Earlier this month, Bobby Mack, the reigning U.S. cross country champion and former standout runner at NC State, defeated a tough field at the BUPA Great Edinburgh Cross Country meet in Scotland to claim his first international victory.
Mack won the men's senior 8K race by just one second over Spain's Ayad Lamdassem in a thrilling duel that came down to the wire. The unsponsored Mack was also the national 8K road racing champion in 2011, and last spring ran 27:53 at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational, breaking 28 minutes for the first time.
In early February, Mack will head back to St. Louis to defend his national cross country title. Competitor.com caught up with him recently to talk about his recent success, the state of cross country running in the U.S. as well as his future goals.
Were you surprised by your win in Edinburgh? How did the race go down from your perspective? What kind of strategy did you have going into it?
Having finished runner-up at Edinburgh in 2012 I think any competitive runner will say they want to improve for 2013. So the natural progression and goal for Edinburgh was to get the win or else I would be settling for something I've already accomplished. At the start, when they did the introductions for team captains, one of my U.S. teammates behind me yelled, "Lead us to victory, Bobby!" and that was the last thing I heard before the gun went off. I think it was Craig Forys that yelled, which was cool because the guys ran great and we got the team title as well. I stayed patient in this year's race, but didn't let a big gap form between myself and the lead group. In 2012 I let the lead pack get a little too far ahead and was never able to close the gap before the final move was made. This year's strategy consisted of running under control for the first 4K because the soft footing can really drain you if you overextend yourself early. When Tom Humphries of Great Britain started getting pretty far up on the group, I decided to push the pace a little and at least try to keep him within range. I wasn't worried about closing the gap on Humphries too quickly. I was fairly confident that the four-man pack of Lamdassem, Vernon, Lebid and myself would eventually start closing the gap. When Lamdassem made his move and took the lead with about 400 meters to go, I thought things were setting up for the same result of 2012 where he won and I got runner-up. This year, I was able to find that extra gear down the homestretch to get the win.
What do you think about the state of U.S. cross country running? Why can't the U.S. seem to keep up with East Africans in terms of depth of talent?
I think professional cross country in the U.S. will always take a back seat to indoor track from December through March. Our high school and NCAA systems really focus on indoor track during the winter months when everyone else in Europe and Africa are running more XC. If the World Cross Championships were in the fall then maybe this would be a little different. I feel like cross country on the high school and college scene are great. Runners are breaking records from historic courses way more often today than 10 to 15 years ago. I think it's just a product of how the running is set up in the U.S. If you run well in high school, you get an amazing opportunity to attend college and compete for a university. You'll get great coaching, medical support, a degree, and grow a professional network you can use after running. But after college there may not be much support for aspiring professional runners. A lot of the European countries have a pretty elaborate club system in addition to government support that can really support runners who want to continue training and racing. I don't think one system is better than the other, but in the U.S., college athletics are as good as it gets for most athletes. Keeping up with the East Africans is actually improving. There were about 5-10 years from the late 1990s to a few years ago where the gap seemed to be getting bigger. Over the past five years I think the gap is closing again. I'm not sure if runners are training harder in the U.S. or if it's more a byproduct of connections through various media. Everyone knows what the training roughly looks like for some of the best runners. Today we can see results and instantly know, "OK, it's time to step it up." Ten to 15 years ago it was hard to even find full results from big races -- now we have live results for almost every race. I think this helps runners shatter mental barriers they put on themselves in the past. This is even more true with the high school runners. When I was in high school I really only knew how fast kids were running in my conference or state. Now these kids can track every top runner in the country and set faster goals. It's not just, "I want to win the state meet," or "Coach, how can I run a 9:15 2-mile?" It's "I want to be a top-10 runner in the U.S." and "How can I get under 8:55?" This is helping runners progress faster and really get serious about training at a younger age, which is an area where we lagged the East Africans for so long.
What are your goals with racing? Where do you see yourself in the next Olympic cycle?
My goals for the rest of 2013 are similar to the past couple years: get into some bigger races, be in the mix, and race well. I don't like to put a time goal on an event, but rather go into each race run tough, and hopefully be in the contention for the win. Sure, I'd like to make the World Cross Country team and get under the 'A' standard of 27:40 for 10,000 meters, but I really judge my season on how I perform when it counts. For example, I'll ask myself, "Did I really make an effort to hang on in a race where maybe I wasn't feeling great?" Sometimes being able to do that is just as important as hitting a time goal.
What advice could you give to a high school or college runner who wants to excel in cross country?
Consistency is key to success. Having missed a few years with injuries, I can say it's a heck of a lot easier to get faster when you can actually train. One of my goals every year is to find something new I can add to my training that improves my recovery, my form, or keeps me healthy. This could be drills, diet, strength, stretching, or massage.
Where is your favorite cross country course in the world?
Definitely Edinburgh! I hope to race in Ireland and Italy for some cross country next winter so maybe I'll find another course that suits my style as much as Edinburgh.