Monday, January 28, 2013

Missoula Running - Yes, It Is A Zoo

The March edition of TrailRunner magazine hit subscribers and newsstands early last week.  And, inside is a great 7 page article by Rachel Toor on Missoula's position as a primo running community.  [There's also a nice profile and Q&A piece on Missoula's Mike Foote.  (You can see the Buzzard's own profile of Footie at]  Rachel lived in Missoula several years ago; and, is intimately familiar with the local runners, trails, haunts and hangouts.  She's also an excellent writer and was a perfect choice to put together a piece on Zootown.  And, I couldn't agree more with her assessment of the town that's just "up the river" from the Muddy Buzzard's roost.

Missoula is not a perfect place.  They're currently in the winter period that can see some inversions and marginal air quality.  There are the social-cultural battles between the newer, college-town, liberal ideas and the traditional, conservative, timber/ranching/agriculture positions.  There's a surprisingly large homeless population.  The economy is still struggling to come out of the Great Recession.

At the same time, from an active, healthy, fit, lifestyle perspective - it's a great place to be.  Trails.  Water.  Mountains.  Wildlife.  Winter Snow.  Running.  Biking.  Skiing.  Paddling.  Hiking.  Hunting.  Fishing.  Camping.  It's all-right there out your front door (or back door as the case may be).  And, trust me - if you want to engage in any of those endeavors, there are plenty of like minded people to share in your adventures.  But, since the Buzzard is all about running - let's get back to the points addressed in the TrailRunner article.

Long-story-short, Missoula has an incredible running community.  A community that has really come together since the opening of The Runner's Edge in 2001.  In many ways due to the vision and energy of store owner Anders Brooker, the disjointed bands of local runners began to come together and have shown the ability to do great things.  Cases in point:  Run Wild Missoula is 1,500 members strong and hosts more than a dozen local running events.  The Missoula Marathon is a first class event  and creates an energy around itself that is unrivaled in Montana.  Runner's Edge and Run Wild cooperate to host numerous classes, workouts, educational sessions and speaker events.  Boston and Missoula Marathon training classes are a yearly staple.  Back Of The Pack and Galloway training groups have been developed to make sure that all levels of runner are supported and encouraged.  Monthly pub runs provide a fun, social opportunity.

But, most importantly is the support of and by the running community.  Hundreds turn out for speakers like Scott Jurek and Micah True.  Volunteers turn out in droves for major events like the Missoula Marathon, Mountain West Classic and Roots Festival 4-Mile.  Run Wild Missoula returns tens of thousands of dollars to Youth and Community Health & Wellness programs.  Having been around this environment for over 5 years now, I can honestly state that it is perhaps the healthiest, strongest running community in the Inland Northwest.  Seriously - although population dictates smaller numbers, Missoula is on par with better known running environments like Boulder, Eugene, Madison, Portland, etc.

With all that it has going for it, you would think that Missoula would be ripe to also have a powerhouse collegiate distance program.  Great roads and trails for training.  Reasonably cool in the summer and generally mild winters.  A dash of altitude - with higher elevation training a short distance away.  An NCAA Division 1 university right in the heart of the city - a university that is has some well established and successful academic programs.  And, as we've established - a large, organized and supportive running community.  One that would appear to be primed and ready to jump on board with a top level NCAA distance program (from all ends - volunteers, recruiting, financially).

And, in the past they've have, in fact, seen some success.  With runners like Tom Raunig, Dave Gordon, Dave Morris, Anthony Ford, Scott McGowan, Shelley Smathers and Katrina Drennan.  But, those days are now just a distant memory.  What we are now left with is a dysfunctional program that appears to be in tatters.

It seemed to really fall apart about the time that the school decided to part ways with Tom Raunig in 2007.  Tom was a passionate, knowledgeable and well-versed coach.  Sure, he had his shortcomings (like we all do); but, as a Grizzly alum, he was fully committed to the program.  The primary problem is that the school wasn't (and still isn't).  Coaching salary was (and is) an issue.  Program funding was (and is) an issue.  Lack of facilities (i.e. indoor track) was (and is) an issue.  Ultimately, Tom got to the point where he recognized that things were unlikely to get better in the short-term; and, decided that he had enough.  He left the school and took a teaching position at the University of Great Falls.  (The whole situation left such a bad taste in his mouth that Tom has not returned to coaching.)

Then began the process of finding his replacement as head XC coach and track's distance coach.  They screwed around and screwed around and got to the process way too late in the game.  Multiple people were interviewed (several of them very qualified) - but, between the poor salary and the lag in making a decision, they all declined offers, withdrew from consideration or took positions elsewhere.  That left them with no XC coach as they started to roll into summer.  Through some more ministrations, with sub-plots that are too detailed to go into here, they ultimately offered the job to Courtney Babcock (who accepted the position).

Courtney was an elite athlete, having represented her home nation of Canada at the Olympics, World Track Championships and World XC Championships.  By all appearances, she appears to have a good knowledge of training methodology; but, she had not previously been a coach (and certainly not at the Division 1 collegiate level).  However, she was a local (living and training in Missoula as part of the Mountain West club); she was available; and, she was a convenient solution to a messy situation.  So, UM took the easy way out and set the table to be able to continue to under-fund and under-support the XC and track programs.  (And, in retrospect - probably did not give Courtney the tools or resources to be successful.)

By all accounts, Courtney appeared to be well-received by the kids; and, seems to be competent in her training and hands-on coaching methods.  I can tell you that she is very well liked in the larger Missoula running community.  She is active in many Run Wild Missoula and Runner's Edge events - including coaching Tuesday night track workouts.  She continues to compete on occasion.  She is a nice and pleasant woman.

But, as with us all, she had some weaknesses.  One appeared to be on the administrative side (which, I can tell you from personal experience is a challenge).  And, she appeared to be especially weak on the recruiting side.  As Raunig's last recruiting class worked their way though and out of the program, the team and individual performance quality began to slip.  This slippage had created a bit of a tenuous situation with regards to Courtney's position.

Because of this, reports have it that a successful local high school coach had been approached to assist Courtney with the XC and distance program (to replace Phil Keller - who departed to coach XC in New Mexico).  Courtney's goal was to create a coaching team that could restore the university's program to respectability.  Just a short couple of weeks ago, everything seemed to be falling into place for the program to begin a new, positive, upward climb.

And, then,within the last week - it all just unravelled.  Although not publicly released yet (to my knowledge), word has it that Courtney's coaching contract is not being renewed by the university.  The suggestion has been that the program will not hire a true head XC coach.  Rather, they'll make it an assistant coaching position (XC and distance track) under the Director of T&F.  And, there appears to be no long range plan for any real, significant changes to the funding and/or support of the XC or T&F programs.  There also appears to be no word on what, if any, process will take place to replace this vacancy.  Rather, there has been some rumor that it may be simply be rolled into the responsibilities of the existing middle-distance track coach.  The end result - a head coach out of a job; a prospective assistant coach who stayed with his high school program; and, a program in turmoil and headed towards mediocrity.  A true lose-lose-lose situation.  And, a pretty clear message that UM is not really interested in XC or distance track being a priority.

And, while this is all going on, UM released their report of the academic performance of the athletics programs for the 2012 fall semester.  Highest team for average and credit-hours per student?  The women's XC team.  The men's XC team and both the track teams had averages above 3.00.  So, here you have a group of true student-athletes.  Kids that don't get in trouble.  Kids that do nothing but earn an education and bring pride and honor to the university.  And, what do they get in return - they get marginal funding, inadequate support and dysfunctional programs.  Clearly, the school is not that interested in athletic program development outside of the football and basketball programs.

And, you know, I'm a realist.  I know that FB and BB are the honey-holes for high school, collegiate and pro sports.  I know that's where the bulk of the resources will go.  Hell, even at Oregon, football is much, much, much bigger than XC or track.  But, that doesn't mean that the rest of the sports should get nothing but lip service and be included at the school for no other reason than to satisfy NCAA Division 1 regulations and eligibility criteria.  As I've already said, the elements are all present for UM to have a first class, nationally competitive XC and distance track program.  Boulder (Colorado) does it.  Eugene (Oregon) does it.  Madison (Wisconsin) does it.  So do Stanford, Arkansas, Michigan and Oklahoma State.  Within the Big Sky Conference, Northern Arizona has been able to do it.  So, I ask - why not Montana?

I can tell you, it definitely won't happen if the community (Missoula and beyond) just let's things continue as status quo.  There needs to be some pressure applied to the university administrative and athletics departments know that we expect and deserve something more.  Something better.  Something great.

Now, I know that there are bigger problems facing our nation, state and city.  But, I honestly believe that athletics can be a valuable part of the high school and college educational process.  Lessons in hard work, team building, overcoming adversity, goal setting and time management all come into play.  And, with adequate support, you can learn what it's like to work to achieve excellence.  Priceless lesson all.  And, I obviously have a passion for this sport and have personally seen all of these lessons at play.  That's why I took the time to put his down in writing.  Seeing great opportunities being tossed away was just too frustrating and I had to share my thoughts.

So, if you believe that the the student-athletes in the Montana XC and distance programs deserve something more - let your voices be heard.  Be civil.  Be polite.  Be reasonable.  Be honest.  But.........Be Heard.

See you on the roads, tracks and trails.

The Muddy Buzzard.

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