Scott McGrath was one of the best harriers in NH in the early to mid 2000s highlighted by his 2003 Individual Class I title and Class I team title in 2002 for Con-Val High School. Recently he has been named the new boys head coach at Oyster River High School taking over for Greg Gephart, who recently retired after 20+ years at the helm. Join us in welcoming Scott back to NH Cross Country and wishing him luck in his 1st year as head coach. We will be hearing from him regarding his challenges and successes on a regular basis throughout the season.
You and your brother were both highly successful and state champions. Please describe what this was like? Positives/Negatives (if any)
Alex and I started running roughly around the same time (ages 9 and 13). We grew up living on the side of Crotched Mountain, so as a way to get us outside in the summer, our dad would say “it’s time run the mountain”. This practice initially meant attempts at keeping a running motion up to the top of the ski hill, but soon evolved into time-trialing the roughly 1.5 mile ascent to our favorite look-out point. Even though Alex was almost 4 years younger than me, he showed more ability at climbing early on and I remember thinking that soccer was way more fun than “running the mountain”. My attitude changed when I entered 8th grade and began realizing the best part of my soccer play was getting to the ball first, and my skill just about ended there. That spring I came out for track and decided the 1600 looked like a pretty fun event. I didn’t believe in warming up because I worried doing so would unnecessarily expend energy I would need for the race, but somehow I still managed to run 5:12 that season, and I was hooked!
Al and I were pretty well separated by age, and throughout my high school years he was mostly cheering on the sidelines. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it seems he was preparing for a massive assault on basically any course record or school record I set. In our first pre-season long run together, he as a frosh and myself as an experienced senior, he ran so hard to keep up with the varsity guys that he hospitalized himself; Dehydration, or something. It became clear then and there he had a will made of steel. As a freshman he broke 10:00 for 3200 and it became pretty clear he was going to be good. I think the highlight of our year on the same HS team together was the indoor Class I Championship where Con-Val finished 2nd overall and I was able to win the 3000, 1500, and run third leg on the winning 4×400 team. Two and a fraction years later, Alex ran 9:08 for 3200 as a Junior and I think everybody realized he was the real deal. I was super proud of him.
I know and love every inch of Derryfield Park. The initial climb is so critical to get right as going out too hard means almost certain death but getting out too slowly makes moving up through the pack difficult. I think the key to running strong at Derryfield necessitates a really strong descent and after cresting the ski slope it’s essential to move as hard down the hill as possible. Maintaining momentum down to the door helps to clear runners nearby you and I recommend not even thinking about the final gradual climb to the finish until it’s in front of you. Three memories stand out to me. (you can pick among these and edit as needed) The first was at the Class I Championships my Sophomore year and the weather was typical; roughly 35 degrees and pouring rain. The course was soup and it was anybody’s race. ConVal came up with a narrow win over favorite Hanover for our first Class I championship title and I had a breakout race finishing 3rd behind a “pretty” strong runner name Russell Brown and my teammate Nick Jenkins.
The following year I wanted to win the Class meet as first returner from the previous year. I ran a tactical race, following Paul Durfee (Laconia) up the ski slope and attacked, leaping over the final barrier and running scared all the way to the finish for the win.
But my most memorable race was at the New England Championships that same year at Derryfield. My teammate Tyler French took off from the start and lead by easily 15 meters in a field of runners including seniors like Ben True, Ahmed Haji, Corey Thorne, Guor Marial (Majak?) and others. Excitement took over and I went straight up after Tyler and the two of us were leading the New England Championships over the hill and had absolutely no business doing so. I was so anaerobic that my arms had gone numb before the 1 mile mark. This race stands out to me because I fought for every single place, and as runner after runner passed me, I pushed through the pain chasing my goal of top 25 and eeked out a 21st place for my first and only All-New England finish in cross country.
Winning Class I my junior year definitely stands out as a strong memory, but the most memorable moments for me are always about the team. During my sophomore year we had a strong team that placed 2nd at the Meet of Champions and it was the first year we made the realistic season goal to finish well at New Englands as a team. The race was on a golf course in Maine and the turf was soaked by overnight rain. We were so novice that none of us had spikes. Londonderry roomed on the same floor as us at the hotel and they lent us duct tape to strap down our shoes so at least they wouldn’t fall off. Londonderry and ConVal uniforms looked so similar, and ironically, both of our teams had chosen to bleach our hair, so during the race, apparently coaches from all across New England were panicking, thinking that some team had placed an impossible 14 runners in the race.
The start of the race was wild. Coach Jenkins had made us aware of a large, 4×4” marker post about 300m into the field of the mass start. Coach had requested that the golf course remove the marker but for some reason it remained there. Our box was in the middle of the field and when the gun sounded we were enveloped by the field and just running for our lives, trying to get out in good position. I couldn’t see the post, but ahead of me I could hear the fast-approaching “clunk”, “CLUNK”, “SLAM” of bodies hitting the marker. My best friend on the team, Ben Jenkins, was running immediately to my right and I dodged left as he nailed the marker head-on and went down. I didn’t see him again that race, but amazingly he finished well enough to help the team finish 7th in New England which was a huge accomplishment for us. I was never more proud of a team effort in high school.
Least memorable? During my senior year in cross country I had a chronically sprained ankle. I sprained it one final time the week of Class meet and had to have it taped by a trainer to feel confident on my feet. The trainer was MIA the day of Class meet and, in a panic, I wound up taping the ankle myself, missing the team warm-up, and started the race having not done more than a stride or two. Coach gave me instructions to warm up into the race and I was probably in about 40th place by the 1 mile mark before I started moving. I wound up finishing 3rd that year but it was bitter sweet because I was the most fit I had ever been and felt like the individual title was mine to lose. My ankle was so bad afterwards that I didn’t run at MOC and obviously missed New Englands my senior year. I found some redemption pretty soon after that during indoor track, running a bunch of PRs like 8:52 for 3000m and 4:06 for 1500m.
What was your favorite high school workout?
Coach Jenkins was fairly experimental and each year looked a little different, so I didn’t feel too attached to any one workout. Although, one staple workout over the years which I usually enjoyed and took a lot of confidence in was “hydrant hill” repeats. The hill is a gradual 400m climb that we would do repeats up and down with about 1 minute to 90 second breaks between. On the downs we practiced free-wheeling downhill which I definitely think helped for practicing the descent in the last mile of Derryfield and the up-hills served to build a good engine and grow confidence in my climbing ability. Varsity runners usually built up to 16 repeats over the season which took some time to complete but the overall volume for the workout was perfect.
Describe the pressure (if any) you felt competing as one of NH’s top runner in high school.
I generally hated the anticipation of races and slept poorly the night before championships. However, I had a chip on my shoulder about not competing regularly among the Class L schools and so I looked forward to attempting real 100% efforts when I got to compare my efforts across classes and at the MOC or New Englands. We often would do a pancake breakfast the morning of races and I relied on the fun and more relaxed attitudes of my teammates, so getting together before the business began helped ease my nerves. Immediately prior to start time, it helped me to wish the other teams around me luck and crack a few (probably lame) jokes. I would often complain about not feeling good which, in hindsight, I think was an attempt to ease expectations I placed on myself. However, once the race started I nearly always felt like I was in my element, enjoying competition, and at Derryfield I basically always descended well and was very rarely passed in the final mile. I can honestly say I never felt “pressure” to perform, as if my school or the wider running community, would be disappointed by a bad race. I think our team usually felt like underdogs, always looking to chase and upset the higher ranked teams, and that’s a good way to approach your running, as there’s always a faster person or program to chase, whether they’re in your state or somewhere else in the country.
As a young runner I felt pretty driven to be competitive with the faster, more experienced runners on my team. I was lucky to have good captains, who modeled what it takes to go faster. I began training in high school as a freshman, so I had a lot of learning to do about training in general. As a freshman, I struggled with Achilles tendonitis which dampened my ability to race well consistently and I sometimes had focus issues, probably due to lack of familiarity with racing. I missed a lot of practices and I would guess I didn’t run more than 20 miles per week on average. I was lucky to make the varsity team and to highlight just how inconsistent I was, I ran 18:47 at the Class meet and a week later I ran almost an entire minute faster (17:52) at MOC. I emerged as a much stronger runner in my sophomore year and learned a lot more about myself as a runner that year than during my freshman year.
Please state where you went to run in college and please describe how this decision was made…how was the experience?
I enrolled at Bentley College (DII) in 2006 mostly for academic reasons. It was the right move from a financial perspective and close enough that home was only a couple hours away. However, after my sophomore year I finally concluded that my field of study (Computer Information Systems) just wasn’t the right path for me. I thrive on interacting with people and the internships I experienced drew a clear picture that I would be doing the exact opposite later on. I made the bold move to drop out in August, and through a series of miraculous events, I was able to enroll at UNH about a week later. The university offered a broad array of options and I eventually declared a major in Sociology as I studied history, economics, and other subjects. The team at UNH was made up of a fantastic group of hard working guys with strong leadership on part of the coaches and our team captain.
I had mixed success in college running due to bouts of a condition called chronic pericarditis. It’s an inflammatory condition affecting the tissue that encompasses the heart. However, when I was able to train consistently I showed that I could compete pretty well in collegiate cross country. While at Bentley I ran times in the low 26’s for 8k. In my senior year at UNH I placed third (25:39), three seconds out of the win, at our home opener and was first for the varsity squad against Providence College, BC and Georgia State. Unfortunately, a couple weeks later, pericarditis struck again and that was the last race I ran in college. My collegiate experience left me hungry to continue competing and I have been part of the Whirlaway Racing Team for the past 5 years, running 1:10 for half marathon and the occasional “fast” road race, like 25:33 for 5 miles. I’ve also had fun running some snowshoe and mountain races, but I wouldn’t consider myself competitive in those disciplines.
Do you have any advice to share with present high school XC runners?
The single most important component of success in distance running has to be “taking care of the little things”. Embracing rest as a priority is the difference between a moderately competitive runner and the top guys in our sport. I can’t stress nutrition enough, and while I don’t necessarily advocate for a Spartan-esque lifestyle, small modifications to your diet (i.e. laying off the Oreos) can have a compounding effect over months of training. Running-specific core strength reduces injury occurrence and makes you faster, and it’s hard to do too much core work. Ultimately, our sport is one of delayed gratification. Running your best takes a lot of inglorious preparation. Coming up flat in a mid-season race is usually a sign you’re doing it right. Not every race will be your best, but you often learn more from the races that don’t go perfectly than the ones that come easily. Finally, be a runner, but don’t necessarily place your entire identity on your running, and definitely not on your last performance. The saying, “You’re only as good as your last race” couldn’t be further from the truth. Trust in the hard work you do, aim for consistency over weeks, months, and years, and you’ll probably be surprised at how far this sport can take you.