A workout so nice they only named it once.
Løpe Magazine, Issue No. 003 – November 2018
By Liam Boylan-Pett
Imagine it is July 2001, and that you are 15 years old at a ski lodge in the middle of the summer in Southeast Michigan, crammed into the dining hall with forty to fifty other toothpick-legged, sleep-deprived high school runners.
It’s the middle of the week at cross-country camp, and you, like everyone else, are exhausted. You have run four hilly miles each morning with the rising sun, then you do hill repeats or a fartlek or a tempo in the afternoon as the heat bears down. In between, you eat in the dining hall and talk about running. All you do is talk about running. Speakers come in and relive their glory days, thinking they’ve imparted a lesson on you. Coaches come in to say what makes a champion. You revel in it, envisioning that one day you’ll be the one these coaches are putting on a pedestal.
Then Ron Warhurst stands before the group. He is the men’s cross-country coach at the University of Michigan, and he is the camp director. He is usually spouting off instructions about what each day’s run will be in his nasally voice. He’s a storyteller, talking in gruff, short sentences, pausing for effect just when the time is right. You want to impress him because, well, he’s one of the best coaches you’ve ever met.
In this moment, he waxes about his favorite workout. It’s a simple workout when he explains it. You start to think about how you might run it. You let your mind wander and can see Warhurst talking to a group one day about how you ran so and so getting ready for the Olympics.
Then, Warhurst explains how Kevin Sullivan ran it, and how he somehow ran every rep faster than you have ever even thought about running.
And your world crashes down around you. He couldn’t have run that fast, you think to yourself. That’s impossible. But you know he did. Warhurst wouldn’t lie about his workout, his pride and joy. You have a long, long way to go.
Now go run 1600 meters at 10-kilometer pace. Then rest for about twenty seconds before going into a 2-kilometer tempo on a road loop. Finish back at the track and roll into 1200 meters at 5-kilometer pace. Then do another road-loop tempo before you hammer 800 meters at mile to 3-kilometer effort. Go out for one last tempo and come back to tag 400 meters. As fast as you can.
And that’s it. You’ve completed the workout that Warhurst is so proud of. The workout that mixes strength and speed. The workout that is great for cross-country and the track. The workout that coaches and elite athletes nationwide have incorporated into their repertoire. The workout that is so well known it goes simply by one name.
That’s The Michigan.
It is cliché to start a running story with Steve Prefontaine, but that is exactly where The Michigan begins.
Ron Warhurst was about one year into his coaching stint at the University of Michigan when he met famed Oregon Coach Bill Dellinger for the first time when walking through an airport. It was only a few weeks after Pre died, and as coaches are wont to do, they, as Warhurst puts it, “were B.S.’ing” and talking about workouts.
Before he died, Pre had done this workout in Eugene that piqued Warhurst’s interest. “We ran him a 1200 on the track,” Dellinger told him. “Then he went out to the trail and ran two or three miles at five-minute pace.” Then, Dellinger explained, Pre came back to the track for another 1200-meter rep.
It was genius, Warhurst thought. “You’re busting your ass on the track,” Warhurst says looking back on the conversation today. “Then you go do some pace work. Then you bust your ass again.” He couldn’t get the workout out of his mind, and the seed was planted.
The story passed down through the Michigan track team is that Warhurst jotted the notes that would bore The Michigan onto a beer-soaked napkin. And, according to Warhurst, it’s not far from the truth. All you have to do is ask him.
When he talks about creating the workout today, he speaks quickly, giggling at times when he remembers how he conceived the thing. He’s 75 now, so he says some of the details may be a little off, but he remembers sitting down, having a few beers, and devising The Michigan…
It wasn’t long after his chat with Dellinger in the Summer of 1975, and Warhurst could not stop thinking about Pre’s workout. It reminded him of a cross-country race. But he thought he could make the workout even more suited for a race over hill and dale.
“OK,” he thought to himself, visualizing how a race begins. “Everybody goes out like a bat out of hell. Then they settle into a pace.” A mad dash to get to the front of the pack with the other contenders. “So,” he decided, “we’ll start with a mile on the track.”
Then, to mimic that “settling in,” he would have the team do a tempo run off the track. He’d send them out around Michigan’s football stadium, he thought to himself and laughed. The climb up South Main Street is no joke—this was going to be hard.
But no cross race stays on pace, Warhurst knew. Eventually, someone would test the field to find out who the players were. “They’re gonna make a break,” he thought. “So, now we’ll do a 1200 on the track, and you gotta run your ass off.” Warhurst scribbled notes. He tried thinking like a runner who felt good. That was the mindset he wanted to be in as he created this thing.
After the 1200 rep, the pretenders would gone. Time to settle in again, he thought. One more tempo loop around the Big House. They would only be about seven kilometers into the workout at that point, and this was a 10-kilometer race he’s trying to get ready for. Someone would try to break the field one more time before the final sprint. So, Warhurst decided, let’s do an 800 on the track. He cussed at himself that the workout still wasn’t long enough, so he added one more tempo loop.
But a race does not end with a tempo. It ends with a sprint. So Warhurst prescribed one more 400.
“A.U.G.,” he thought for the final rep.
All. You. Got.
A.U.G. is exactly what Warhurst gets from the majority of his athletes. He began his coaching career at Michigan in 1974 after running for Western Michigan in the 1960s. He served in the Marine Corps until 1970 and brought both a toughness and loving attitude to his coaching. Like many old school coaches, he’d yell at you in one moment and wrap his arm around you in the next. He cares. And it showed in his 35-year career at Michigan, which ended in 2010 when he retired.
There are staples at many collegiate track programs, workouts and races that teammates reminisce about for years. Routes are passed through generations. Workouts are spoken about in lore. Races are dissected and scrutinized. For the Michigan track team, The Michigan is mentioned just as frequently as the unforgettable races.
Warhurst remembers Alan Webb, yes the same Alan Webb who was the subject of a book during his one year at Michigan, running 3 minutes, 2 seconds for the 1200 rep. He remembers a handful of guys running 1 minute, 54 or 55 seconds in the 800. And he remembers Nick Willis getting down close to 53 seconds in the 400. Willis says it was 51, and he has training partner Will Leer’s running log as proof.
Willis is Warhurst’s most accomplished athlete. He has won silver and bronze in the 1500 meters at the Olympics and is a sub-3 minute, 50 second miler. He remembers what he calls the greatest Michigan of all time—and he isn’t the one with the accolade.
The New Zealander came to Ann Arbor in the fall of 2002 as one of the best recruits in school history—he was more comparable to Webb than most remember, despite Webb’s 3 minute, 53.43 second national high school record. Willis had run 4:01.32 in the mile as a 17-year-old, and he was redshirting his sophomore track season because he was going to represent New Zealand in the Athens Olympics.
It was the weekend of Penn Relays, and he was back in still-chilly Ann Arbor with sleet whipping down, working out with two other Olympic hopefuls: Kevin Sullivan and Tim Broe. Sullivan was fifth in the 2000 Olympic 1500 behind a who’s who of the some of the 1500 meters’ best of all time. Kenya’s Noah Ngeny upset Hicham El Guerouj of Morocco, who won silver. Bernard Lagat, of Kenya at the time, was third, and Mehdi Baala of France was fourth. Broe, meanwhile, would be an Olympian in the 5,000 meters in 2004, and was a world championship team qualifier in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. He graduated from The University of Alabama in 2000, and in 2004 was training under Warhurst in Ann Arbor.
The three of them met at the Michigan track for a crack at The Michigan. It was the year after journalist Chris Lear spent the year chronicling Webb as a freshman in the maize and blue. On this day, not even Warhurst was at the track. Instead, Willis found himself with two veterans who were ready to hammer the hell out of a benchmark workout.
“I jumped into the big league with the big boys,” Willis says.
Normally during the workout, you take turns leading. One guy takes the first half of the mile, then someone takes the second. Another gets the 1200, then the 800 and the 400 are decided based on who is feeling good.
This day, however, Sullivan was on a mission.
At the Ferry Field track in Ann Arbor—which is home to the location where in 1935, Jesse Owens set four world records in one day—The Michigan starts near the steeplechase pit, 200 meters from the standard finish line. “That’s so they can go right into the tempo,” Warhurst says.
On that April day in 2004, Sullivan walked to the 200-meter start line and took off in front of Broe and Willis, taking the three athletes through what Willis calls the most impressive Michigan he’s ever seen. Not that Willis was really a part of it. “We took off and we never saw him again,” Willis says.
Despite the wind and sleet, Sullivan ran 4 minutes, 17 seconds for the opening mile. At that point, Willis had never broken 4:30 in the workout. He ran 4:23 with Broe, but it was a fool’s errand to keep up with Sullivan, who didn’t have time to wait with them to begin the tempo. For Willis, it was all a blur after that point.
He went through the motions. Hammering up the hill to the Big House, doing his best to keep Sullivan in his sights. But he couldn’t make a dent in Sullivan’s workout. “He was all business that day,” Willis says. “That was when I was introduced to what being a professional runner was. No joking. No complaints about not having pacemakers. He just got the job done that day.
“It was also bloody frustrating.” Willis wanted to keep up. But he couldn’t on any part of the workout—the reps or the tempos.
Which is the beauty of The Michigan; there are so many different areas a runner can excel. If you’re more of a strength runner, you push up the hill on the way to the football stadium. Middle-distance runners survive as long as they can hoping to get to the final rep. The 5,000-meter runners hope to master the entire thing.
Somehow, the workout that was developed on a napkin has turned into one of the most versatile pieces of training in the world of track and field.
“I didn’t realize how smart I was back then,” Warhurst jokes.
Ron Warhurst, with 2004 Olympians (from L to R) Nick Willis, Kevin Sullivan, and Tim Broe. (Courtesy Michigan Athletics)
At Columbia University (where, full disclosure, I ran track), our coach called our version of The Michigan “Baker Blast”—after the name of the stadium. Coach and agent Stephen Haas recently posted on Instagram that his star athlete Edward Cheserek ran a “Michigan” in Flagstaff, Arizona, and that they were thinking about calling it The Lumberjack, with it being at seven-thousand feet and all. Warhurst remembers telling North Carolina State coach Rollie Geiger the workout—they started running it with a name of The Frasier, the restaurant where Warhurst told Geiger*.
The Michigan has lived many lives. Will Leer, who ran at Pomona Pitzer before heading to the Oregon Track Club and placing fourth at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 1500 meters, ran his first version of The Michigan in Eugene under coach Frank Gagliano. Running at Eugene High School and on a flat loop of the Amazon Trail, it wasn’t that bad. A few years later, he was training with Willis and Warhurst wondering how the hell anyone could ever finish one of these workouts. “For it to be done properly,” Leer says, “it needs to be done at Ferry Field. I needed Willis to hold my hand through the whole thing because I was convinced that there was no possible way I was making it.”
That feeling of despair, according to Warhurst, is the point. There is a simple adage in running: You must learn how to run fast on tired legs. You can go into the science behind it and look into lactic acid, or you can think about it logically and within the parameters of how a race plays out. Warhurst remembers watching Kenyan runners dominate the 1970s running scene by throwing a 61-second lap into the middle of a 5,000-meter race. They would then drop back to 68 seconds, but because no one went with them, the race was done for anyone who didn’t respond to the move. So, Warhurst thought, we must throw surges into our workouts. He laughs thinking about the torturous workouts he would create, like 20 by 400 with a 50-meter jog between each one and times ranging from 68 to 61 seconds. To contend at a world level, however, an athlete had to learn how to get through it. When he created The Michigan, he had a workout that forced a runner to “get through it.”
“This is something that is very unique,” Warhurst says. “It’s not just an interval session. This gives the athlete an opportunity to explore where his or her head is at. Where their emotions are. When the grinding starts, it tests your mettle.”
Warhurst loves the mental side of it. He loves that the athlete has to get it done on the tempo loop when no one is watching. “I think it’s a good, true test of becoming physically and emotionally tough when no one is around to browbeat you into it,” he says.
He loves that it makes the athlete tougher. Or, as Warhurst says about The Michigan, “It’s like eatin’ dirt and spinach.”
Dirt and spinach are acquired tastes.
“I’m not sure it’s so great for everyone,” Willis says of The Michigan. “From my experience, nearly everyone fails on their first attempt.” He coaches runners of all levels through his Miler Method program, and he understands how daunting a workout that interchanges track and tempo work can be for an athlete not ready for it.
Warhurst solves that problem by telling coaches to adapt. When he speaks to high school coaches, he recommends doing a 1200-meter rep to start. And he also suggests measuring out a shorter tempo loop. “Most high schools have some loop around campus that has to be around 1200-meters,” he says.
Or, if you’re Lex Williams, a Michigan grad who was living in Normal, Illinois as a coach at Illinois State a few years ago, you create your own version of The Michigan by finding a loop that resembles the route around the Big House. Williams combed over the terrain around Normal’s track and put together a loop worthy of The Michigan.
“Lex is such a believer in this workout,” Leer says. “He believes in its effectiveness to transform athletes.”
And while the workout has trickled out to the rest of the running world, it’s still at home in Michigan. Sullivan is the head coach of the Wolverines now, and he has his athletes run The Michigan. It is still part of the lore.
Warhurst still coaches, even if it’s not for Michigan in an official capacity. He works with professionals and helps out with Sullivan when he can. He is, however, still very interested in The Michigan. “I go down there when Sully has the team do it,” he says. “I get them fired up for it.” He is also still prescribing it to his athletes.
On November 12, a little over forty-three years after its inception, Warhurst meets Willis at the Ferry Field track at the University of Michigan. They have been working together for nearly 15 years, and they both know what they’re there for that day.
Willis, 35 now, is getting ready for the Manchester Road Race on Thanksgiving Day in Connecticut. It’s a 4.78-mile road race that historically gets out extremely quickly thanks to a slightly downhill mile. The second mile is a drastic climb, however, so the pace slows. Then there’s a downhill third mile before the pace relaxes in prep for a final push for home. The ups and downs and pace changes are a lot, Warhurst knows, like a cross-country race.
So, ten days before Thanksgiving, Warhurst and Willis are at Ferry Field getting ready for another go at The Michigan. It’s cold day in Ann Arbor, but the weather is supposed to be even worse the next day, when the workout was originally scheduled. Willis ran 2 hours and 8 minutes on Saturday then 10 miles on Sunday. It’s not the ideal lead-in, but it’s the card they have been dealt.
Willis’ best version of the Michigan included a 4 minute, 16 seconds mile, 3 minutes, 8 seconds for the 1200, 1 minute, 58 seconds for the 800, and 51 for the 400. That was in the midst of the spring track season. On this day, he runs the first mile in 4 minutes, 22 seconds. It’s a good start. Nothing amazing, but for this time of year Willis will take it. He heads straight out and hammers the loop around the Big House. The 1200 goes well, too: Willis runs 3 minutes, 15 seconds. As he slowly makes his way over to the start of the tempo loop, Warhurst yells at him: “Put it in your head that you better run sub-2:06.”
Warhurst wants him to focus. He wants him to get through the grind. That’s the whole point. Willis can’t ease up on the climb up to the stadium, but he has to be ready for another surge, too.
He returns to the track and leans into the 800 as Warhurst clicks his watch. Warhurst encourages him as he runs, Willis’ smooth stride nearly unchanged from his days on the Michigan track team. Warhurst stops his watch after two laps: 2 minutes, 5.5 seconds.
No time to revel in it, however. There is one more tempo loop to go before the A.U.G.
Willis does not slack. No, Warhurst isn’t out on the loop shouting to keep pace. But that’s what Warhurst and Willis love so much about it. The workout forces the athlete to contemplate the pain. “It’s not a bee sting,” Warhurst says. “It’s a steady thing that keeps coming at you. It’s a toothache, a grind. But you can function with a toothache. It’s an annoyance, but you can’t feel sorry for yourself. You get through it, and when you’re done you feel like you climbed Mt. Everest.” Willis keeps grinding through the last tempo lap and rolls into the final quarter-mile.
“Then he ran a 56,” Warhurst laughs of Willis’ last rep.
It’s still a thrill, The Michigan.
And it still connects.
Later that day, Willis texted Leer. “He only sent four numbers,” Leer says.
“I knew exactly what they meant.”