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Ole Miss cross country can make history at this year’s NCAA championship meet

Coach Ryan Vanhoy and the Rebel distance men are relaxed heading into Nats.

Josh McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics

Ole Miss’ head distance coach Ryan Vanhoy readily admits that he wasn’t a standout distance runner at North Carolina, which is true of most of us. “I was a walk-on athlete at the University of North Carolina; I wasn’t a very good athlete, spent most of my career injured.”

As a collegiate distance coach, however, he stands out as the greatest endurance mind in Ole Miss track history.

At just north of 30 years old, Vanhoy has already cut a wide berth across NCAA distance running’s landscape from Oxford, Miss., and he’s taking his best Rebel squadron yet into Madison, Wisc. for this year’s NCAA cross country championship meet.

Like the writer of this story, Vanhoy weathered injury issues and depth chart realities that frustrated him onto NCAA distance running’s sidelines as an athlete. Thereafter he served as a student assistant in his final undergraduate days at UNC, then moved up to a paid coaching position at Chapel Hill until 2012, then worked a short post as head man at Northeastern in Boston.

Vanhoy found a home in Oxford in 2013. His connections in the NCAA track and field world at last cemented him a distance guru spot at Ole Miss, where’s he’s steadily improved the Rebel running outfit’s regional and national profile by regular and marked increments. Recruiting, especially — both domestic and abroad — has improved by bounds since the program’s abysmal years through the early 2000s, and that attention to distance running success has paid off this season with the program’s first ever SEC conference title.

Vanhoy has this season earned both SEC men’s coach of the year and NCAA South Region men’s coach of the year honors. And with good reason, because this year Vanhoy has the Ole Miss men’s XC cadre poised to grab their highest national finish ever in Rebel cross country history. And it’s within their grasp.

I spoke with Vanhoy on Wednesday evening as the Ole Miss men’s and women’s XC teams packed up to travel to Madison for Saturday morning’s competition to be crowned 2018’s fastest unpaid humans in the United States.

Vanhoy’s diligence in recruiting has assembled this particular team.

Ole Miss’ top seven features a number of international runners, which is common in NCAA XC. American cross country programs offer robust facilities and fitness support, high-level competition, racing experience against that competition, and inroads to American sponsorship opportunities after leaving school, like with Adidas, Nike, New Balance, and Under Armour.

Sponsorship deals are typically what make one a “professional” runner; it’s a sick, capitalist bit of life — how much is your heart worth? — but that’s how professional distance running works.

Coach Vanhoy excels at recruiting.

“Some of our best runners have been Americans, but some of our best runners have been abroad,” Vanhoy says of the team’s current and recently past makeup. He’s targeted runners domestic and international (and, critically, from the transfer ranks) that have competed at the World and European Cross Country Championships, because the experience gained from such a high level of international competition translates well to the American collegiate system’s cycle of weekly races across the fall XC season into the winter indoor track window and thence to spring outdoor meets.

This is a three-season sport, and the American academic year spans those three seasons.

How then has the team’s development over the past three seasons resulted in this year’s success?

I ask Vanhoy about how this three-year build has led to his club destroying opponents and he laughs. “Last two years, we’ve graduated big stars, five All-Americans ... world-class athletes have pulled in others.” The success and camaraderie of previous years’ teams produces future and improved outfits, to his mind.

Vanhoy, for his part, spares few words in conversation and does not bullshit. It’s unsurprising his men and women respond well. A distance runner’s task is laser focused — it’s not lonely, though, despite Rudyard Kipling’s mythologizing — and a boss that will point one in the right direction at the right speed and for the right amount of time is a trustworthy authority.

Vanhoy tells me both the men’s and women’s outfits are loose and ready. Though the rest of the country may strike surprise at the Rebs’ collective success this year, he feels comfortable in the teams’ development. They started winning meets, then more meets, then “it took on a life of its own from there.” “It was just a matter of time,” he says of the men’s SEC championship, “of how we were gonna put it together on the day.”

The team’s ethos is now firmly and rightfully trained on Madison on Saturday.

The Rebs’ collective fitness allows for them to run at the front of every race they run, which is a marked advantage. How did Vanhoy get seven guys to run fast as hell at the front of every field they’ve faced?

“Pretty much our top group of five has trained together every day ... I think we have a group of guys whose fitness levels are fairly even,” Vanhoy says, matter of fact, and it is a matter of fact. At the SEC championships, this shop finished collectively five runners in the top 11.

“Our top group of five [scorers] has trained together all season [with] the same splits, the tempo runs ... within practice, they’ve been in arms’ reach of each other every workout.” This here is smart strategy, because it forces Ole Miss’ seven-man platoon to run together every tempo workout. If you want to score together, you have to run together. If you have to run together, why not train together?

It’s remarkable that Vanhoy has pressed down on his XC men to run platoon-like. “Where guys draft away [in practice] ... we try not to encourage that type of work. We preach: train together and keeping everybody as a group.” Distance running is an individual event, yes, but the sport of cross country is a team event, and Vanhoy has geared seven separate runners to run astride each other in every workout they undergo — be it 300 meter repeats or a full 10 kilometer race.

Ole Miss’ top two placers aren’t holding back at nationals, though.

Vanhoy’s strategy of clumping his guys together at SECs and Regions does not fully apply at Nats. Waleed Suliman and Farah Abdulkarim — two of the best distance runners in the NCAA — have free reign to drag down the Rebels’ score as much as they can, all by their lonesomes.

A top 40 finish on Saturday earns a runner All-American honors, and Vanhoy sees both gunning for that finishing line. “We have a couple of guys that are going to try to run in the top 40,” he says, and yes, Suliman and Abdulkarim should set out together to do that. They’ve trained together, they’ve raced together, they’ve run together.

Run shoulder-to-shoulder and see who wins.

What’s the team’s starting position?

It’s 39th, which is somewhat far to the right of the starting field’s center. Vanhoy feels relieved because a right-side start won’t funnel Ole Miss into the middle of traffic at the start of the race. Starting wide will allow the guys to bunch together early and then start moving through the pack as the field strings out along the course. Your boys won’t lose each other, they’ll just run a 1,000 meter exercise with one another and regroup.

Prediction for the national meet?

Coach Vanhoy would be thrilled with a top 10 finish, and we would be too. That would be the best cross country national performance in program history. This is already the best Ole Miss XC team in program history.

Is a hot dog a sandwich?

“Yes,” Vanhoy says, and chuckles.