Johns Hopkins Women's XC Takes Fourth National Title

The Johns Hopkins Blue Jays captured their fourth NCAA XC 
National Championship in November (Photo / JHU)

Baltimore - On November 19, the Johns Hopkins University women's cross country team won its fourth NCAA Division III national championship in five years. All four have come under head coach Bobby Van Allen, who also leads the Blue Jays' men's cross country team and men's and women's track teams.

Van Allen joined the Hopkins staff in 1999 as an assistant coach and was promoted to head coach later that year. He is a former University of Maryland runner, where he earned All-East cross country honors and was also an ACC finalist in the 1,500-meters. Four days after JHU captured the national championship, he was named the USTFCCCA Coach of the Year. It was the fourth time Van Allen has earned the honor.

The head coach recently shared his thoughts with Fieldhouse on how Hopkins develops a cross country champion in a major city, the unique facility partnership it has with Loyola University Maryland, and how by placing academics first his runners also become better competitors. The interview was conducted over the phone and edited for length and clarity. - TF

Fieldhouse: For the second time in three years, I've been at a Hopkins football playoff game and heard the crowd roar when they announced over the loudspeaker that the women's cross country team had just won the national championship. 

Van Allen: I certainly never thought that this would be happening one day, but we'll take it.

Fieldhouse: When did you first start to get the feeling that Hopkins could be an upper echelon program? Now you've even surpassed that and are the top team in the country. 

Van Allen: It was probably right in the 2009-2010 range when we started to see a change in the culture of our program. The girls were really buying into the training and committing themselves to succeeding. At that point, winning our conference championship wasn't good enough for them.

We made our first trip to the NCAAs in 2007 and then started becoming regulars there. The team then really started to focus on getting onto the podium. We wanted to "finish" and we were able to do that for the first time in 2012. That set a new bar that became our goal every year.

No matter who you have, and this crew is completely different from when we won our first one, that's still the goal that we have going into the season.

Fieldhouse: What are your primary running routes in Baltimore City and what would you say makes for a good urban runner?

Van Allen: Fortunately Hopkins is nestled in that very northern part of the city. So we pretty much run in every direction but south because we'd be stuck on the sidewalk and behind traffic lights. There are really a lot of places to run in all three other directions.

We do a lot of stuff on the Stony Run Trail; that's a nice dirt trail that runs from Hopkins north up to Gilman School and southwest over to Druid Hill Park. So that four-mile stretch we incorporate into a lot of our distance runs.

There is a lot of stuff at Lake Roland Park; there are about 10 miles of trails back in there. Most of our cross country workouts are over in Druid Hill. We've got three different grass sections where we have anywhere from 800-meter to 2,000-meter loops that we use.

We also have Lake Montebello, Druid Hill Lake, and all the neighborhoods, through Roland Park, down Cold Spring, and to the Arboretum. There is quite a lot that we have to choose from compared to most city schools that are more downtown-based.

Hopkins' runners at the 2016 NCAA DIII Championships (Photo / JHU)

Fieldhouse: Is there a hurdle in trying to describe to a potential recruit a city that they may think of as a pretty industrial place and not conducive to running distance?

Van Allen: The biggest thing that we try to do is to get them on campus and show them first-hand. If they're interested in the school, or if they're looking at top academic schools, we hope that we'd be in the mix. The combined success of the track & field and cross country programs means that I can usually get them on campus to show them everything and the places that we run.

We try to talk about the opportunities that they would have with research internships within the city that they might not have at more remote campuses.

We have a diversity of trails to run, and we certainly showcase the best of what Baltimore can offer. The biggest part is trying to get them here on campus so I can explain my philosophy and training expectations and how it coincides with their academic priorities.

If we can do that, I think we have at least a good chance of having them come here. The biggest obstacle is getting them accepted.

Fieldhouse: Johns Hopkins built a track facility with Loyola University Maryland. How did that come about? Are you able to train with Loyola?

Van Allen: I started in 1999, and at that point we had a four-lane track around Homewood Field. It was very challenging to get our workouts in without getting hit by footballs or lacrosse balls or soccer balls at times. When there were games or competitions, we couldn't use the track at all.

In 2004, we renovated all of Homewood Field. We put that artificial turf in, we widened the field, and that's when [athletic director] Tom Calder talked to me about trying to look for a place to build a new track and get rid of the one at Homewood.

So those talks started that year. Loyola came into the picture because at the same time they were trying to fund a project of building a track themselves off [Baltimore's] Northern Parkway. It was going to be very expensive, so it made sense for both them and us. We can now both run to the facility.

As far as training with one another, that doesn't happen. Even when we're sharing a track with Loyola, there are different NCAA parameters that we have to follow that would prohibit us from practicing with them.

Fieldhouse: What are the limitations? That you're not competing?

Van Allen: Yes. We can talk, we can be there together, but if we're doing the same workout together, then in a sense we're competing against one another.

Fieldhouse: Baltimore weather can vary quite a bit during one cross-country season, from brutally hot to cold. You get kids coming to Hopkins from all over the country. How do you acclimate them to running there?

Van Allen: You nailed it as far as our kids coming from all different places. We've had a couple from Alaska and a couple from Hawaii as well.

A lot of adjusting is just trying to have the flexibility to train earlier or later in the day when it's cooler. It becomes a little more difficult after classes get started, and we're really at the mercy of the class schedule. That puts us practicing around 4 o'clock most days, and that end of August - early part of September period is pretty challenging.

On our most intense days, early in the year, we're trying to do a lot of those in the morning. We get up and start things around 6:30 AM and get them done before it gets too hot.

Fieldhouse: At Hopkins, they're facing a heavy academic load in the classroom. How do you balance that with running? 

Van Allen: We start talking about this very early in the recruiting process. We emphasize that we're not really trying to get them to have equal time or have them balance their academics and athletics. They hear it from me early on - their academics or anything related to career goals or to internships or research are really their top priorities.

It really reduces the amount of stress by allowing our team to be that second priority after they've gotten everything done. I think a lot of it is managing stress levels and we have a great support system with our office of academic advising, study groups, and pilot programs. I just try to help encourage and foster that.

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