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Interview: Josh McDougal

by Kevin Beck


After winning the first seven races of his collegiate cross country career, Josh McDougal of Liberty University finished 13th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Indiana, earning All-American honors and placing as the top freshman. Before that, he had won the Big South Conference Championship in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in 23:49 (obliterating Alan Webb's course record of 24:14) and the NCAA South Regional in Greenville, North Carolina in 30:06, becoming the first frosh to claim either title.

Growing up in Peru, New York, McDougal and his younger brother Jordan made names for themselves as home-schooled athletes who claimed numerous road and track age-group records. Josh holds the AAU 3,000m record for 13- and 14-year-olds (9:15.12); in 2002, Josh set an age-17 American record with a 14:38 at the Syracuse Festival of Races 5K. In the same race, Jordan collected the age-15 mark with a 15:19.

McDougal's fall season would have been hard to improve upon, but 2005 has only brought even greater successes. In February, McDougal, who turns 20 in June, placed a surprising fourth in the 4K event at the USA Cross Country Championships, securing a spot on the U.S. World team. In a limited indoor campaign, he won the IC4A 3,000m by well over half a lap and took sixth in that event at the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships in 8:02.72.

On April 14, McDougal, eased into his outdoor season by winning Big South Conference titles at 5,000m and 10,000m. After taking a short break from racing due to injury, McDougal returned to competition on May 5 by winning a 1,500 in 3:49.81. MensRacing.com spoke with Josh — whose training log is available online — about his accomplishments and plans as he finished with spring-term exams and nursed his minor ankle injury.

MensRacing.com: You've been amazingly consistent since starting your collegiate career, but in choosing your best race so far, it seems like a toss-up between your fourth-place finish in the 4K at [the USA Cross Country Championships] and your 7:55.70 indoor 5,000m to win IC4As by nearly 20 seconds. What performance are you happiest with?
Josh McDougal:
I would have to say that placing fourth at nationals has to be the most pleasing race of my career thus far. Just to go out there and go the distance with some of our best runners was incredibly satisfying. I had dreamed of that day for years, always expecting it would come. I just had no idea that it was going to be so soon.

IC4As was also a very pleasing race for me. It was the first time that both my parents and my extended family had been able to see me race since I started college, so to go out there and run that tough in front of them was just icing on the cake. Besides, I love to run in Boston. [Note: The IC4A meet was at the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston.] So many of my high school races were either run there at Boston University, or on the outskirts of town for the Boston High Performance meets. In fact, my real breakthrough high school race came at BU my junior year, when I ran 8:14 for the 3K.

MR: Your performance at World Cross (110th place in the short race) was an uncharacteristic blemish on an otherwise sterling year. Talk about how that experience unfolded.
Well, I don't really like to use excuses, but I was both physically and emotionally drained leading into Worlds. In the two weeks beforehand I had been to Baltimore, Boston, Raleigh, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Tulsa, Fayetteville, Atlanta, and Cincinnati. I had run a 7:55 3K at IC4As, taken midterms, and then headed off to NCAA indoor nationals before hopping on a flight to France. Over the course of these two weeks, between travel and school, I was forced to pull three all-nighters. Other factors could have come into play a little bit. One thing for sure is that it was hot in France — the temperatures were in the mid to upper 80s during race time, which is about 30 degrees warmer than I'm used to. Besides that, I just got blown away. That race just went out so fast. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach by the first kilometer; it was a eye-opening experience for me. I can now truly appreciate the meaning of the word 'stampede.'

MR: You exceeded your stated goals (top 40 finish) at NCAAs, but in truth you had every reason to anticipate a top-15 finish. Did you approach that race any differently than those preceding it?
I came into nationals with a ton of momentum. Coming into cross country season I honestly didn't expect to wind up standing on the starting line at nationals undefeated. By the time nationals rolled around, I really thought that I was a top-10 guy on any given day and a contender on a perfect one.

I actually feel that I made some pretty big tactical mistakes that day. It was the first race all year in which I really felt that I performed like a freshman. Overall, I'm still pleased with the race, but if I hadn't clawed my way back to pass Shadrack [Kiptoo, of the University of New Mexico] in the homestretch, I don't think I would be.

MR: Indoors, you were sixth at Nationals, off your fastest time but in the mix. Were you pleased with that result?
I'm definitely pleased with the overall result. I don't think I ran as well as I should have, but I gave it all I had on that day, and as long as I do that in every race I can't really be disappointed. There were also some things that happened to me that day that were beyond my control, and I think that with that in mind I was able to regroup and race very well.

MR: You appear to be taking a low-key approach to the outdoor season. Was limiting the number of track races — both indoors and out — part of the plan from the outset?
After World Cross Country I was so tired that I took about two weeks off from running. The plan was then to build up a base and make my outdoor debut at the Big South Conference Championships. There I ran a very easy 10,000, followed by a 14:07 5,000 later in the meet. From there, the plan was to kick things into high gear, starting with Penn Relays. However, unfortunately I twisted my ankle the day after conference, and that set me back about two weeks. I hope to pick things up where I left off.

MR: Has being part of a scholastic team for the first time — and therefore needing to be in certain places at prescribed times — required much in the way of adjustment?
Not at all — I was able to make a very smooth transition onto the team.

MR: Many coaches believe that maintaining regular daily rhythms are crucial. When your schedule was more flexible, did you make an effort to run, eat, sleep and so on at or close to the same time every day?
Not really. I didn't have a strict schedule in high school, and quite frankly I don't have the best schedule now. Due to my class schedule, I still don't have any regular sleeping or eating habits.

MR: In theory, you could have secured a full ride at the institution of your choosing. How far in advance of enrolling at Liberty were you aware of wanting to attend LU, and what were its chief draws?
By the spring of my sophomore year of high school I had a pretty good idea that I wanted to go to Liberty. One of my best friends had just enrolled there, and they had both a competitive Division I track program and the major that I hoped to study. I did consider some other schools similar to Liberty. I looked at Belmont, Samford, and Campbell, but none of them came close to matching Liberty's spiritual commitment. Plus Liberty was the closest to home, and I just really connected with Coach [Brant] Tolsma and the whole staff here.

MR: Not to knock your teammates, of course, but you're significantly more advanced as a runner than any of them. Are you able to arrange things creatively so that you can do hard workouts with others?
No, for the most part I train alone. Some people seem to think that you have to train with others to improve, but that is just not true. As long as you are self-motivated you can be successful. I actually feel that training alone is one of the key reasons why I have continued to improve as much as I have without suffering any serious injuries. Training alone gives you the benefit of regulating your body. If I'm hurting I'll take an easy day or cut a workout short, whereas if I was training with a group of guys of similar ability I would probably just try and suck it up and hang with the group for that last mile interval.

MR: When and why did you start running and competing?
I started running a few miles a week with my parents when I was 8 or 9 years old. They both still ran to stay in shape, so I just started running with them for the fun of it. I really didn't start competing, though, until I was 10, when we moved to Peru, New York, where our neighbor was the high school cross country and track coach. She saw us out running and suggested that we try the Junior Olympic series.

I will always remember that day that I really ran my first real race. It was held at SPAC in Saratoga. Jordan and I, then 8 and 10, lined up on the starting line with the other 10-and-under boys and the 11- and 12-year-olds who were put in our race to save time. I remember looking at all the other kids and realizing that my brother and I were practically the only kids on the line who were not wearing racing flats. I remember the gun going off and all the kids getting out really fast. One hundred meters or so into the race, Jordan and I took up two of the last three positions. As the race went on, we both ran even splits and picked off most of the kids. I ended up placing fourth in my age group, and Jordan might have been just outside the top 10. We both puked after the race, and our parents thought we would never want to run again, but we have both been hooked since.

MR: Have you increased your mileage significantly since starting college?
The most mileage I ever ran in a week during high school was 107, and my highest six- to eight-week average was somewhere in the mid-90s. So far my biggest single week in college was a few weeks ago, when I ran 115, and my highest six- to eight-week average is about 105.

MR: I remember watching you line up at the front of the pack as a wispy 14-year-old in a competitive 12K in New Hampshire and being skeptical of your ambitious self-seeding. You then proceeded to set a national record and beat all but a relative handful of New England's best runners. Were you aware of similar skepticism in your younger racing days?
Yeah, there were a bunch of people who disapproved of what I was doing. Usually when we would go to a large race I would be approached by several self-righteous people who felt it was their duty to inform me that I was training too hard and would be burned out by the time I reached high school. Not too many of them actually came out and told me that I was going to burn out — although there were a few — but when they lecture you in a rather condescending tone for minutes on end, you can catch their drift.

MR: On that subject, much is made of the potential for young, successful runners to 'burn out' by the time they reach college, and though this may be overblown, it's certainly not unheard of. You, on the other hand, have continued making performance leaps commensurate with those of college freshman with 'typical' backgrounds. What do you see as the driving force behind your continued improvement?
Well, for one thing, I always have been extremely self-motivated and focused. From a very young age I have been able to see the long-term benefits of my hard work. I'm not ashamed to say that I have sacrificed vast portions of my life to reach the level that I have. I didn't have a lot of close friends in high school; I didn't hang out much or stay out late partying. I also gave up all of the other sports (particularly soccer) that I enjoyed tremendously. I was a student of the sport, reading books that pertained to running, and pored endlessly over running magazines, reading about our top runners. I could still probably recite to you full race reports from older Runner's World magazines.

This is where I think that I stand out from many other young runners. There are a lot of kids out there who have talent and the potential to be great some day, but only the ones who are truly passionate about our sport, only those who are willing to sacrifice, will be able to reach the top. I know that injuries stop some people from developing, but I believe that in general 'burnout' is mental. At a young age, it is easy to be a top runner off of pure talent, but the further you go in this sport, the more dedication it takes, and at some point you have to ask yourself, 'Is it really worth it?' With each passing year in high school, I would become more committed to my running. My friends would usually call a few times a week to ask me to come over to some late-night party. Tired from all my training, I almost always said no, and gradually their phone calls decreased until I would go weeks at a time without seeing some of my old friends.

What I have now attained is the result of sacrifice and hard work over half my lifetime. I have gladly chosen this path, but I certainly don't look down on anyone who has found the price to be too high to pay.

MR: What role has your brother's presence at Liberty played in your experience there and vice-versa?
It has been nice having Jordan here at Liberty with me this year, and I can only hope that I have helped him as well. I still wish that he had stayed in high school for another year, because looking at the top performances this year, I think he would have been tough to beat.

MR: Share your general (or specific, if you like) aspirations for next five years of running.
Well, I would like to finish off my NCAA career with several national titles, particularly in cross country. It is going to be an incredible challenge, though. There are just so many great runners in the NCAA right now, and the high school class of 2004 has risen to heights that no one expected. I really can see someone running a sub-13:20 5,000m a few years down the road and failing to place among the top three Americans in the NCAA Championships. After college, I hope to go on to have a successful professional career, and, Lord willing, make the Olympic team in 2008 and beyond.

MR: Do you foresee an eventual move to the marathon? More generally, what do you see as your best event(s)?
I'm sure that I will run some competitive marathons, but as of now I see myself staying on the track for a few years out of college.

(Interview posted May 10, 2005)

Josh McDougal competes at the 2005 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships.
(All photos Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
McDougal runs at the 2005 USA Cross Country Championships.
McDougal runs at the 2004 NCAA Cross Country Championships.
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