If you’ve ever been on Washington University’s campus at 6 a.m. you’ll notice the sun has not risen and the only sounds you can hear are the crickets chirping - and shoes striking the track.
“Nobody has class at 6:30 in the morning," said senior David O'Gara as he laughed. "It actually allows us to come together as a team, which is really important.”
Senior Alison Lindsay wasn’t too keen on the Bears’ early morning runs when she was a freshman, but now she can’t imagine not running before the sun comes up.
"Practice in the morning is kind of an outlet. It’s just a time to be, and relax, and not think about school. Then when you take a shower and go to class you’re in academic mode and you’re not thinking as much about running. "Although we do tend to think about running a lot.”
The Bears will spend anywhere from 25-30 hours a week on running related activities, but when they’re not running they’re studying.
“They’re not student athletes," said WashU's cross country and track coach Jeff Stiles. "Student athlete means you’re on a roster and enrolled in class. You happen to be there. A scholar champion says it exactly.”
Between his 60 runners, on both the men’s and women’s teams, their majors vary from mechanical, chemical and biomedical engineering to geophysics, cognitive neuroscience, and the list goes on.
“These kids are special and they’re special in a sense that they don’t see themselves as special," added Stiles. "That’s all they know. They can’t imagine thinking differently. So for us, it’s making it fun. It’s not focusing on winning because if we did they’d go crazy.”
Stiles doesn’t have to push his runners, instead, he tells them to go to bed.
“They’re not normal you know? They’re outliers and outliers in every sense - motivationally in terms of academics and athletics.”
It’s a culture Stiles has built in his 17 seasons at the helm, and his runners even refer to it as ‘The Secret’.
“What that means to him is that he really takes the long term view for all of us," said O'Gara. "I think that is absolutely true that he is invested in you as both a person and an athlete."
Stiles led the women’s cross country team to a national title in 2011, and last year they were the NCAA runner-up in Division III. The women's team returned its four top runners this year, so don’t be surprised if they end up hoisting the national championship trophy high into the air on November 18.