It’s 6:30 a.m. The sun hasn’t risen. The birds aren’t chirping. But head coach Jeff Stiles and the Washington University cross country team are already running around a strip mall in Appleton, Wis.
The Midwest Regionals start in four hours. Expectations are high for the country’s eighth-ranked men’s team and second-ranked women’s team. So naturally, Stiles starts to sing.
“Oh what a beautiful…” he begins, his voice tapering off as a cue to the rest of the team. “…mornin,’” they finish. The runners are still groggy, anxious and cold. A beautiful morning? It’s 35 degrees outside and they’re running around a JC Penny and a Target. “It’s the opposite of a beautiful morning,” senior captain Nick Matteucci says.
But Stiles keeps performing the famous song from the play “Oklahoma!” until the morning seems a little bit more beautiful. “Oh what a beautiful morning. Oh, what a beautiful day, I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way,” the team sings sing together.
By this point, the team knows to expect the song. Stiles has sung it since his freshman year at North Central College, where he was a five-time national champion runner. He brought the traditions with him to Wash. U., where he has captured two more national cross country championship trophies over his 19 years as head coach.
Stiles admits he’s not much of a singer. He even says he is tone-deaf. But Stiles still tries to hit the high notes in “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin.’” He expects his runners to do the same.
“I want participation because it at least forces you to be stupid,” Stiles says.
Stiles wants to make running fun, to have his runners to connect with each other. He wants these athletes, doing a seemingly individual activity to become a team. Maybe they’ll win some championships along the way. They’ll definitely learn the lyrics to “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin.’”
I arrive at the Wash. U. Athletics Complex at 6:15 a.m. Jeff Stiles had already been on campus for 30 minutes. He set his alarm for five in the morning, he told me, but woke up at 4:58. Practice starts at 6:30.
It’s late October, almost a month before the Midwest Regionals. Stiles stands in the spacious Athletics Complex lobby as his runners stride in the door. He is about 6 feet, 2 inches tall, slender and almost goofy looking. He’s prepared for the cold weather, a puffy black coat reaching down to his ankles. A stopwatch hangs from his neck. His winter hat is tilted slightly sideways. His gray shoes are plastered with mud.
He welcomes the runners with a no-look fist bump. He always seems to be having a conversation with someone. Anyone. The runners rub their eyes and return a soft fist bump.
Stiles has been running early morning cross country practices five times a week for 19 years. He’s 44 years old now, but was just 26 when he was hired as Wash. U.’s cross country head coach in 2001. Back then, he didn’t even know the school existed. All he knew was that it needed a new cross country head coach.
We’re nearing the start time when a runner on the women’s team notices she forgot her pants. Pants are a team requirement in anything below 60 degrees. Other coaches may punish her for forgetting—some extra laps or push-ups. But the problem is solved in just a few minutes, with another runner saying, “You can just get tights from the locker room.” That’s good enough for Stiles. He heads back to the fist bumps. There’s no mention of it the rest of the morning.
Minutes later, Stiles gathers the team—all 61 runners, 29 men and 32 women. But he doesn’t really need to. They know what they’re doing. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the tougher workouts, Stiles sends out individualized plans for each runner the day before.
When they break the huddle, the runners leave the complex in small groups. There is little supervision from Stiles. This could all be a mess. The runners are moving in different directions. Their loud voices fill the lobby. Some are off in the corner flinging their legs into the air as they stretch. It’s unclear to me when and how they are supposed to leave. Stiles is off conversing with individual runners, going over strategy and looking over the practice schedule. But the machine runs itself. It all works perfectly. The players start to cycle out in small groups until there’s no one left for Stiles to talk to. He is the “opposite of micromanaging,” his assistant coach and former runner Kelli Blake says.
Jeff Stiles was that kid in PE class who took the mile run too seriously. He remembers it today. Seventh grade. Ames, Iowa. Thad Grebasch. It was Grebasch who beat him by just one step. Stiles ran a 6:07 mile. Grebasch ran a 6:06 mile. A year later, they met again. But as Grebasch put on weight for football, Stiles stayed lean and skinny. Stiles left everyone in the dust with a 5:20 minute mile. He still says it with pride.
It was that kind of natural speed that caught the attention of legendary North Central College coach Al Carius. The 19-time national champion only recruited the best of the best, the kinds of runners that other Division III schools couldn’t touch—high-level Division I talent. Stiles was one of those runners.
“[My high school coach] was very much about hard work, not necessarily about having fun,” Stiles said. “And Al’s focus was on enjoying it. That was like a breath of fresh air. It was like ‘Wow, running can be fun?’…[Before college] it was always about running to compete and to run a faster time. In college, I learned running could be enjoyable in itself, apart from running well.”
Stiles “lived to be a runner” at North Central. When the clock hit 9 or 10 p.m., he went to bed, even if his homework wasn’t finished. He spent an hour each and every day in Carius’ office. Carius showed Stiles that team and running could fit in the same sentence.
Stiles brought those same methods to Wash. U., his first (and so far only) head coaching gig. It was his dream job. He could coach cross country and serve as an assistant track coach. (He is now the head track coach.) He wanted to raise his three kids in the Midwest, with just enough backyard space to build the chicken coop his wife always wanted.
With his runners, he wanted to build a team. A family. That’s what he pitched to recruits. Even though at first he had little record to show for it, recruits bought in. “There’s definitely an authenticity to him. It didn’t feel like a sales pitch,” said Blake, who ran for Stiles from 2007 to 2011 and is in her fourth season as a full-time assistant coach. Stiles has been able to attract runners like Matteucci, who had interest from Division I programs like University of Illinois and Purdue University.
For basketball or baseball players, college sports are a means to compete at the professional level. Without similar professional systems, college cross country is often the peak for these runners. Other coaches tout how good their runners can become. Stiles touts how much they will remember their days at Wash. U.
“We want you to want to run for the rest of your life…We want running to be fun. We don’t want to just squeeze every ounce out of you,” Stiles said. “We want you to leave more in love with the sport than when you came here.”
As much thought as Stiles puts into the team, some players still fall through the cracks. With a team of 60 runners, it is inevitable. One of those people is junior Nathan Ostdiek.
In high school, Ostdiek was a three-sport athlete. In soccer, he won a state championship. In basketball, he was the school record holder in assists. In cross country, he earned All-State honors three times and set five school records. But he wasn’t playing basketball and soccer in college. He was only running cross country and track. Five days a week, at least. Every morning at 6:30 from mid-August to early May.
Still, he wasn’t close to cracking the top seven. For the first time in his life, he wasn’t one of the best runners on his team. The repetition of running everyday started to alienate Ostdiek. An injury set him back during winter break of his freshman year, and he did little to run or get back in shape. He finished the year running track, as many cross country runners do. But by that point, he was “burnt out.”
He quit the cross country team towards the end of his freshman year.
It wasn’t something that Stiles could have fixed. Stiles was understanding. He wanted to know how he could help Ostdiek transition into the next phase of his life.“It’s hard not to like the guy,” Ostdiek clarifies. But nothing could stop the grueling nature of cross country. The burning lungs and aching joints. The alienation of running over and over and over again with little variation.
“The grind kind of gets to you,” Ostdiek says.
It reminds me of a quote Josh Clark, a former All-American runner from 2012 to 2016, told me. “[Running] will chew you up and spit you out. 100%,” he said.
Jeff Stiles stands in Forest Park and waits for his runners. He slowly paces back and forth, eager but patient.
Forest Park, just minutes away from Wash. U., is one of the largest city parks in the country. There’s a zoo, three nine-hole golf courses, a boathouse, a tennis center, multiple museums, a skating rink and too many fountains. The park is filled with lakes, trees, hills and endless paths for cross country runners.
Of the hundreds of paths in the park, Stiles knows exactly the one he wants. The surface is hard, but not too hard. It’s soft, but not too soft. It’s just right. Running on concrete or similar surfaces can lead to injury. Running on ground that is too soft can make the workout needlessly challenging, with players exerting too much energy digging through the ground.
Stiles likes running a course that his runners are familiar with, but not too familiar with. All of these details about topography give him a barometer to judge accurate times, while also making it so that his runners have to adapt to new surfaces, just like in races. Cross country is all about finding that middle ground.
The drill they’re doing this morning is called 1880, as in 1880 meters. The thing is, the loop is shorter than 1880 meters. They modified the distance a few years ago, but left the name. The bottom line is that they are running, at most, six loops, each totaling a mile.
Runners take off in groups of six. Stiles plans out every little detail of practice. Few runners will do the same workout. Some didn’t even make the trip to Forest Park. (If they’re stressed or have too much work, Stiles lets them do a shortened workouts at the athletic complex.) Some will only run three of the six miles. Some will run all six. Some will run two miles and then sprint up a hill. All of the runners are expected to get five to 15 seconds faster as the laps progress—oddly specific numbers. It seems like a challenging task, one that would require careful and meticulous understanding of your running habits.
The rest of the workout depends on each runner’s progression throughout the season and what they need most. How many miles they ran in high school. How many miles they ran in the summer. What injuries they’ve had. What will help them get faster without getting hurt.
“A big focus for Stiles is recovery…He really believes that programs will overtrain and work their athletes too hard. By the end of the season, they’re tired, they’re worn out,” says Matteucci.
Seniors will get up to 100 miles in a week. Younger runners, who are getting used to the college level, will total just 40 miles a week.
Stiles sends out the workout plan the day before. Names, numbers and green highlights are scattered across the page. It creates a maze. “(No faster than 5:12-5:03) Ridderhoff, Cera, Trimark, Bishnupuri, Gersch JR/TC 200-400-400 @ 30-31/61-63 w/ MQ Gersch/Prat/Noah @ 200-400-400 @32/64-65,” it reads.
For a non-runner, the pages might as well be in a different language. “4 x 1600 @ CV w/ 90 sec jog (jog back to WashU) put on Spikes 200-400-400 @ goal mile w/ 2 min standing rest,” another says. Even for a runner, it might as well be in a different language. Before arriving at Wash. U., Matteucci wouldn’t have understood it either, he says, explaining that part of the learning curve involves getting used to “reading Stiles.”
It’s clear that Stiles has a strategy. It’s not just running in a straight line for 30 minutes. Every mile, every exercise is intentional and specific to each person on the team so they can continue progressing through the season without injury.
As the season nears its end, many college teams will stop practicing as an entire team. That’s because only seven runners from the men’s and women’s teams can compete at the Midwest Regionals and nationals, which are in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday. Only five can qualify for points. If someone finishes in 10th place, the team is given 10 points. At the end of the race, the top five scorers are added up. As in golf, the lowest scoring team wins. It makes it so all seven runners must pull their weight for a team to win.
For Wash. U., there are about 40 runners who cannot run in regionals or nationals. Still, Stiles continues to have everyone practice. He finds separate, nearby races for them to run. He creates intersquad competitions, like the “Mile of the Century.” This gives those who aren’t fast enough to run in nationals the same opportunity to compete, to show off the strides that they’ve made throughout the season.
The runners fly by Stiles and every time Stiles asks, “What did we hit?” In the midst of heavy breaths and long strides, the runner take a quick peek at their watch. They spit out a “5:20” or a “6:10.”
“Machines!” Stiles responds. “Looking pristine!” he says to another. But that’s it. There is no stopping them. No correction of form. Within seconds, the runners have zipped back around the loop for another mile and that is the extent of Stiles’ interaction with them.
Sitting on a nearby bench, two injured runners jot down numbers in an Excel sheet. They mark the mile times for each runner. But Stiles won’t keep the numbers on his computer. After practice, he will print out the Excel sheet and stick it in a binder. A binder full of thousands of papers. They look as thick as the dictionaries in a library. There is one for each season since his first in 2001. They are scattered across his office. Stiles stores every race, every workout, every mile time in his binders. “I’ve killed a lot of trees,” he jokes.
This way, he can monitor a player’s progress (or lack thereof) across a season. He can see what workout plans were most successful with specific players. He can look at the direction a player is headed. This could be stored on a computer, but Stiles has no intentions of changing.
Any undergrad at Wash. U. has seen Stiles’ runners push together multiple tables at dinner, the sounds of 60 voices drowning out the rest of the dining hall. “We live together, we eat together, we run together. We jokingly call ourselves a cult,” Matteucci says. The traditions are daily. They’re weekly. They’re yearly. Some are traditions that Stiles brought to the team. But most can be traced back to the players. Anything to make the constant repetition of running 70 miles a week more enjoyable.
Fridays, the most relaxing run of the week, are full of traditions. The women’s team will usually dress up together for Friday runs. They will start by racing to Forsyth Boulevard to touch a nondescript sign. They then jog to the Delmar Loop. As they approach a nearby bank, the runners try to guess the temperatures on the side of the bank. It is rarely accurate. Everyone on the team blurts out their guesses. “10!” “50!” The game is called “Mr. Temperature.” It’s something Stiles borrowed it from his time at North Central. Once they guess the temperature, the team will run through a Metro stop near campus. All while avoiding left turns.
“It makes morning runs entertaining, so everyone wants to be there,” Stiles said.
There are the less regular traditions, too, like twin day, when everyone will dress up as another person on the team.
There’s the eggnog run, which takes place between cross country and track season. The runners will drink eggnog, run four miles, and throw up beneath an underpass. There’s the pumpkin carving contest. There’s Bearsgiving.
“In cross country and track, the sport becomes so individualized…A lot of coaches don’t preach that team aspect as much,” Clark says. “One thing that Stiles says is that he wants people who want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Even as trophies started to add up, Stiles didn’t point recruits to the shiny hardware lining the cabinets above his desk.
Instead, he pointed recruits to a picture on his wall, hidden between drawings from his kids and tokens from his own running career. It’s a photo from a race about a decade ago. Forty-three people are packed into the photo, Stiles says. But only a few had run in the race. Most made the multiple-hour drive across state lines just to watch.
Watch is an understatement. It was cold and cloudy that morning, but the runners are decked in green and red body paint. Their spandex are polka dotted. Their mouths wide open, as if most had just about lost their voice from cheering the entire morning.
“Is this a team you want to be a part of? A family you want to be a part of?” Clark remembers Stiles asking him.
The picture still hangs in his office. But Stiles hasn’t pointed recruits to the picture in recent years. He’s not sure why. Maybe it’s because the culture speaks for itself.
Dressing up and traveling as an entire team to regionals and nationals has been tradition since 2007, when the team shaved their heads into mullets and wore flannel jackets and jean shorts. Their outfits may change, but the tradition hasn’t.
This year’s nationals will take place in Louisville. Not one player from the team is from the city, but Matteucci still expects 100 people—from the cross country and track and field teams—to make the four-hour trip to watch the 14 Wash. U. runners. Even former members, like Ostdiek, will be there body-painted and hollering nonstop. Not another team—even the local teams—will reach the size or decibel level of the Wash. U. fan section.
Saturday’s forecast calls for rain and a high of 44. It won’t matter. Stiles will sprint from spot to spot on the course. He will yell updates on time and placement to his runners. He will probably tell them they “look pristine.” That is, if he can be heard over the other 100 screaming voices.