Interview with Alicia Craig
by Erik Heinonen

Alicia Craig on her way to a sixth-place finish at the 2003 NCAA Cross Country Championships.
(Both Photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
Craig with Coach Dena Evans after the race.

Alicia Craig of Stanford University made it three All-America performances in three cross country seasons with a sixth-place finish at last month's NCAA Championships in Waterloo, Iowa. Craig's second-consecutive top-10 run — she was third in 2002 — helped propel the Cardinal to its first team title since 1996, and brought a close to a strong year for the junior from Gillette, Wyoming. Earlier in the fall, she posted an NCAA Pre-National Invitational win on the same Northern Iowa course, finished lockstep with teammate Sara Bei at the Pac-10 Conference Championships and won the NCAA Western Regional.

A graduate of Campbell County High School, annually one of the nation's top programs under now-retired coach Orville Hess, Craig won two Wyoming state cross country titles and was a twice a Foot Locker finalist, with a best finish of third in 1999. On the track, she won the mile at the Golden West Invitational as a junior and senior, and recorded a personal best of 4:46.57.

In her first year at Stanford, Craig finished 28th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, but redshirted her indoor and outdoor track seasons because of a knee injury. Once healthy, Craig made an immediate impact on the track as redshirt freshman in 2003. Coming off her third-place showing at the NCAA Cross Country meet the previous fall, she took third over 5,000m at the NCAA Indoor Championships in Fayetteville (15:43.04) and also clocked one of the nation's fastest times at 3,000m (9:07.88). Outdoors, she lowered her 5,000 PR to 15:25.77 at the Mt. San Antonio College Relays, becoming the fifth-fastest collegian all-time in the event, then ran away from a strong field to win the NCAA 10,000m title in 32:40.03, the fastest winning mark 15 years. A human biology major, Craig was a Pac-10 All-Academic selection and a member of U.S. Cross Country Coaches Association All-Academic team in 2002.

FW: It looked like you made an early attempt to go after Shalane Flanagan at nationals but ended up running on your own most the way. Can you you take us through the race from your point of view?
From a team perspective, it was amazing. That was what we had planned on doing and it was really neat to see it come to pass. Just having a plan and having our team execute it, and seeing so many people have positive races, was really exciting. The freshmen especially were so excited going into it. I really enjoyed their enthusiasm. From an individual perspective, my race plan didn't really pan out the way I had planned for it to, so that was a little disappointing. But, I guess I accomplished one of two goals I had for the race, which was good.

FW: What were those two goals?
Winning the team race, and individually I would have liked to have done better, but I kind of put myself in an awkward position really early on in the race and it didn't really change much after that. That's okay [though]; I definitely learned a lot.

FW: Going in, did you feel like Shalane (Flanagan) was beatable, or is she just on a different level than everybody else right now?
I don't know; that's hard to gauge. She's an amazing runner, that's for sure. I wanted to give myself a chance to try to run with her, but I put myself out of it about a minute into the race, and it was kind of unattainable. She's very talented, and I'm thankful for her presence because she's helping everyone to rise to a new level.

FW: A lot of people seemed to be making a big deal of the cold weather in the days leading up to the race. Looking back, do you feel like that was much of a factor in how things played out?
It's unfortunate that they hold the meet in a place like [Northern Iowa] where the the weather is like that, because it affects some people more than others. But it's better having everyone go to a really cold environment than a really hot one, because it's easier to adjust that way, and we all had to go out and run in the same temperature. It's just part of the race. It's not really a big deal; it's just like running a really hilly race. Some people are really affected by hills. But in a way, I really like the weather being that way, and our team was pretty excited to run in the cold.

FW: Going in, what did you think it would take team-wise to beat BYU, and the rest of the field?
We knew we had to have five girls have a good day, or at least run within the window of acceptability, and not have anybody fall off at 4k. We weren't really sure though. (Stanford coach) Dena (Evans) really had us focusing on being the best we could on that day. I know that's cliché. A lot of runners say, 'I just want to do the best I can,' but seriously, that's all we could do. We didn't really know how good BYU was or any of the other teams, and how it would pan out for them on that particular day. But, I do feel like we honestly beat them because they didn't have anybody blow up during the race or anything like that; everyone ran pretty consistently. So, that was encouraging.

FW: When you guys found out the team score for the first time, did you celebrate right away or did what happened last year, with your team being announced the unofficial winner then BYU ending up with the title, keep you on edge for a while longer?
(Our coach) Dena (Evans) was like,'Don't get excited. Don't even get excited until we're on the award stand,' because of what happened to the guys team two years ago and last year with us. We just tried to calm ourselves down.

FW: Have there been a lot of adjustments to be made this year with Lauren Fleshman's graduation?
Not really, because she has been around. She hasn't done a lot of the workouts with us, because when we got to Mammoth (for training camp) she was taking her break and has been a step behind us training-wise. Towards the middle part of the season, we were able to do pace runs and 1,000s together...and she travels to some of the races with us. It's been nice; I'm so thankful to have her around.

FW: That said, do you feel like you've had to take on more of a leadership role with the coaching transition and having a big group of new girls coming in?
It's definitely been a lot different this year, seeing that we don't have any seniors. Essentially us juniors are the seniors, so it was quite a bit different having 10 freshman and only four upperclassmen. It makes me feel a little more responsible during the competition for more than just my own personal race — trying to think how to get this person to not to be so nervous and this person to run the last 1,000m hard. I like it though, it's a good position to be in.

FW: What's changed with Dena as the head coach compared to Vin Lananna?
Training-wise, I wouldn't say that much has changed. But, when you have two people telling you something to do, sometimes what you're actually supposed to do can get a little bit skewed, having two lines of communication. Just having Dena has cleared things up a little bit, not that the situation we had before was a bad one, but that's one aspect that's changed. She's doing an awesome job. I really do miss having Coach Lananna around, but she is certainly doing a great job of taking care of all of us. She knows everything about us and she's very invested in us. It's great.

FW: What was your reaction to Vin leaving this past summer?
I had no idea he was going to leave. I think more people off our team saw it coming than the people on the team. It really took me by surprise, but it ended up being okay. Coach Gerard is doing a great job, and one thing Coach Lananna made an effort of doing was setting up the environment so that it could run without him. I don't know that that was necessarily his intention, but by surrounding himself with a good staff and a sustainable network, it worked out really well. So much of what he did is still there.

FW: How did the freshman handle it, given that they were recruited by Lananna?
Actually, they were mostly recruited by Dena. She does most of the recruiting and Coach Lananna [did] the final touch-ups of the recruiting process. They were fine with it. They didn't know any different as far as what it was like to have him there or not have him there.

FW: Have you thought much ahead to the track season and whether you will focus on the 5,000 or the 10,000?
Probably, my biggest focus is going to be running the 10,000 in July (at the Olympic Trials). Outside of that, I'm not really sure...

FW: How will that affect your indoor and the early part of the spring season?
If anything, it will just mean racing less and doing a little more base work.

FW: How would you compare your fitness going into the NCAA Cross Country meet this fall to where you were last year?
That was the disappointing thing. I know that I was in much better shape. I know my fitness was good, and it's frustrating to get done with a race and feel like you didn't run to your level of fitness. It was encouraging, though, to know I was in better shape and that I'm getting stronger every year.

FW: That's kind of where I'm going with this. What do you feel has been the key to making pretty steady progress since you arrived as a freshman?
I remember last year before USA Nationals, Lauren and I were doing a shakeout before the race and we saw (University of Colorado) Coach (Mark) Wetmore and we decided we would go run with him for a while. We talked for a little bit and he said 'I'm going to tell you the to most important things to being a successful distance runner: you need stay healthy and not be greedy.' I think that's true. So much of improvement doesn't come from drastically changing the workouts you do. It's doing them consistently over time and getting stronger. And, like he said, not being greedy and not thinking: 'Well, I've done 87 miles this week. If I go out and do one more run it will be 90 miles.' I try to keep that perspective, and the person who has been a great model for me is Lauren. She's pretty levelheaded about her training — most of the time (laughs).

FW: How much has your training changed since you arrived in Palo Alto as a freshman?
Quite a bit. In high school I did maybe higher miles than most high school girls, but I did it in a different way. I didn't do long runs in high school really, and I couldn't even conceive of doing a 16-mile run or something like that. The volume has increased here, and the intensity has increased, too. The longer you run, the more you need to increase your volume and intensity. It's also a lot more free flowing [here] too. In high school, it was very structured. I knew three weeks from now what workout I would be doing on Thursday. Now, it's much more flexible. If I wake up in the morning, and don't feel so well, I can just do the rest of my run in the afternoon. And, I think you have to be that way when you're on a college team with people coming from lots of different backgrounds.

FW: When did you first get started in running? It sounds like you were quite the basketball player for a while.
I started running year-round my sophomore year of high school, but I did track in junior high.

FW: Can you tell me a little more about the other athletes in your family?
Sure (laughs). My middle sister did track and basketball in high school, and my older sister was a runner and also rodeoed, but she had a horse step on her back, which broke one of the disks in her back. She wasn't able to run for a while, but she's done some triathlons and all sorts of other endurance events, mostly mountain biking now. And Daddy (laughs). He bikes — a lot.

(Interview posted December 18, 2003)

Nothing contained herein may be reproduced online in any form without the express written permission of the New York Road Runners Club, Inc.