Q: The Best College for H.S. Runner with Eyes on Pros?

Dear Lauren,

What should elite high school runners with an eye to a possible pro distance career look for in a college running program? Which program would you choose, if you had to choose now? Who’s the best coach in the right place at the right time? Which program combines the best academic/athletic combination? Would you have benefited from leaving your home state?




Writing you from Bend. Happy Holidays Michmobile!

Hey Michmobile-

If you want to be a pro after college, being a talented athlete isn’t enough.  Choosing a great college running program also isn’t enough.  You need a college program that brings out all the best qualities of the athlete and minimizes all their faults.  You need a personal fit.

As a distance runner, I’d look at the most recent five years’ results at the NCAA Cross Country and Track National Championships.  I’d look at the patterns for programs that have success in both (either with individuals or as a whole team).  Make a list of those top programs and see how they’ve done the past few years.  Depending on what you’re looking for, you might want a program with sudden success (generally more scholarships available) or a program that’s always good (proven environment of success).

If a college is experiencing sudden and recent success at the NCAA level, I’d first look and see if its due to a fairly new coach.  If so, this could be a real gold mine: lots of personal attention, early career ambition for the coach, etc. As a girl, however, I’d take a good look at running photos of the athletes from their conference and NCAA meet and see if their sudden improvements are related instead to a dominant team trend of being overly thin, and if so, I’d tread lightly.  This success might be fleeting.  But not all skinny runners have issues, as I learned at Stanford, so if you really love everything about the place except the fact that everyone is freakishly thin, go on a recruiting trip there.  You’ll have lots of meal opportunities to see what the food environment is like.  If everyone orders a salad with no dressing at a burger place after talking about how great the burgers are for the previous four hours, run for the hills.

That brings me to the most important thing to look for on your recruiting trip if you want college to set you up for a future pro career:  team environment.  What does the team do “for fun?”  Are they capable of more than binge drinking on weekends?  A little facebook research can tell you that much.  Do they encourage each other to be successful or do they take the legs out from one another?  Look for an environment of support and the right mix of having fun and being focused.  On your recruiting trip, ask various runner’s about OTHER runners on the team, and see if (the occasional weirdo withstanding) they talk each other up, rather than down.

Big or Small Program?

When I was recruited, I decided to visit dominant, deep running programs with long histories of success.  I didn’t care if I was #3 or #4 on a team if it meant we were all running with the top in the nation.  If you come from a deep high school team, like I did at Canyon, the transition to this type of competitive environment is easier.

Smaller programs that produce a good individual or two, every 1-2 years are worth a serious look as well.  You don’t have to be on a great “team.”  These places do well due to a special coach, so make sure you find out if they intend to stay for several years before going there.  High school athletes who are worried about drowning in a large program, or do best when they are #1 on a team, or are very high maintenance should strongly consider this option over a powerhouse school with 20+ athletes on the team.

The Intangibles:

Whether you want to be a pro-runner or not, pick a place you’d like to live and study if you couldn’t run, because no matter how big your goals are, sports are ruthless and competitive seasons are lost to injuries every day.  You don’t have to love the place or the location…many people move after graduating anyway.  But there needs to be at least three or four things that draw you there.  Make sure you get along with a few people on the team, and you are passionate about getting a degree there (even if you don’t know the specifics yet).  These things will pull you through the ups and downs of sport.

I could do a three part series on this question, because I didn’t even get to coach/athlete relations or scholarships.  If there is interest, I’ll write some more next time.  But hopefully this is a good start for you, despite the fact that I managed to avoid listing specific schools :).  This is a question best answered by helping people ask the right questions.

Any outside opinions on this subject are welcomed…if you’ve been a recruited athlete in the past and have advice to give, please comment!