Alex Conner ’16 of the men’s cross country team finished in the top seven four times last year, as well as second on the team at the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships. This year, he has been the first-place finisher for the cross country team in the last two meets so far. The News spoke with Conner about his individual performance and the upcoming season.
Q: Congratulations on a strong start to the season. What did you do over the summer to train and give you a leg up for the start of this year?
A: I lived in Boulder, Colo., with a teammate, Ryan Laemel ’13. We moved out there June 1 and were there for two months, and the idea was high-altitude training, and I think the biggest part of it was consistently running 85 miles a week. The time really paid off fitness-wise, and I think I’m really starting to reap the benefits of it now and hopefully will continue to in the long-term.
Q: So, last year you placed in the top seven four times, which is something you’re definitely poised to beat right now. How do you think you’ve evolved as a runner since last year?
A: I think the biggest difference between my freshman year and now is that, number one, my freshman year was an adjustment to the 8K distance, and I’ve been able to go into my sophomore year with a good understanding of what that means in terms of pacing. I think the second difference is I’m just a more mature runner. I know what’s the smarter decision to make, and I’m better at making it now, whether that’s training-related or just lifestyle-related. It’s just an extra year of experience and I think that helps a lot, more than I anticipated it ever would.
Q: Looking more toward the team as a whole, the season opened with what must have been a disappointing loss to Harvard. Can you talk a little about how you felt as an individual and also how the team felt, and then how you stepped up and brought it the next weekend at the Iona Meet of Champions?
A: I think that Harvard definitely was a low point for the whole team, myself included. When you get beat that badly, everyone was involved. I felt just as bad as anyone else. There was a lot of stuff I could have done to get in that top five, and I maybe made the wrong decisions in the race or whatnot, but the bottom line is, it was a wake-up call for us. We had a really good week leading up to the next Saturday in terms of workouts, and everybody stayed pretty positive, too, which was a big help. Those things sort of contributed to a much, much better race this weekend. And I think another, much more practical reason for the loss was that Harvard was our first race of the season. People were more prepared for what was to come than at Harvard.
Q: On Saturday, you finished at the exact same time as James Randon ’17. Had you two been running together a lot and strategizing that?
A: We ran the first two miles together, and then we separated a little bit, and then right at the end he was catching up to me, and we crossed the line close enough to the point where they saw it as the same time. The plan was to run the first two or three miles together, but then we got some separation, and then pretty much closed it back together during the kick. So it wasn’t the plan, but it’s really great to see that. And on top of that, we had a 23-second spread from one to five which bodes really well for the team and is a really good sign. I think overall we did a very good job of running together, and I think, in terms of training, it’s had that dynamic in practice, too, where the top five have been pretty close and good at working together during the hard workouts.
Q: You’ve been talking about the strategies going into the race. Are you pretty consistent with that?
A: I definitely think it depends on the race and what [Coach Paul Harkins] is trying to get out of it. Saturday, the coach had the idea of wanting to work on pack running, so he focused a lot more on five of us staying together through the first three miles, ideally, and then really racing hard the last two. So, without a doubt, there’s a race plan tailored to what he’s trying to get done. In an early-season meet, he wanted to work on a little bit more of the fundamentals of racing or just working on running as a pack because that’s how you do well as a team. I’m not sure that will necessarily be the case all year, but it would be good if it were, because it’s a solid plan.
Q: So we talked a little about Randon, but there seem to be some of the younger runners really stepping up.
A: Yeah, we’re definitely a young team right now, and it’s really promising. The oldest guy in the top seven was a junior, and it’s really cool to see how young we are and still holding our own. In the freshman class, Randon was obviously a huge recruit for us to get. He was a very, very impressive high school runner. It’s been really cool to see all the freshmen come into this completely new scenario. The adjustment to college, in terms of athletics, isn’t always easy, and they’ve done a great job with it. I’m happy with my class as well. It’s only a good sign for the program.
Q: On a closing note, looking to the rest of the season, what are your big individual and team goals, and what do you think the biggest obstacles are going to be in trying to get there?
A: In terms of team goals, we’ve talked about being in the top three, top four Heps [Ivy League Heptagonal Champpionships] as a team. Ivy League is such a competitive conference — if we’re third or fourth in the Northeast region, I think that would put us in a good position to qualify for nationals. I think those are our bigger aspirations. Personally, my goals are to do whatever I can to contribute to that. Time-wise, if we could get a solid group of guys in the low-24:00’s for the 8k, that would be great. So I want to do that as an individual, and if there’s more guys doing it with me, then all the better. We’ve got a good set of goals, and if we stay healthy, which is an obstacle sometimes, injury, and I know coach has got a great plan for the workouts, so that should be doable, so it’s exciting.