October 7, 2010 |

Lende, retiring as coach, looks back on 17 years

Heather Lende coached her last cross-country meet Saturday in Anchorage, capping 17 years and teams that won 12 regional championships and twice placed second at state.

During her tenure, five Haines runners were enshrined in the Alaska School Activities Association’s 3A cross-country hall of fame: Carl Blackhurst, Chandler Kemp, Ella Allred, and Lende’s daughters, J.J. and Stoli.

As an individual, Blackhurst twice won the state championship meet and he and several others placed place first at regional championships. Four of Lende’s Glacier Bear runners went on to compete on college teams and at least four others have run marathons. In an interview this week, Lende was asked about the program, changes she’s seen, and the future.


What were your career highlights and lows?

The highs were that first season, training Carl Blackhurst for a state championship. I began coaching because I knew Carl, and (husband) Chip and I were both running a lot of races in those days, and Carl would show up. When the previous coach retired, and the school couldn’t get a teacher to do it. The program was going to be axed. Principal Gary Mathews, in a leap of faith, hired a community member.

The low was the year I had three runners total. But, you know, one was my son Christian, and another was Anne Hansen and she went to the Air Force Academy, so there was success and rewards there, as well. It was easy to travel with them, that’s for sure. I could take my car to Juneau rather than the school van.

Stewart Dewitt’s 11th place state finish in 1996 was a highlight. I remember him asking me what he should do, and I said, ‘When the gun goes off, run as fast as you can, and don’t stop until you cross the finish line.’ Stewart was not supposed to finish that strong – and he did, on guts, mainly. I have used that story to inspire runners ever since. Then there is Nick True, who barely made the team as high school runner. He wasn’t a natural, but he runs marathons now.


How have students changed since you started?

I don’t think the kids have changed that much -- some are great athletes, some are not, some are harder to inspire, some easier. Mostly, Haines kids are smart and nice and active, and that’s a constant. The successful ones work harder the rest of the year, is all.

The times have changed. A trip to state used to be super important to the kids because they could shop in Anchorage. They could go to stores they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Then came catalogs, and now on-line, and so they don’t care that much about the trip. Also, the rise of computers and iPods and cell phones have made for quieter, less social teams.

I used to bring a duffel bag of books and games on long ferry rides. Now they watch personal DVDs. I think cross-country will be even more important to this plugged-in generation, because their daily run may be the only time, ever, that they are unplugged and tuned in more to nature and the world around them, and alone with their own thoughts.

How has the job changed?I don’t think the job has changed all that much. It’s still all about fitness and running. In a sort of evangelical way, I preach the gospel of good health and fitness to these young runners, and especially the mind-body connection. The emotional and mental benefits of running are as important as the physical. I think many of them have taken those lessons and the lifestyle to heart. They are good, healthy people, and that’s the real success.

How important to the program is finding fast runners, like Blackhurst?

Having fast, dedicated runners like Carl, J.J. and Chandler builds teams, and the sport. If students see their friend winning a race, they think, "Gee, if she can do it, I can." They also see how hard those front runners train, and realize that if they run year-round, if they are the first one to the top of the hill in practice, that they will do better. Running is really so much easier to coach that way than basketball or volleyball. It’s very basic. You get out of it what you put into it. A few strong, dedicated runners also attract students who want to get to state, or win a regional meet, but may not be a star – they know that if they can make the team with a top runner on it, then they too can be on a winning team, so that’s a big draw.

How important are school activities like sports?

The community needs to think of our activities as our advanced classes. They really are what we do for gifted and talented kids, and how we make all of our students achievers -- from cross-country and basketball to DDF and choir-- these are where our school really challenges students. The activities and teams are absolutely critical to educating our young people, and to their future success. I think activities should be curricular and required. I once told a superintendent that I thought every kid that was failing should have to come to cross-country practice. Any kid that argued his way right out of a classroom should be on a debate team. It is a shame that school eligibility rules exempt them.


What were your thoughts at your final meet?

That this was my last trip did not color my view so much. I think the team is in great hands. Liam (Cassidy) is a terrific coach, and I really believe that we have to start changing some of the old guard to continue these programs. Mainly, I’m just tired of sleeping on floors with a dozen teenagers. Younger, less-beat-up bodies are better suited to the rigors of the travel schedule.


What advice do you leave your successors?I think the best advice I can leave any other coaches is not to give up on the kids or the programs. Sometimes I wish you could lay down the law and cut a kid who skips practice. The numbers often don’t allow for that. Every now and then you’ll get a great (runner) but the rest of the time, you are putting money in the bank (hoping) some day that will be just what that former runner needed to succeed. I was on the school board, and I realized that I could do more to educate Haines’ kids coaching than making policy. I think I have, and that’s a huge reward.