This interview was written in early 2008, edited and truncated January, 2012.
Greg McMillan who operates adidas-McMillanElite in Flagstaff, Arizona – a post-collegiate training group for runners -McMillan started the adidas-McMillanElite program in 2007.
CK: Greg, I see that adidas, your primary sponsor, has committed to McMillanElite in a bigger way. Your first year must have produced some successes; can you share what some of those were?
GM: adidas has been very committed to our program from the outset and we are extremely grateful for their increased support. We’ve been lucky in our first year. The caliber of athlete that joined our group was higher than we expected and to date, nearly every athlete has run a PR or has placed well in championship events. Jordan Horn ran a PR in the 1,500m, Mike Hanlon ran a PR in the 8K National Championships, Brianna Torres ran PRs at 10K, half-marathon and the marathon (at the Olympic trials), Andrew Middleton was 11th at the 20K National Championships, Andrew Lemoncello ran a PR at the half-marathon and Brett Gotcher has placed in the top 10 in every US Road Championships he’s run and has dropped his track 10k PR by 24 seconds to 28:27.
That’s not to say everything has been perfect. We’ve made mistakes and learned a lot. We’ve had some poor performances and learned more about the often tough transition from collegiate running to post-collegiate running and how hard it is for emerging elite athletes to fully commit to the lifestyle that will take them to the top. But we knew this would happen and told the incoming athletes as much last year. We told them that the first year would be a learning year – us learning them, them learning us, as well as them learning how to be a post-collegiate runner. While our successes in year one have overall been good, we aren’t satisfied and feel that this second year, with the wonderful support of our sponsors, will be the tell-tell year. We are hopeful for some breakthrough performances and a large step forward for each athlete.
CK: Would you expand on the “physiological monitoring” you are now going to offer, what does it include?
GM: When we first wanted to set up a group, I talked at length with Coach Joe Vigil. I feel that what he and Coach Bob Larson did with Team Running USA is a great model for current and future groups. One aspect I always admired was how his Team Running USA group had done regular physiological testing. As an exercise physiologist, I enjoy the science of the sport and have wanted to mimic what Coach Vigil had done, so I put together a plan to treadmill test the athletes on a regular basis. We’ll look at the variables that are important to long distance running – the lactate profile, running economy, VO2max and velocity at VO2max. These mirror what Vigil did and will allow us to compare our athletes to his successful athletes and to other elite runners that have been similarly tested.
As I think Vigil would suggest, regular physiological monitoring can be very beneficial to the athlete. It shows, in objective ways, the improvements that come from years of consistent training and the areas where future training should focus to reap maximum results. The NAU Center for High Altitude Training here in Flagstaff not only has the lab for the testing, but also has on staff Dr. Jack Daniels, one of the world’s foremost physiologists for distance runners. As one of our sponsors, they have offered to provide the altitude testing we want to conduct and we will also look to have the athletes tested at sea level. This will be one part of what we think is a very comprehensive program, which thanks to the New York Road Runners Club and the Wharton Health Experience also includes regular massage and body work, to help the athletes fulfill their potential over the next few years.
CK: One of your great coaching influences is Arthur Lydiard. Do you embrace all aspects of Lydiard training?
GM: I was very lucky to spend the last week of Arthur’s life with him. We talked extensively about training, how his group of “Arthur’s Boys” worked together to become the world’s best and about how to apply his principles to US post-collegiate runners. In my opinion, Lydiard’s principles envelope every successful training program and what I learned from him (and he states this clearly in his books) as well as from his protege’s, Nobby Hashizume and Lorraine Moller is that the principles are the most important aspect and each coach should apply the principles to each runner’s situation. It’s not about a formula or a set program. Lydiard hated equations. Understanding the principles is the key and with this understanding, the coach creates the perfect training program for each athlete.
While talking with Arthur, it was clear that the key points are (1) the development, over years, of the aerobic system, (2) the correct ordering of the training phases to reach a peak at the key races and (3) teaching the runner to listen to his or her body and learn his or her own rhythms with training. Lorraine and Nobby explain it better than I can, but in our group, we follow Lydiard’s principles by building the aerobic base, adding hills to develop strength and power, then transitioning to race-specific training. I don’t think this is too much different than what most other coaches prescribe, but I hope that as we give it 2-3 years to fully develop, it will honor Lydiard and continue to show that what he learned nearly 50 years ago is the foundation for distance running success.
CK: Lydiard is known for unearthing and refining the method, that as you say envelope every successful training program. He was also known for his ability to understand and time the peak of an athlete with exquisite precision and also for imparting and sharing the principles he developed. I understand he was also a great motivator, being very passionate and could easily make people want to run by his love for the sport. Is this an intangible you need at McMillanElite or are the talented athletes there partly because of their own will to put in the necessary day-to-day training, while maintaining the shared, long term vision?
GM: No question. He was a special person. If you talk with anyone who ran for him, that’s what they’ll talk about – his ability to motivate the athlete. Vigil is very similar in that respect. I think every coach is trying to be more like these guys. I know I am. While I think there is a base level of self-motivation that all great athletes have, it is important that the athlete always have someone to help him or her through the good times and the bad times. And someone to tell them they can do it and to tell them this over and over and over, year-after-year. Since each athlete in our program is changing coaches, location, lifestyle, etc. I try to get to know each one and try to find out several things. What motivates the athlete? How does the athlete respond to good days and bad days? Do they need more pats on the back or more kicks in the pants? My approach is to try to adjust to each athlete and help him or her go beyond what is thought to be possible. I really like the work of Jerry Lynch and try to include his ideas along with those of great coaches like Lydiard and Vigil.
CK: Correct me if I am wrong here, I think Lydiard was not big on training at altitude. McMillanElite is based in Flagstaff, Arizona, at 7000 feet elevation. Is this one aspect of training where he may have been mistaken?
GM: You are correct. Lydiard said that altitude was not necessary to be a great distance runner. When speaking with him about it, it seemed that his stance on altitude was not so much that altitude itself was bad, but that he was frustrated that everyone was saying the East Africans dominated because they were at altitude. I suspect he got tired of this excuse as to why non-Africans weren’t successful, since his guys were successful without this excuse. He was not a man to make excuses and commented that instead of making excuses, we should focus on the miles and miles of aerobic development from a young age, the willingness to work hard and the living close to the earth that most East Africans enjoy/endure. This, to him, would be the reason for success and he did not like the perception that it was the altitude that was the reason. Having lived at altitude on and off for several years, I really enjoy the benefits, not just from a great stimulus of the aerobic system, that comes from living in a place like Flagstaff. The mountains are beautiful. The air and water are clean. The pace of life is very easy and the trails are amazing. This, to me, is a great environment for creating success.
CK: You mention the legendary names of Joe Vigil, Lorraine Moller and Dr. Jack Daniels and of course Lydiard’s legacy through Moller and Mr. Hashizume. With this level of coaching and advising, you must have very high expectations. Are the Beijing Olympics an indicator for McMillanElite you must be looking down the road towards other events beyond Beijing?
GM: Beijing has never been our goal. Nearly ever one of our athletes is not even one year removed from college. History shows that most of our Olympians in the distance events are several years out of college. So, the group was founded with the idea that Beijing was too soon and that emerging elite runners need a few years to develop the fitness, experience and mental confidence to compete at the international level. Therefore, London in 2012 and the 2016, 2020 Olympics are our ultimate goals. We hope to have athletes make World Championships along the way, but our focus is on developing future US Olympians in 2012 and beyond.
CK: How many McMillanElite athletes are you looking to build towards supporting at-one-time?
GM: Our goal from the start was to have between 15-20 total athletes (women and men) living and training in Flagstaff. We currently have 7 athletes (2 women and 5 men) in our group and have 2 more females already committed to joining us this summer. We are looking for 6-7 more athletes to add to our group over the next few months. The key for us, though, is finding not only talented and fast runners but runners that are a good fit for our group and how we operate. We believe in a long-term approach and that working in a group environment is the best approach (again, following Vigil’s model) and are looking for runners who believe likewise.
CK: Are you accepting international athletes?
GM: Not going forward. Our focus is on developing US athletes.
CK: Where can a prospective athlete find further information on McMillanElite.
GM: Andrew Middleton has done a great job with our website – mcmillanelite.com – and I think it provides a good look at our group and our philosophy.