Caitlin Michaelis’ life was basketball. It had been that way since her childhood. It’s why her name sits atop Minnesota Crookston’s leaderboard for games played in a career. But after the 112th and final one of those games last spring, Michaelis was itching to try something new.

Last April, towards the end of her senior year, Michaelis sat in her room, hanging out with friends, when her friends informed her that UMC was adding varsity cross country.

Michaelis wasn’t unfamiliar with cross country. She’d always loved distance running, and had competed in the sport during middle school. But in high school, she decided she wanted to focus exclusively on basketball.

Her basketball career was over, but Michaelis knew she still had one season left of eligibility in a different sport. She talked to her parents, and both of them said exactly what their daughter was thinking.

“It would be a cool way to end things,” Michaelis said. “ … Help the university start something new, be a part of that first team, be a good leader and set it up for the future.”

And then Michaelis went back home for the summer and started training.

Her mind and body had become accustomed to the rapid stop-and-starts and lateral movement of basketball. To go from that to just “straight running” caught her off-guard.

“It was like, 10-minute miles,” Michaelis said. “ … I was kinda mad I wasn’t in better shape.”

As Minnesota Crookston’s inaugural cross country season drew near, the new Golden Eagles began realizing that they needed to, quite literally, learn how to run.

A natural choice

While his team was busy training for the season, Steven Krouse was trying to notify the world of the Golden Eagles’ existence.

The genesis of the UMC cross country program came from surveys sent by the university’s administration to the student body. Time and time again, cross country topped the list of sports students wanted to see offered. And from the university’s perspective, the more sports on campus, the better for increasing enrollment.

On Apr. 16,  the university announced the addition of men’s and women’s cross country. Athletic director Stephanie Helgeson then asked Krouse, the Golden Eagles’ head athletic trainer and health care administrator, if he would be willing to coach the teams on top of his current responsibilities, and he accepted.

Krouse was as close to a natural choice as UMC had: he ran cross country and track and field at Division III St. Olaf, where he graduated in 2011 with a degree in exercise science. He then earned his Master’s in athletic training from Saint Scholastica in 2014, and began working at UMC that same year.

“As a trainer, he just always knew the right thing to say at the right time,” Michaelis said. “He was almost like a counselor.”

But Krouse’s first task had little to do with any of that: he needed to fill the roster and get everything off the ground as quickly as possible.

In early summer, Krouse signed up for a number of recruiting agencies, emailed every high school coach in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota and any senior who hadn’t committed to a college yet and emailed UMC students. The emails to high schools were mostly fruitless, seeing as most seniors had already committed to other colleges, so Krouse filled the Golden Eagles’ roster through current students.

Many of the students Krouse recruited had athletic experience — the women’s team featured five student-athletes in other sports, including Michaelis, and some male runners played soccer — but barely any had ever run cross country. The most notable exceptions, twins Peter and Paul Hendrickx, became the de facto leaders of the men’s team, but neither had kept up running since they arrived on campus. Those who did run only did so on a recreational basis.

Krouse was a rookie coach coaching a team of rookies — not just to a league, but to a sport itself.

“The more you do it, the more you understand”

At the end of May, Krouse sent out schedules and training plans — based on his own experience and his subscriptions to running magazines — out to his athletes. He set the weekly mileage lower than he normally would have (around 40, while many college programs run at least twice that), due to their inexperience and also exacerbated injury concerns — as a small team, UMC could hardly afford any injuries. Still, Krouse thought many of the Golden Eagles were “kinda shocked” upon learning how many miles they’d have to run.

“All of them there were there by choice, just willing to try something new,” Krouse said. “I was pleasantly surprised that they were being really positive about it.”

Maybe too positive.

Krouse labelled summer runs as “easy” runs, and “tempo” runs — longer runs at a quicker, but steady, pace. Many runners didn’t know these distinctions initially, and approached every run the same, no matter if they were running a three-miler or a 12-mile long run.

“Over the summer we kinda just tried to run as hard as we could for the mileage that we would have,” Peter Hendrickx said. “ … When we got to campus and we were actually able to meet with Krouse and understand more of what he wanted us to do, it made a lot of sense to us and made us realize, ‘Okay, we’re running way too hard.”

Krouse expected that, though. In his first race as a high school freshman, he went out way too fast and ended up walking for much of it. It’s typical of many inexperienced runners, having no frame of reference, to run at only one speed.

When the team got back to Crookston in August, the training plan began in earnest. Mondays were the team’s “speed” workouts, although the focus wasn’t really on speed, but pacing. A typical workout consisted of relatively short intervals on the track: two 400s, a 600, a mile, a two-mile, and back down in the opposite direction.

Krouse used the team’s race times to come up with splits they were expected to hit in workouts, the splits being an approximation of how fast a given runner would be running at that workout’s ideal level of intensity. According to Hendrickx, Krouse always made sure that everyone knew these splits, and laid them out clearly and understandably.

“It's sometimes hard — you wanna shoot out of a cannon and you just can't,”  Michaelis said. “You have to stay steady. Those track workouts helped with that.”

Wednesday’s workout was a tempo run, and Tuesdays and Thursdays were recovery runs: easy, base mileage to “recover” from the previous day’s workout. On weeks the Golden Eagles didn’t have a meet, they ran Saturday long runs that never exceeded 12 miles, even though a typical long run in college, according to Krouse, is somewhere from 16 to 18 miles.

“In high school, the big issue is people racing every single practice,” Krouse said. “It's not supposed to be raced. There was times (I) had to teach them — like, for a recovery run, if you can't hold a conversation you're going too fast. On a tempo run, if you're not hitting the paces, you're not getting better.”

In addition, Krouse also set up weekly lifting sessions including polar workouts and body weight training. The goal wasn’t to make the team “stronger” in a traditional sense, but more resistant to injury.

Present in everything UMC did was the idea of building from the ground up. Warming up and cooling down before and after a workout and knowing your ideal pace are things that come second nature to experienced runners. The only way to get there, according to Krouse, is through repetition.

“The more you do it, the more you race, the more you understand pacing,” Krouse said. “You have to pace naturally. Yeah, you can look at your watch for mile splits, but you have to learn what it feels like to be racing versus what a recovery run should feel like.”

Krouse’s in-person instruction helped the team develop as runners, but getting back to campus in August was a formative experience for the Golden Eagles, and not just with regards to running.

UMC is a small, close-knit campus with a large number of athletes per capita, and many athletes had already known each other previously, whether through other sports, study groups or extracurriculars. But being back on campus, with no class other sports in season, the runners got to see their new teammates in a different light.

So for the first week back, the Golden Eagles mostly enjoyed the weather and their company, running workouts and hanging out off the track, and began bonding over the experience of doing something totally foreign.

“It was just nice to get closer to people that I maybe wouldn't have because their sport was at a different time,” Michaelis said. “(When you’re in season), it's hard to make time for those other people, and so it was cool to be able to do that with them. We just meshed.”

“You know you gave everything you could”

One of the central tenets of Minnesota Crookston’s first season was that “none of you should be miserable.”

That meant that the Golden Eagles’ mileage wasn’t excessive. It meant that if the weather was too windy, rainy or muddy, they had the option to run indoors or on the treadmill. While Krouse ideally would have made running outside mandatory unless there was lightning, he wasn’t about to deter anyone from being a part of the team the first season.

This also applied to scheduling. Classes began in late August, and on top of that, almost the entire team had jobs on or off-campus. Krouse knew it would be unfair to ask everyone to drop everything for a sport they had picked up just four months earlier. “It was time management on all of our parts,” he said.

Krouse had his runners all write out and turn in schedules. Then, he placed them in workout groups at times when both he and they were free. In fact, the Golden Eagles’ track workouts were on Monday in large part because the soccer team did not practice that day, so Krouse’s duties wouldn’t overlap.

While the team understood the need for flexibility, it meant that the only times the entire team was together were meets. For some runners, those meets, and the bus rides to them, were some of the high points of the entire season.

“Being able to actually travel multiple states was more of a realization that, oh yeah, we're actually a college team,” Peter Hendrickx said.

The races themselves? Those were complicated.

The love-hate relationship between runners and their sport is unlike any other. Cross country is not only incredibly physically demanding, it’s isolating. There are no teammates to pass to and no timeouts for coaches to offer advice — much of long-distance running is simply braving the elements and knowing how hard you can push yourself. One runner, Roseline Kanssole, told Krouse that during her first race, she felt like quitting.

When the race is over, however, there aren’t many things more exhilarating.

Team sports are simple: you and your teammates, trying to win. But when hundreds of runners step on the starting line, the vast majority of them do so with the understanding that they have no chance at finishing first. All but one will lose in a traditional sense. For that vast majority, the only competitors are their mind and their watch. Their winnings — personal satisfaction, accomplishment — are not tangible.

“That feeling when you finish is pretty much unmatched,” Michaelis said. “You know you worked for it, you know you gave everything that you could in that short amount of time.”

So perhaps that made it easier for the Golden Eagles to go into a season in which it knew it would be bringing up the rear in every meet. When most coaches or players say their goal is to get better every day, it’s easy to write it off as cliche. But that was truly UMC’s main — only — focus.

According to Hendrickx, the Golden Eagles didn’t even see themselves as underdogs. They simply went to every meet, tried to finish the race and tried to run a faster time than the week before. The teams and athletes that finished ahead of them might as well not have existed.

“Obviously, if you’re looking at your team score, that’s going to be discouraging,” Krouse said. “ … The biggest goal was, can we get better and feel better over the course of the year? Do you feel the same way in Week 10 as you did in Week One or do you feel stronger? It was mostly individual goals, to be honest, and competing every race: not quitting, not giving up.”

The Golden Eagle men finished 14th out of 14 teams at the NSIC Championships in Wayne, Neb. on Oct. 26 to finish their inaugural season. Hendrickx, their top finisher, was 106th out of 113 runners. The women were 16th out of 16, led by Michaelis in 141st out of 156. But the Golden Eagles could, unequivocally, say they did what they set out to do.

And by the end of the season, Kanssole even told Krouse that she had grown to enjoy racing.

“It’s always to build to get better”

At some point in the future, Minnesota Crookston cross country will look like any other cross country program.

The future Golden Eagles will come in knowing what a tempo run is. They will run as many miles as other college runners. They will have to schedule around their sport and not the other way around. They will expect to compete against experienced runners because that’s who they are.

Krouse didn’t want to overload his athletes in their first season. But next year, he wants to dive into advanced topics like nutrition and race strategy — drafting, passing, pack running. And with a more ingrained sense of feel and pace, the Golden Eagles will hopefully be able to absorb that information.

Of course, there’s more to it.

Recruiting — the lifeblood of any college program — has its own distinct set of considerations at Minnesota Crookston. Krouse heavily pushes the University of Minnesota degree, as well as the chance to run at the Division II level: a scholarship and a chance many recruits might not get otherwise. His time standards are a bit lower than many other D-II schools — Krouse wants, above all, someone willing to put in the work necessary to build a program from the ground up.

However, Krouse still gets asked two questions before he gets asked anything else: does UMC have track and field (it doesn’t), and when will it add it (he isn’t sure). For some athletes, that’s a deal-breaker. But Krouse paints it in a positive light.

Krouse’s freshman class at St. Olaf had 15 people. He was one of just six who remained four years later. He believes the constant grind of college running — to him, college runners are three-sport athletes, competing in a never-ending season — is responsible for this high rate of burnout, but having one sport to focus on, for a few months only, allows athletes to study, hang out with friends and go to parties like normal college students.

The program is also growing at the macro level. Helgeson would like to continue investing in scholarships — UMC has only one apiece for men and women — make the coaching position full-time and add a new indoor track facility eventually.

“Our goal is to compete for a conference championship, but I think you have to be realistic with what resources we have,” she said. “I think for us, it’s always to build to get better.”

Whenever Minnesota Crookston does reach the level of competing for conference championships, it will have the 2019 team — novice runners that took on the challenge — to thank. And those runners will be well aware of the part they played.

“We would joke around, like, ‘I have the best time in school history!’ ” Hendrickx said. “Just kinda having a light-hearted sense. … (But) definitely shines a light on the fact that wow, I’m actually a student athlete and pretty grateful to have this opportunity.”

Added Michaelis: “If you’re gonna start something new, just put both feet in and jump all in.”

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