Rick Riley, High School Running, Then and Now

In 1966, Rick Riley set the high school boy’s 2-mile outdoor record with a stunning 8:48 with Gerry Lindgren on the side of the track cheering him on. In the next few years, he would race—and beat—some of the greatest runners of the era, including his future roommate, Steve Prefontaine. Training partners included Jim Ryun and Billy Mills.

Rick Riley is now the coach at St. George’s Academy in Spokane, Washington.  I met him at a meet this past track season and chatted. A couple of weeks ago, I sent an email and asked if I could interview him. He said yes, saving me the trouble of begging.

Unlike the last two interviews I’ve done, Rick and I chatted on the phone for more than an hour and a half rather than swapping emails. .I didn’t know why Rick was asking for a phone interview until we started talking. A broken wrist will tend to hinder typing on a keyboard. The phone was easier.

RICK RILEY: I could do the email thing except, I don’t know if I’ve seen you since the track meet out at Ritzville, but right after our district  meet, running with the kids in the trails behind St. George’s I fell and broke my wrist.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Oh wow. (note to self – try to be at least a little more insightful!)

RICK RILEY: I got my cast off two weeks ago but I was in a cast for 7 weeks and now the wrist is free, but it’s still slow. I still have pain and not as much mobility in that left wrist so, typing when I’m answering now is still a process. I’m kind of typing with my right hand, and thank God it was my left hand that I broke.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Yeah, I know that feeling. There’re been a few times I’ve gone done on a trail and the first thing I do is a quick systems check, is anything broken.

RICK RILEY: Well, I knew right away I’d broken it. I mean, it wasn’t that extremely painful, it was just different. I hit really hard and I started to get some pain. We kept right on running, like what are you going to do actually? Somebody said, “Why did you keep running?” I said, “Because I’m not going to walk out of the woods. There’s only one way out.”

Rick said this last bit, laughing. It’s the kind of humor that runners get and make everyone else think that we’re all a little strange. From there, we delved into a list of questions that I had sent his way, covering topics from the changes he’s seen since his high school days to trying to pay runners as professionals to what made Steve Prefontaine so darned iconic. For a list of the questions, please visit yesterday's post.


RICK RILEY: You have some great questions, the questions were excellent.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Thank you! I kinda joke with people that this stuff is going to go on a website that will never make any money, but it’s one of those labor of love things. I’ll get rid of a whole bunch of stuff before I give up on this.

RICK RILEY: It’s kind of like coaching.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Yeah. If you’re in it for the money then someone lied to you.

RICK RILEY: I know, don’t add up your hours. There’s just an ongoing parade of kids in and out of the house during the summertime either doing runs or they’ll drop by in their bikes or something.

Coaching runners I think is unique in the relationship you build with these kids. It’s different than any other sport that I’m aware of. My track coach from high school, Herm Caviness, is celebrating his 80th birthday next week. You know, I still talk to him on the phone.

We camped together and hunted and fished and everything else when I was a kid, and I still have a good relationship with him. I occasionally call him and say, “Hey, what about this workout, what do you think about this?” It’s kind of interesting the respect, what kind of relationships you build with these kids.

PAUL DUFFAU:      Yeah. That’s kind of interesting because, in high school, I was football player and a discus thrower, kind of completely out of the running scene. I had a track coach in my junior and senior year that told me discus throwers need to run. I guess I got fast enough to keep up with the girls. I was not a speedy runner.

RICK RILEY: That’s one of the things, when we’re talking to kids about turning out and telling them that they could be a good field event kid and the first thing they say is, “But I don’t want to run.”

And we try to communicate, you don’t have to run, you don’t even do the 2-mile or a mile and half warm up the kids are doing, you guys do something else.

While they’re doing that part, you’re going to do the stretching, you’re going to do the dynamics, and the strength stuff but you’re not going to be out there running. You don’t have to worry doing the running.

PAUL DUFFAU: After high school, I pretty much didn’t run until I hit my late 30s. And then being the soul of moderation I am, I went from not running, to doing a marathon, and then, six months later, doing an ultra because I discovered I may not be very fast but I don’t break.

RICK RILEY: That’s pretty admirable. I have never raced anything over 10 miles. I’ve run 15 miles in a marathon, way back in the day, for training, I guess, what we would call a tempo today but basically, I have great admiration for people that can run 26 miles and beyond, that’s like a whole different world that I was ever in.

PAUL DUFFAU:      It’s a lot different world. You take the pain and instead condensing it to the end of the race, you just stretch it out.

It’s a whole less intense.  I remember a piece of advice I got in my first ultra-marathon,  9 ½ hours in. I’m uncomfortable. And a guy went by me and goes, “You do realize this is supposed to hurt?” It was like a little light bulb, “oh. . . . okay, never mind.” So, sometimes you have to communicate that to the kids too. You’re a mile in, it’s going to hurt some more, but you’ll survive this.

RICK RILEY: That’s exactly right. Absolutely.

PAUL DUFFAU:   You had mentioned while you were out there at the Undeberg Meet that you didn’t even start running until you were a freshmen in high school. We’re seeing kids starting to run a whole lot earlier, but did you play sports prior to that?

RICK RILEY:   You know, I didn’t. I lived in Curlew, Washington until I was 13 years old. Obviously, in those little schools, you have 2 sports, basketball and baseball. And I wasn’t really that great in either one of those and when we moved down to Spokane, into bigger schools, I had no aspiration to doing anything like that.

So, I turned out for track at Sacajawea junior high and, at the time, we ran the half mile. I finished 3rd in the All-City. I did a little bit of training that summer, we ran cross country across summer. . . I ran cross country that fall. I was undefeated in cross country, I never lost a race. We competed junior varsity and I never lost a race in cross country. I only lost 3 races my entire cross country career in high school and all 3 were in my junior year. I found that I was pretty suited, my talent seem to lie in, running the longer races. And really, when my training took a quantum leap was at the end of my sophomore year.

I had been injured with some hip issues.  There’s been a pain in my hips and I think it had to do with your growth plates. I think it had to do with just the stress that was going on and I started training pretty hard compared to what I’d been doing. My best mile in league competition was a 4:36— but in the summer I ran 4:23.

PAUL DUFFAU:   Wow that’s a pretty big improvement. . .

RICK RILEY:   And that was the indicator I think that I had some pretty serious talent. And everything pretty much took off from there.

Interestingly enough I went back up north—my grandparents live up in Ferry County up on the Colville river—and worked bucking bales and things like that. As a kid, I think that, even though I didn’t start running, it was back in the days when you didn’t have a lot of distractions and [we were] really, really active outdoors.

My uncle he’s actually younger than I am, more like my little brother—he and I had a raft that we built, we’re on the river all the time, we’re hiking the hills with packs on, and everywhere we went we had to go by bike. We were swimming and hiking and building tree houses and digging tunnels.

You know, the work that we did doing the bale thing is pretty physical work, too, so I was a strong kid. I came down with a pretty good skill set in terms of strength.

Knowing how to deal with discomfort and pain or whatever you know, running came pretty natural for me. I know a lot of kids start a lot younger these days, I’m not sure if it’s an advantage. What I see tends to be super fast times because you’re looking at smaller, lighter bodies. I mean, they’ve got the great cardiovascular system but as the kids grow . . .  the take on Kyle Wilmouth at North Central when he ran so fast when he was a freshman and a sophomore was because he was very, very small but, as he got a little bit older, his body simply could not withstand the rigors of training.

What I see in that age group think tends to be lots of great times, particularly among the girls. After a couple of years when girls start growing, the body starts maturing, and even boys, they just don’t get that much better.

I don’t feel that I was disadvantaged by any means you know. [about not running at a younger age.] 

PAUL DUFFAU:   Okay, I actually wrote a blog post about a month ago, called Freshmen Girls and Senior Women. We have a couple of 7th grader girls last year, they were doing really, really well both cross country and track. One of the things we’ve been advising them is we don’t know where you’re going to be at in 2, 3, 4, 5 years. You might be bigger, stronger, faster or you might not and there’s no way that we’re going to be able to change that. We’re dealing with genetics there, so you do the best you can with the body you got. And then, give yourself some time to grow through this because when in your 20s, you’re going to be a good runner. You might not be world class, because maybe three people in the whole country get to claim that. 

RICK RILEY: And that’s very true, like with coaching Madison Ward. I don’t want to say it’s a fear, but it’s a reality, that she may or may not get better.

John Knight basically says that the main thing, the number one thing that girls need to do is to train in the off season so they don’t start putting on weight or else things start changing.

On the other hand, if the girls don’t have enough body fat, they run into other issues. All you can do is hope that they will experience a good high school career.

I’ve seen a couple of girls where their whole lives were just literally turned over because it was so good, as freshmen, as sophomores and all of a sudden in their junior year, it’s just wasn’t happening.  The problem is there is a continual flow of very, very good freshmen coming in, girls primarily. As times goes on, I’ve seen even faster and stronger freshmen boys.

You know, it’s interesting. I would say, one of the things that I see different compared to when I was running is that dynamic, that, and greater numbers of more athletic kids in the future that are going to be runners.

PAUL DUFFAU:   I think every coach had seen that and trying to maintain that balance. The society around sports have changed and I’m not sure I like some of the changes I see where we’re putting an awful lot of pressure on kids. Instead of going out and doing your best—which is more a process oriented type of thing—we’re going out and saying, “We need you to win.”

 I’m not so sure that that’s the best thing for the development of the kids, long term. I think going out, playing all out, and if you did your best, that’s a pretty good start to anything. It carries over to everything in life.

RICK RILEY: Well, I think even I, as a coach, I’ve been guilty of that. I’ve seen a couple of boys that are really talented and they work real hard and they’re very successful but sometimes I feel like, it’s just a big race, you just don’t perform.

You’re right, long term, there is more to this being successful as an athlete than just winning everything that you do. And I think part of well, you hit it right on the nose. Our whole society, certainly, had always been, to a degree, some glorification about running skills but the enormous amount of money and attention that is given athletes compared to back in the day. . . It hasn’t changed that much in the running world where very, very few people make money at this, but for sports in general there is just an enormous amount of money. I’ve seen and experience it in families and my own family, people I’m related to, in the area of soccer. Every parent thinks their kid is good enough to go to school on an athletic scholarship. And particularly, I see soccer is that there are semi-professional coaches that are also involved in the sale of the uniforms and whatever. It’s that money pit. I mean, as a parent, you can take 5, 6, 8, $10,000 bucks a year in the private coaching, private clubs, travel with the hope that your kid is going to become a collegiate athlete.

And it’s just so rare, you know, this filtering process of kids becoming top class collegiate athletes. They’ve gone through all the various high school programs, then they go to college, let alone to get to this world class level where they might get professional pay.

You’re far better off to go to college, get a degree, and hope we get a job in today’s economy.

The pressure is upon kids to be successful athletically is pretty tough. Schools like Ferris High School hire strength coaches. I mean, there is a guy that makes $30,ooo a year who is not on staff at there, a privately employed strength coach for the football program. That’s just one example.

I have been part of that culture where I coached Katie Reidy at St. George’s.  I was employed to coach her. That was really new ground for me and I was very uncomfortable because we were friends.

“I can’t take money for doing this,” I said, and it was like, “why would you not?”

“But you know, I’ll do this, you don’t have to pay me anything,” I said.

We see that more and more and more in terms of parents trying to get their kids advantaged in sports, trying to make them better athletes. You can get them to training, but the best runners I have ever known were not kids that needed extra kick in the rear end.

I got up at 5:30 every morning and went 5 days a week and went for a run day in and day out, no matter what the weather was. I ran 10 to 15 miles in the evening even when there wasn’t a coach around. I read everything I could get my hands on in terms of training materials, because I wanted to know what it took to be the best guy in the world.

I wasn’t interested in what the next high school guy was doing. I want to know what some guy in Germany was doing and what some guy in Australia was doing, or what the guy that won the last gold medal was doing, because that was what I want to be.

To me, the best, particularly, the best runners are the ones that don’t need a whole lot of prodding. It’s changed quite a bit since that day just in terms of how coaches tend to control the whole training schemes of athletes, trying to keep them from doing too much say, versus too little.


RICK RILEY: I don’t mean that’s a negative thing. What is different about what successful coaches are doing and what I’m trying to do at St. George’s is create a culture where kids want to be a part of this.

I’m the guy that welcomes anybody of any ability—and you don’t have to be a state champion to be welcome in my program—, as we talked a minute ago about doing your best.

It’s just as challenging for the kids, for the kids running 5:30 as it is for some kids as it is running 4:30. It hurts just as much and it requires the same amount of focus depending upon ability. Sometimes those kids, the not so gifted kids are the one that I admire the most because I think it’s harder for them, day in, day out, it’s harder for them.

PAUL DUFFAU:  We’ve got at least one young man down here in Asotin and I see him just out constantly. Great attitude, hard worker, and he’s likely not going to college on an athletic scholarship because those are rare, especially for male runners. He’s one of the kids that you kind of look at and go, “Okay, Brian is going to do well in life because he’s got the big stuff already figured out.”

RICK RILEY: Yeah, and the bigger picture is that’s how you should look at it. Life goes on, I realize how much talent I have, but my greatest gift was my ability to focus and work.

 I knew how to work I mean, my dad was a head foreman, never went beyond the 8th grade in school, came from a huge Irish family. I was around people—my grandpa owned the saw mill and a logging company—and everybody that I knew, what they did to get ahead in life was work hard. It was all about work, very seldom that anybody got a day off. I mean, you work on a ranch, you’re up before daylight milking cows and you know, you went to bed about 10 o’clock last night after you changed the sprinklers you know. I totally got it.

PAUL DUFFAU:   And cows don’t take Sunday off.

RICK RILEY: You know, it was about work. My whole philosophy in high school was, I’m going to outwork anybody out there. There is nobody in this planet that’s going to work harder than I am.

Sometimes, it was to my downfall.

That was my philosophy. I think one of the greatest things that kids can learn today is just set a goal, work hard, believe in yourself.

As coaches, that’s the number one thing I think we should teach. Set a goal that is not easy to achieve and be willing to work for it. It’s such an amazing thing as a coach and a gratifying thing to see a kid accomplish these things that they did not believe a year, or 2 years or 3 years before that was even remotely possible. And they bought into the work and they continue to believe that, whatever circumstances that was thrown at them, they were going to be successful.

That’s hugely gratifying. 

That's the end of the first part of the interview. We moved on from there to how to professional running financially secure enough to allow athletes to train full-time. Pre gets a mention, too. Expect that on Friday. Sunday, we'll wrap it all up.

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