Why U.S. Distance Legend Pattisue Plumer Returned To The NCAA

Two-time Olympian, U.S. champion, American record holder, NCAA champion. Pattisue Plumer has done it all and then some as a middle-distance runner. But this fall marks a new chapter—she moved from her long-time home in the Bay Area, where she spent the last five years coaching Gunn High School and the Stanford Running Club, to steamy Austin, Texas, where she joined the University of Texas staff as assistant cross country and track coach for the women’s distance team. She’s resigned herself to the fact that fall doesn’t begin until late October, but above all, is pleased to rejoin forces with Longhorns head coach Edrick Floreal—with whom she worked for several years as an assistant at Stanford. We talked about “glistening” Texas summers, her goals for the women’s cross country team, and the first story she tells new student-athletes about her athletic career.

What was your reaction when Coach Flo contacted you about this position?

First of all, I was pretty surprised and my initial thought was, ‘I can’t make this work.’ But inside, ‘I really want to make this work.’ 

I took a few days and talked to my husband, and we decided we were just gonna go for it. I was really excited to work with [Coach Floreal] again. I’ve known him and [his wife] LaVonna practically my whole adult life; I consider them friends and I have the utmost respect for his ability to make things happen. 

The final decision-maker for me was coming down for a visit and seeing the resources and support and enthusiasm by the university for all sports and in particular, track and field and cross country. It’s fantastic and such a breath of fresh air. It’s a really wonderful and invigorating place to be.

What do you think of the weather down here?

It’s really hot. It’s not even the temperature, although there’s been some days where it’s been the temperature, too, but I’m just sweating all the time. In the morning, in the afternoon, I’m constantly in a state of glisten. That part is harder for me than the actual heat but I’ll get used to it. Everyone keeps telling me to just wait for the fall. Fall, winter, spring, it’s great here. It’s not like I’m surprised, I’ve been here a lot. 

Does the heat affect how you schedule training?

Yes and no. Traditionally, they’ve done morning practices here for the distance squad. This time of year, for sure, you have to do it. It doesn’t really matter that much for cross country, because you mostly race in the morning and it gets cooler as the year goes on, so there’s no real need to acclimate to the weather. In the spring, we’ll go out in the afternoon for sure. Well, I say for sure. Check in with me in April! 

But the plan is to go back to a more traditional training schedule because most of our races are in the afternoons and evenings. We’re mostly in the south and it’s going to be hot, so we might as well train in it and get used to it.

Had you planned to return to coaching in the NCAA?

I didn’t really want to leave the Bay Area because it’s been my home for a long time. My husband has a career in the Bay Area that doesn’t really transfer well, so it didn’t make a lot of sense when our kids were younger for me to think about going someplace else. I really loved what I was doing [coaching high school and the Stanford club team]. It wasn’t like, ‘oh, I have to do this,’  it was just the right place at the right time with the right people.

How old are your kids now?

My oldest daughter just started business school at Duke and my younger daughter is a junior at a college in New York. My older daughter was like, ‘why are you even asking me?’ Her best friend from college actually lives in Austin, so maybe I’ll see her more now than I did before. 

My younger daughter was supportive, but sad we had to give up a big family vacation we had planned to London. But other than that, totally on board. She came out to Austin with me and loved it. My husband is great, we’re just gonna make it work [long-distance]. He has more flexibility than I do at least [to visit]. I don’t get to pick the travel schedule, but I’ll certainly keep my eye open for potential recruits in northern California.

How long have you known Coach Floreal?

I met [his wife] LaVonna around 1990; we traveled on the international circuit together and we were on the ‘92 Olympic team together. I probably met Coach Flo there, but I can’t say that I recall; he was on the Canadian team. We both got married relatively at the same time. 

He moved to the Bay Area with his wife when our younger daughters were both babies. They’re almost the same age, so we have pictures from both of their birthday parties together. 

I coached for six years at Los Altos High School and then Coach Flo asked me to come on board at Stanford [in 2011-2012] and I did. He left two years later to come to Kentucky and asked me to come to Kentucky, and I said no. That didn’t make any sense for my life to do that; it’s nothing against Kentucky, it just wasn’t a place where it would be a good fit for what I was good at, but mostly a family issue. It just wasn’t the time or place for me to go. In 2013, I started coaching at Gunn High School and also started coaching the Stanford club team. That was up until July 15 [of this year].

You received a law degree from Stanford in 1989. Why did you ultimately decide to go into coaching?

It was a combination of things. At the time when I got my law degree, I worked and I still competed for three years. I think I did it pretty well but then I had my older daughter and found that I couldn’t do all three. I couldn’t be a lawyer and a runner and a mother. 

At the time, I still wanted to compete and I knew that [my window] would be short. I had been injured and I never really recovered from that injury—I was a good national-level runner and not a good international-level runner. Eventually in ‘96, it was the time to retire. My injury required surgery to fix and I didn’t think I wanted to come back from surgery. I had surgery and then I had my second daughter. 

So now I had two kids and just felt like at that point I had been out of law too long. I went to work for Stanford Law School for a couple years but they wanted me to work full-time and I really didn’t want to work full-time with young kids. My husband at that time especially was working crazy hours and I felt like one of us had to have a rational schedule. So I decided to quit working at that point. I did some other things, I was still really involved with USA Track and Field and that sort of thing. A few years later, I was asked to coach at Los Altos and that’s how I got into [coaching].

How difficult was it to train at a high level while enrolled at Stanford Law School?

I made my first Olympic team while I was in law school at Stanford. I don’t recommend it but it was possible. 

One of the things I tell my student-athletes is, that was what I always did. I didn’t know another way. For me, it was mostly a good thing. I feel like I’m too cerebral; I would overthink if I was just training. I would get too much inside my own head. If I had something else that was important to me that I could focus on, I could compartmentalize a lot more and that was a healthy approach. 

I think a lot of distance runners—when they have more time, they feel like they should do more. It’s a fine line between working really hard and over-working. Being a student-athlete kept my training focused on really what was appropriate and important as opposed to just more. I find most of the high school athletes I coach do better [in school] if they continue to do their sport in college. It’s not like they study more—you’re going to find other things to fill that void, and it’s usually not in the library.

I continued that same model when I started working. One of the things that was unusual as a lawyer, it’s like, the more you know, the more you can do—the learning curve is inverse. Most jobs, the longer you’re there, the easier it becomes to manage all the stuff you have to do; as a lawyer, it is the opposite because the longer you work, the more you can do and the more responsibility you can have, so it gets harder and harder. As I was no longer a first-year associate, I was being asked to do things that started to conflict with my [training] schedule where I could leave at 3 p.m. and finish work at home after that. Even though I’m sure one of the reasons they hired me was the name I had [as an Olympian] as much as my Stanford law degree.

The timing made sense to step away from the law which I thought I would come back to, but I never did.

Is there a single story from your professional track career that you usually use to introduce yourself to a new group?

When a lot of athletes meet me, they see the highlight reel. No. 1 in the world, two-time Olympian, Olympic finalist, NCAA record holder. Blah, blah, blah. But what they don’t see is that I was the slowest person on my team when I started at Stanford. I was literally the slowest person. 

We have a wide range of talent on this team and everybody gets a fair shake because that’s what happened to me. They all think that I must have been this highly recruited athlete and must have been on full scholarship, but no, I was on full financial aid, I never got a dime of money from Stanford. I walked on the team. 

I pretty much was only invited to preseason training camp my freshman year because my younger sister [Polly] was a superstar and I think the coach wanted to try and have a chance to recruit her if I came. She had already won a state championship in California. 

Editor’s note: Polly Plumer’s national high school record of 4:35.24 in the outdoor mile stood for 36 years until Katelyn Tuohy broke it by two seconds this year.

That’s where I start, and I talk about how did that lightbulb go on? What happened in my college career to allow me to go from being really mediocre to pretty darn good? That’s the story I tell and that’s probably the story I start with.

They’re always curious [though]—did I really get hit by a car? There’s always someone who checks out your Wikipedia page.

What are the details of that story?

I was in Japan for the Ekiden Relay [in 1985] and I was crossing the street to go jog in the park from our hotel. It was a very busy street. This was a long time ago but there was rush-hour traffic and a bus in the intersection. It was a green light, and the traffic was sort of stopped in the intersection, so I think I felt like the traffic wasn’t moving anymore, but also they drive on the opposite side of the road.

I know I looked both directions but I don’t think I actually looked, if that makes sense. You’re jet-lagged, you’re tired, you’re in a really foreign country and the light is green so you go. I should not have stepped in front of that bus. 

[I was out for] nine months and it was an injury that wouldn’t heal. I’m sure now it wouldn’t be that big of a deal but at the time, it took a long time. That was pretty much why I decided to go to law school, to be perfectly honest. I thought, ‘this whole professional running thing might not be working out. I think I need to go to Plan B.’

What are your first-year goals for the program? Texas made it to NCAA XC last year and finished 31st.

To not finish at the back at national championships is definitely a goal. We have a great staff, we have some great kids and an amazing university and institution. We ought to do better and we will do better.

What do you think it’s going to take to move Texas up in the standings?

The kids are in great shape and I’ve looked at their training and their training is good. I think the big difference is there’s a lot of training to train and not training to win. If I bring anything to the table, it’s 'I’m not a runner, I’m a racer.' Which is why I really don’t run anymore.

Why are we doing this? Not so we are fitter. I mean, you will get fitter, but that’s not the goal—the goal is to become better racers. I think it’s a little bit of a shift. When you’re on the bubble, as we’ve been, you don’t have to make radical changes. Everyone’s just got to get a little bit better, a little more confidence, more buy-in and belief; getting the athletes to think of themselves not as really hard workers who also race, but as racers who work hard. It sounds a little cliche, but helps you make the right decision and listen to your body. Things that will ultimately help you not to overtrain. Overtraining is really hard to recover from. We’re not trying to get in as best shape as possible, we’re trying to be the best racers as possible.

How do you establish trust right away as a new coach?

I was going back and forth from California for the first five weeks, staying in a hotel, and Destiny [Collins] asked if she could meet with me and another girl asked. I said if anyone wants to drop by, we can hang out in the lobby and chat and this whole group that came in. They were very excited, responsive, welcoming. I’ve seen the training they’ve done in the past and I think it’s very good. I have virtually nothing critical to say about the prior staff and in fact, I am amazed at the job Brad did with the number of athletes he had. It’s really, really hard at this level to coach 25 men and women in cross country, indoors and outdoors. It’s a lot of athletes to focus on. 

I think they were really excited to have a coach that will be just dedicated to them. I don’t do things much differently—it’s just the ability to have more time to spend with them, should someone be increasing their mileage or not, or having an extra cross-training day, or taking a day off, which can get hard to follow if you have that many kids. That will be the biggest change.

Earlier this year, I wrote about possible solutions to ending the gender discrepancy in NCAA cross country distances. What are your thoughts on women racing 6K and men racing 10K?

It’s a complicated question. Honestly, if I was in charge, men wouldn’t be running 10Ks. I think it’s ridiculous for college teams to produce athletes who run two 10Ks 10 days apart. If you’re going to be doing that, you need to hand out more scholarships. You can’t take an 800 kid and expect him to do that, but strength-oriented 800 kids can run 6K if you need them to. 

I don’t think it’s a matter of men or women or being stronger. I don’t think it’s good for long-term development of athletes. I’m sure I’m on the short end of the vote for that. I would hate it. I don’t think I could ethically coach if I had to train 17- to 18-year-old girls to run two 10Ks eight days apart in November. I just totally disagree. If it were up to me, I would do 5K or 8K for men and women, it allows you to actually make real teams. Colleges are almost forced to decide if you’re going to be a distance-oriented or sprint-oriented team because it’s pretty hard to build both, particularly if you only have athletic scholarships or financial aid to rely on. It’s almost impossible. 

I would not want women to run 8K—6K, max, for me.

I look at, 'what’s the long run you need to do to run a successful 6K?' and work backwards. What does that mean for the rest of the week? I know high schoolers are doing more volume now, but I have girls coming in here who are running 25 miles a week in high school. How would I get them ready for two 8Ks in a week? 6K, you basically have the right amount of days to recover. I’m not a fan of extending the distance for women at all and if anything, we should shorten the distance for men to 8K all year.

We really need to think about what’s appropriate for the student-athlete and I don’t think the volume you need to put in to run two 10Ks in a row is appropriate.

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