his remarks by thanking the 20 or so parents and family members who made the trip to Louisville, and 10 students who drove all night from Baltimore. (Most drive back the same day to return to classes. After all, this is Johns Hopkins.) "We're starting to represent pretty well at nationals," Van Allen says, "and it makes the world of difference to all of our athletes to have you guys here." After a chorus of applause, he adds, "It's safe to say today could have been the greatest day in Johns Hopkins cross-country history. So, without being able to celebrate with everyone here, it wouldn't have much meaning." Then Van Allen points out that for most of the athletes, training will begin anew in a couple of weeks for indoor track season.

During her father's speech, little Olivia Van Allen runs laps around the dinner table. Nobody is quite sure if she's just a 1-year-old enthralled with her newfound mobility, or if she's already auditioning for Coach Dad.

Greg Rienzi is a contributing writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine and a five-time marathoner.