The F-M Story Pivots on the Mind
--First in a Five-Part Series--
A MileSplit Exclusive first look at the themes and stories from the upcoming book about the most successful HS distance running program of the past two decades.
Where were you on the afternoon of October 9, 2004?
It was then that a high school team from upstate New York, Fayetteville-Manlius, changed distance running. It was then, at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, the cradle of American cross-country, that this unheralded team of boys placed 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th at the Manhattan Invitational against national power Christian Brothers Academy of New Jersey-a perfect 15 points for F-M, a shutout of CBA, a shock to all who witnessed it, a revolution that would continue to the present day. F-M scorers averaged 32 seconds per man faster than those of CBA.
It was then that some new and powerful force was unleashed that seemed impossible to pin down. The coach, Bill Aris, referred to "Stotan," an old idea wrought new. Stotan, said Aris, was a way to live and act and think, a way to elevate running not so much with more miles or speed but, first, with more beliefs: that the young person growing up could be different, stronger; one with grace and humility, one who submerges the self in favor of the community. That is, the team.
That day at Van Cortlandt, as shocked as anyone watching Tommy Gruenewald, Owen Kimple, Jared Burdick, John Heron and Andrew McCann cross the finish in close order-five boys I'd never heard of; three juniors, one sophomore and one senior-I spoke briefly with Aris for the first time and came away thinking, "Stotan? Hmmm..."
By then I had been covering cross-country closely for some 40 years, since my own high school running on those same Bronx paths in the early nineteen-sixties, and felt that what these upstate youngsters from the Syracuse area did that day cried out for journalistic scrutiny. I began my quest for the answers to, "how did they do it?"
At the time, I knew nothing of the squad's pivotal summer camp in the Adirondacks two months earlier. And when the F-M girls began their domination in 2006-winning 11 of the last 13 Nike Cross Nationals team championships, some by over 100 points, some by close to 60 seconds per girl-I knew nothing of how these girls were empowered with gender equity or how in some years personality clashes, male or female, threatened to undermine the entire enterprise.
As I watched the team over the years and spoke with Aris and the athletes, I picked up nuggets of insight here and there but was left with more questions than answers. One idea, however, always stayed with me: when Aris said that 80 percent of his coaching efforts were devoted to "emotional development," and that he engaged the mind and body as one.
I would learn a couple of years ago when I started working on my book about Fayetteville-Manlius, to be published in August, that the term "80 percent" had multiple meanings in the F-M covenant. It's often said that even when delivering a supreme effort few runners actually surpass 80 percent of what they have to give. One-hundred percent--is that even possible? Fayetteville's emotional development, cultivated in countless ways, produces efforts beyond 80 and at times probably hits 100.
"We live in that 20 percent," four-time NXN championship team member Jenna Farrell told me when we spoke about her experiences for the book, titled "Amazing Racers: The Story of America's Greatest Running Team and Its Revolutionary Coach."
In 2010, Christie Rutledge, the eventual runner-up, leads the F-M girls to their fifth straight victory with a record low 27 points at Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Alan Versaw)
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That exclusive residence beyond 80 is why, in 2010, the Fayetteville girls could score 27 points at NXN and defeat the entire national field of team runners if assembled as one all-star unit. That is why, in the worst mud ever in 2012, the girls could triumph by 144 points. That is why in 2014, the victorious girls could finish with an 11-second spread and, with the boys' triumph by an NXN record margin of 48 points at the time, Fayetteville-Manlius could sweep the national team championships. Jenna Farrell was the girls' number-4 F-M scorer that December day. Olivia Ryan, Annika Avery and Sophie Ryan were barely a stride ahead of her; Samantha Levy was a few strides behind.
What is this Aris-constructed mind-body deliverance all about? While it features many catch phrases like "Pain is the purifier" (borrowed from Aris' coaching hero, Percy Cerutty) and "shared suffering," each of the F-M pearls has layers of meaning in which psychology and philosophy, history and art, are built, hill by hill and lecture by lecture, into a higher consciousness at the squad's Green Lakes State Park training site. Pain is the purifier-how is this bold concept presented to teenagers? The answer-a broad, multi-faceted teaching process-cannot be expressed in a few words.
Teaching is, after all, a complex endeavor, especially if you're reaching for new territory.
No matter what strand of pain-is-the-purifier or mind-body empowerment is considered, it cannot be distilled without a complete understanding of the entire Aris canvas and a penetrating look into how Aris addresses his athletes: the words and conveyance have an enriching, transformative power that is played out in every workout, every race--every call to arms to stand up to the Stotan principles of living that Cerutty promulgated with Herb Elliott some sixty years before. It's "the grand orchestration," as another four-time NXN team champion, Mackenzie Carter, expressed it to me.
While this book gave me an opportunity to delve into issues close to my heart, I don't think I would have appreciated Aris' probing of the mind nearly as well had I not had my own mind-body transformation a decade before the F-M boys' emergence with their '04 Van Cortlandt sweep. Suffice it to say that, at a time of midlife despair, I learned from a brilliant physician the life-altering power of one's thoughts and emotions, and was restored to well-being. I would use these revelations in my running; and as well with the former F-M athletes I spoke with in order to help illuminate every Aris touch and the tensile beauty of his orations, which began in August of 2004 at a remote mountain hideaway called Lake Bonaparte. The F-M athletes had no idea what their coach had in store for them.
Tomorrow: F-M Gender Equity
Marc Bloom was the editor of four national running magazines including Harrier XC, which led to the start of NXN and Great American. "Amazing Racers," Bloom's tenth book, will be published August 6 by Pegasus Books. That same day, on Tuesday, Aug. 6, the book will be launched with a Barnes & Noble event in the Syracuse area, at the branch in DeWitt. Bloom and Aris will speak and sign books. Former F-M athletes will be in attendance. All are welcome. "Amazing Racers" can be purchased at Amazon and wherever books are sold.