How Grant Fisher Did It

Grant Fisher and coach Mike Scannell cooling down at what they call "OMP"--Old Man Pace.

Grant Fisher and coach Mike Scannell cooling down at what they call “OMP”–Old Man Pace.

by Jeff Hollobaugh

He made it look so easy. That’s what has confounded the media about Grant Fisher.

Sometimes the running media takes on the echo chamber qualities that we see in the political media. We write for the sake of writing, and like errant pinballs, we bounce off the words and ideas that others write. We scan blogs and discussion boards. We even read what the crazies have to say.

All because we have to generate buzz: Foot Locker Nationals is next week! We need to preview it! We need to say something! And what was said? We saw plenty of predictions that so-and-so would challenge Fisher because his times have been faster this year. The writers looked at the times—these deceptive points of data—and interpreted them at face value. Some haled Fisher as the strong favorite, but that gets boring to repeat article after article, so alternate story lines had to emerge.

Then when Fisher won, gapping the field with deceptive ease, looking over his shoulder repeatedly as if he were wondering where everybody went—the running media said, Of course. What’d we tell you?

They slapped the “legend” mantle on him, for a race that might have been as easy as it looked.

The real question here is not whether Grant Fisher is a legend. He is what he is. It is not how fast he ran or how fast he might have run had the race rolled out differently. The real question is how Grant Fisher did it.

Amazing Training Secrets. There are none. Coach Mike Scannell is an open book and is glad to talk to other coaches about training. But he admits, “I’m almost embarrassed by what we do for training, because it’s so mild [in comparison to the competition].”

That’s because in a Foot Locker field where many of the young men are pushing 100 miles a week, Fisher’s volume was half that. But Scannell cautions: “Who cares? I mean, miles a week is nothing to me. The way you train, the manner you train, the how you train—is everything to me. If I tell you how many miles a week he runs, it means nothing. In the United States, people would say, ‘Grant Fisher runs X miles a week, I’m going to run X miles a week. I’m going to be just like Grant.’ Well, it doesn’t work that way. It’s how you run those miles.”

That volume difference seemed especially striking in the midst of summer, while his competitors crushed serious mileage. Fisher, with his last track meet in late July, was still on a zero-mileage break. “That was kind of nerve-racking at the beginning, knowing that these guys who I would be racing down the road had a three-to-six week jump on me training-wise,” admits Fisher. “But I sat down with Mike, and we planned out the season and pushed all the hard efforts back. We didn’t want to rush things just to get back on the racing scene quickly.”

Says Scannell, “Our training is very tight, there is no doubt about it. It’s very tight. But I can tell you that these other kids run way harder than Grant does. Way harder. It’s just that we are on a very tight line for stress and adaptation.”

The training is specific. The paces that Fisher runs in practice are carefully calculated. The tempo runs are perhaps the most important part of building his fitness. Every run in between serves its purpose. There are no “junk” miles for the sake of building a mileage count.

Scannell and his boys made a lot of trips this fall to Perryville Road, a little dirt lane south of Grand Blanc. The angles of hill match the Balboa Park hill; there is even a tree at the spot where Fisher rehearsed his big move. While his training partners ran repeats up the hill, Fisher ran his up and over. He prepared his legs to not only attack the aggressive downhill, but to sprint at the bottom. He and Scannell learned from the previous year: “He was kind of out of control, and he hammered his quads, do you remember that? And then when he went to his quads 30- 40 seconds later [for the final sprint], they were shot.”

Fisher’s feelings for Perryville Road were, well, complicated. “I would see it on the schedule and cringe. That was a super tough workout. It was harder than a lot of stuff you could do on the track. No matter how good of shape I was in, it was always hard. At the beginning of the year, the first time we did it, I did eight repeats, and I was pretty tired because the hill is steep and long. It definitely takes its toll on you. By the end of the year I could do 10 max, but I was going a lot faster. Even though I dreaded going to the hill, it really prepared me well for the hills out in Balboa and Wisconsin.”

Restraint is important. “There is no workout where at the end Grant can’t walk to the locker room,” says Scannell. “We’re not even close to that. At the end of a race, absolutely. But at the end of the workout, we’re not even close. And I tell people, this is the truth, Grant Fisher ran four quarters hard in training all year. From January 1 to December 31, Two in one workout before Adidas, two in another workout before Juniors. And that was it.”

Scannell is not afraid to pull the plug on a workout if he doesn’t like what he sees. Still very fit himself, he often runs with his boys. Sometimes he can tell by the sound of the footstrike when someone is overextended. Last year, he says, it was rare for Fisher to finish an entire tempo workout as planned. “Grant has never been injured,” he says. “That’s not because of some voodoo doll. We train very specifically and we recover very specifically. It’s not a special skill.”

He’s no longer sharing his body with soccer. In Scannell’s opinion, Fisher’s decision to leave soccer had a huge impact on his fitness. “Our training was shocking, how smoothly it went this year. No slide tackles, no sprained ankles. Last year we interrupted our training and based it on how he felt after soccer. But this year there was no soccer, so it was only stress and adaptation on the running side. We could plan for and complete the training as planned much more frequently than we ever had before. His growth this fall was as good or better than it was in the spring… I’m ready for a spring that we haven’t seen yet out of Grant Fisher.”

Explains Fisher, “It did feel kind of weird but also it was nice not having places to scramble to all the time, all those practices to balance, all those conflicts. Doing two sports at the same time took a lot out of me both physically and mentally… This year I had a lot more time to focus on running, and because of that I paid more attention to details. I really devoted myself to the sport—not that I wasn’t devoted before. But I could really focus on workouts and not be worried about a soccer practice later that evening draining my energy, and not letting me fully recover from the workout and get all the benefit I could.

“Soccer is where my heart was couple of years ago, but running is where my heart is now.”

Most of his races are pieces of a later whole. This is why the running media is usually wrong when they look at a time that Fisher runs and assume it makes a statement about his fitness. In the vast majority of his competitions, he is working on just one piece of the race.

“People have noticed that I don’t really race fast until it’s really time to race fast,” says Fisher. “That’s all due to the training and the preparation. The reason that I don’t race fast in the middle of the year is that I’m not ready to run fast, and the training isn’t geared for me to run fast in October.”

Explains Scannell, “We divide races up like a puzzle. ‘This is the piece that we’re working on today.’ And the thing is, people might say he only ran 4:10 for the mile. No, he didn’t. The kid came home in 1:58. I mean, at some point you’ve got to say, either he’s really stupid, or you’re not working on running a full mile today.”

At the Portage Invitational, where Fisher ran his fastest time of the year, 14:43, he was concentrating on pieces of the puzzle. It was not an attempt to see how fast he could run a complete 5K. Even at the Michigan state finals, where Fisher became only the fifth person to break 15 minutes on the Michigan International Speedway course, he was still working on the pieces.

He kept his cool. Sometimes during the fall it seemed like every other runner in America was saying something about Fisher on the Internet. On occasion, Fisher might glance at the high school scene on various websites, but usually he just follows the college action. Of the prep coverage, he says, “It can be kind of annoying. People running these course records and really fast times, and everyone was asking the question of can they compete for the Footlocker championship. I think seeing that wasn’t the best thing for me training-wise. I’ve realized that it works better to stick to what we’re doing in Michigan, and not really worry about what someone’s doing in some other state. We have our goals and we’re going to do the best we can to achieve them. The websites are great and they are really informative. For me being a racer, I try to avoid them.”

Then there are the fans. When Fisher races, he gets deluged by runners who want to have their pictures taken with him. Not many 17-year-olds have the wiring to handle that kind of overload gracefully. Fisher does: politely, graciously, cheerfully. “Grant gets mobbed,” Scannell reports. “As we’re talking, out of the peripheral vision, you can see people standing right here. They won’t interrupt Grant and I, but they politely stand, and the moment we’re done, boom! ‘Can I get my picture with you?’ He’s a great kid. People love him, and honestly they should. I’m very proud to say that Grant Fisher is a great role model, and if you had a freshman in high school that’s in love with the way that Grant does things, that’s a good thing. Let it go. Because Grant does things the right way. It’s boring. And he does it day after day.”

Every race is meticulously planned. “I know some people think that he just puts on spikes and goes out and wins,” says Scannell. “We cover every minute detail. Honestly. Defending is not easy. When the whole United States wants to beat you? You better be prepared for everything. We prepared for everything.”

Referring to Fisher’s 2013 win, Scannell says, “The success band last year was this wide,” as he holds his fingers an inch apart. “If you don’t do this exactly, you might not win. I knew he was going to be competitive. But winning? That’s a different story.”

For 2014, Scannell prepared Fisher differently. He describes the “mental break” that is important to the Balboa Park course. That’s where runners crest the last big hill, catch their breath, and as they fly the downhill, they gather the momentum for the finish a half mile later. “We went before that,” says Scannell. Rehearsing the move on Perryville Road helped.

“Last year we were maybe 10% ready. This year we were 99.9% ready. Everything was covered,” says Scannell. Even the looking back. “I will take full responsibility for Grant Fisher looking back in the race. He’s never done it before. It was so muddy and so bad on Thursday and Friday. On Thursday we picked out four spots, four specific places to look back. And the reason we did that is, I didn’t want him going around a corner and going down and having somebody jump him. We wanted to know exactly where everybody was. It’s all my fault. He was uncomfortable doing it, as a matter of fact.”

The race did not go as planned. Fisher had no problem sticking to his own plan. It was the competition that didn’t perform the way Scannell thought they might. The hard first mile by Thomas Pollard? That was expected, though not necessarily from him. Fisher did not run alongside him—and no one else did either. Pollard was unable to break away.

What surprised the Fisher camp was the middle of the race. “I expected someone to really hammer the second mile,” says Fisher. “Based on how things went last year, I thought that people might want to try to drain the kick out of a lot of the guys, and push the pace in the middle. Not everyone in that race is a kicker. I thought people would try to string things out. But it didn’t really happen. Some guys went to the front and pushed a little bit, but it wasn’t enough to shake things up significantly. That played more into my hands, with my race strategy. I was prepared for someone to make a solid move. When it didn’t happen, I didn’t panic. It was actually a bit of a confidence booster, because I would be able to make more of a definitive move later on.”

“If I were coaching someone to beat Grant Fisher,” begins Scannell, who stops and admits he shouldn’t say that. But he betrays his thinking when he says, “It had to be so hard at two miles that no one was there, and instead there were 10 guys there.”

In effect, the competition made the race easier for Grant Fisher.

What’s next? Since Fisher made the early decision deadline and chose Stanford, that eliminated half of the questions the media would have had for him this winter. “It could’ve gotten overwhelming if the process had gone on a little bit longer, but I was ready to make my decision. I’m 100% confident in the decision, and it worked out that it happened during the early signing period. From then on I was able to really focus on running, on training, and doing my best, and getting ready for the big meets, and not so much worrying about where I’m going to be next year.”

The other half of the questions Fisher will face all involve the pursuit of the Holy Grail of prep running, the four-minute mile. Just since Foot Locker, he estimates that 75 to 100 people have put the question to him. It’s a topic that makes Scannell cringe, and it’s a conversation that hasn’t happened yet between them.

“For me, Grant Fisher is a sub-4:00 miler. I am 100% certain,” says Scannell. “However, whether or not he does that is a completely different story. And, you know, right now I don’t have any motivation to set up a race to watch him run under four. None.”

Not that Scannell is opposed to seeing Fisher cut 2.03 seconds off his mile PR. “That would be great, but to this day, Grant Fisher and I have never ever discussed going out and running a four-minute mile. Never. I’ve never even asked him, ‘Do you want to do this?’ I’m a terrible coach.” He laughs, but his point is clear. What the coach prefers is competition, not record attempts. “That’s my job – I will find Grant competitive races in track. No doubt about it.”

Fisher knows what’s up. “The pressure is kind of time-driven now in track. It is weird thinking that I’m two seconds away from this barrier that everyone has been talking about… I don’t really view it as a barrier, just because I’ve seen so many people go under it. Obviously not so much on the high school side, but I think it’s much less of a barrier now. If you think of it as a barrier, it becomes a barrier.

“I understand that it’s very difficult to cut time now that I’m pretty low in the four minute [range]. It’s definitely not going to be an easy task to cut down two seconds… Two seconds, it really doesn’t seem like much. Just standing here, two seconds goes by pretty quickly. We’ll see what I can put together this year in track.

“That’s what everyone’s talking about right now. The four-minute mile. But I will set the goals for myself. I usually don’t let other people set goals for me or to set expectations for me. I set them for myself. That’s how we’ll approach the season.”

How talented is Grant Fisher? “I don’t know,” admits Scannell, who thinks his charge probably has 50-second 400m speed now. “Fifty is not fast. So if I can get Grant into the 48-point range this year, I’ll be happy. He’s just getting to the point where he can get fast. But that question really honestly can’t be answered until he’s 21. Then we can see that this is his speed, this is his aerobic capability, his biomechanics, his physiology. This is his cap. But right now, his progression has been like this”—he angles his arm upward—“there’s been no slowdown.”

Speedwork is coming. The last frontier in Scannell’s training plan is speedwork, and the two will finally move toward it this winter. He even hints that we might see Fisher in an 800m at some point. “I have these building blocks, and once you accomplish one, you can add another. Grant hasn’t done any speedwork. You know why? He wasn’t capable of it yet, in my opinion. He wasn’t capable of doing speedwork because he hasn’t been old enough, strong enough and couldn’t recover from it, so we didn’t do it. So this is the last building block for Grant. I’ve never had a kid get to all of these building blocks in high school. Ever. And I think Grant is ready for speedwork, because he’s getting to the point where he can tolerate the recovery from the demands of speedwork.”

Adds Fisher, “Mike wanted me to go to my college coach and say I haven’t tapped into all my potential, that there are still things I can do to improve my fitness and my speed. To actually do some speedwork this spring will be fun. I think with soccer over the years, it’s helped develop my speed quite a bit, but there really hasn’t been any speed work to speak of on the track. It’s always nice going into a season knowing that there are things I can do to get faster, not like I have tapped out on all the possible things to do, and run out of ways to get better. Having Mike as a coach, he always makes sure that there are things we can do to improve.”

Right now, Fisher is taking his well-deserved down-time. Jogging with his friends, getting his wisdom teeth out, visiting relatives in Canada. We may see him emerge to work on some racing “pieces” during the indoor season. And as long as the running media can stay as calm as the 17-year-old from Grand Blanc, everyone should be able to look forward to a memorable track season.

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