Lessons from a National Championship

On Sunday fans all across Central Texas celebrated an NBA National Championship as the San Antonio Spurs dominated the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.  A much smaller but equally rabid fan base celebrated another national championship: one that announced the arrival of a superstar who has the ability to take her place among Austin track and field Olympians like Leo Manzano, Trey Hardee and Michael Tinsley.  A young woman, who runs Lady Bird Lake nearly every day, claimed the highest achievement available to a collegiate athlete, an individual NCAA Championship.

On Saturday afternoon in Eugene, Oregon, Texas senior Marielle Hall dominated the women’s 5000 meter race at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championship in what many considered a huge upset. She defeated a stellar field that included the reigning champion and prohibitive favorite Abbey D’Agostino, the NCAA performance leader – Aisling Cuffe – and newly crowned 10,000 meter champion Emma Bates.

Executing a textbook strategy, Hall patiently bided her time and positioned herself perfectly before winding up an absolutely withering kick over the final lap and a half. She closed her final 400 meters in 63.6 seconds; her final 200 was clocked in an amazing 30.4 seconds.  Her sprint to the finish shocked many in attendance and the viewing audience. The announcers at both the race venue and on national television failed to recognize Marielle prior to the race and were surprised to see her devastate such a formidable field. She turned the tables on the best in the country and raced herself into the record books.

But it wasn’t always like this. Prior to her final outdoor season, Marielle was an extremely talented, committed distance runner who’d had a solid career, showing flashes of excellence, but unable to close out races on the biggest stages.  In training, she was an absolute beast. Her track sessions indicated an incredible talent balanced with an unmatched work ethic. I know this because I was Marielle’s coach at Texas for three years. In the time I coached her, no one worked harder or was more consistent than Marielle. She came prepared for every single practice with a focus and drive unlike I have ever seen. But it never translated when it counted…until Saturday.

Below are three lessons we all can learn from Marielle’s inspiring story of redemption and commitment to a vision. You may consider these lessons cliché, but ignore them at your own peril. The points below are certainly not the only conclusions one can come to when looking at the fulfillment of Hall’s immense promise but I believe every runner can gain valuable insight on their training and goals by learning from her example.

Commit To Your Craft

No one works harder than Marielle Hall; absolutely no one. She arrives early, stays until everything has been accomplished. She follows her coach’s plan to the letter. She approaches each and every run determined to get the appropriate training response for the session. Her work in the weight room is just as important as the miles she logs each week. The attention to detail is supreme: nothing is overlooked. She has created rituals that she follows to insure that each day is dedicated to her craft. Don’t think she’s a nun, though. At Texas, Marielle has balanced her academic and social life as effectively as any student-athlete.  She’s intelligent, a conscientious teammate and has a wicked sense of humor. What separates her from everyone else is her discipline and vision. So frequently people are looking for a shortcut or a hack to bypass the essential day to day requirements of greatness. Marielle recognizes these as required steps to achieve her vision of winning. She asks not to get around a difficult session uncomfortable situation. She faces her challenges with responsibility to the craft of being a champion. In order to reach our objectives we must recognize that the hard things, the boring things, the little things are the pieces that complete the puzzle. Haphazardly going through the motions will result in unknown results. By committing to the craft of being a runner, Marielle Hall created the foundation of her success.

Use Change As A Catalyst, Not As Crisis

Marielle’s junior track season was abysmal. She’d had a fulfillment of her talent and hard work in the cross country season that fall (garnering her first All American award) but by the indoor track season she fell into a funk that lasted all spring. Her season came to an early halt at the Big 12 Outdoor Championships, where she didn’t manage to score a point for the team and didn’t advance to the post-season. She’d reached the low point of her career.

The summer of 2013 brought big changes to the Texas track programs as the administration decided to combine the men’s and women’s teams under Head Coach Mario Sategna. Coach Sategna brought in a new distance coach, Brad Herbster, for a new direction to the program. As with any change, there are those who have a hard time understanding why steps have been taken and react with a sense of crisis. After her disappointing track season, Marielle had already committed herself to winning an individual national championship. She used the new direction and training regimen Coach Herbster provided to catalyze her renewed commitment and focused vision. That ability to use the change to galvanize her decision to succeed is a lesson that every runner should learn. We can’t avoid change, it is a universal, natural occurrence; but we can use that change to spur us to greater heights.

Commit To A Vision…Make A Decision

Throughout the time I had the opportunity to work with Marielle and the rest of the Texas women’s distance team, I constantly reinforced the statement that all success is a decision. Excellence starts with a decision to commit to a vision. Once the commitment is made, all the smaller decisions become significantly easier to make. Any challenges are met with the vision in mind, all the minutia become necessary steps to fulfill the initial commitment. A reinforcing feedback loop of mental and physical decisions culminates in the desired moment, the command performance.

Marielle shares this in a post-race interview in Eugene (link to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxeSc4f0r2c#t=43). The whole interview is good but cue to 2:42 and listen to Marielle’s answer the question of how she explains her big improvement.  The insight of those comments seems so simple, yet it is so profound. In committing to her singular vision of winning months prior, Marielle was prepared to execute a strategic plan that brought her from a very low point to the pinnacle of NCAA success. Though our stages may be smaller than her’s, we can gain incredible insight to what creates and sustains success by truly committing to a vision of what we want to achieve.

Steve Sisson

About Steve Sisson

Steve Sisson is the Founder & Head Coach of Rogue Training Systems. Steve was the Distance Track & Field coach at the University of Texas for 7 years, where he coached the 800 - 10k. Coach Sisson was a 3-time all-American in track & cross country at the University of Texas at Austin and a 4-time Southwest conference champion at the 3000 meter steeplechase and 5000 meter distances. He represented the United States internationally at the 1993 IAAF World Half-Marathon Championships in Brussels, Belgium and the Niagata (Japan) Ekiden Relay. Steve currently coaches the Olympic Development athletes for Rogue Athletic Club. He has been the head coach and one of the founders since 2009.

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