The Science Behind One Connecticut Coach's Success In XC

Coaching cross country can be as much a science as it is a sociology experiment. 

But for those who tread those lines expertly and efficiently, there can be a definite return on investment. 

Take West Hartford (Connecticut) Hall High cross country head coach Jeff Billings, for example. 

The third-year head coach of the program has perfected an Excel spreadsheet that tracks every single runner in his program over their four years at the school. It logs career best times and every race ever run, converts course efforts by scale, and then produces a mathematical rating -- ala speed ratings -- of aptitude given the level the runner is at in his or her career.

"I love numbers," said Billings, who teachers math at Hall, a public school with about 1,700 students. "That's my whole life. My father was a statistician. But ultimately, I can't wait to sit down at a computer and see which guy improved the most and send those emails." 

Coming from Billings, that's not really surprising. He's a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the nephew of legendary Boston Marathon winner and Runner's World editor at large Amby Burfoot. 

What may be surprising is that Billings both ran at MIT and was the captain of the college's baseball team. 

He loves the diamond as much as running -- and he coaches the sport at Hall, too. 

But coaching cross country and track may take up the most of his time and effort. It should be noted, too, that Billings has an assistant coach, Everett Hacket, whom he considers an invaluable piece of the program and one who designs training blocks for his athletes. 

Billings has a very good running background. At MIT, he put up approximate PRs of 4:37 in the mile, 9:17 in the 3K, and 16:22 for the 5K -- Hackett is an alumni of Hall and ran at George Mason, where he posted a 14:03 5K on the track and the 10K in 29:43. 

But after MIT, he pursued tech rather than teaching. 

So for a few years, he worked in Silicon Valley, plugging numbers and creating binary systems as a software engineer at Oracle. 

He needed a hobby outside work. And that's when he found teaching. Once a week and during the evenings, he would often tutor young students once a week in math and then coach at the local little league.

It didn't take long. Once Billings began to teach, he fell in love. He eventually joined the staff at Palo Alto (California) High, starting as an assistant cross country coach before eventually becoming the team's head coach. That happened just two years after graduation, which meant he gave up a big salary at Oracle for the chance to inspire minds inside the classroom. 

At the time, he was 25 and not far off from his personal efforts at MIT, so he often challenged his cross country team to obscure bets like, "If the top five freshman kids run this time, I'll shave my head" -- which really happened. 

"It was fun and it gave us a competitiveness to it," Billings said. "It was often, 'If you reach this goal, I'll do this.'" 

Billings also started a coaching challenge at Palo Alto which was a new take from the traditional time trial. Rather than rush his entire program out on one massive preseason grading scale, he started a competition called the "coaches challenge," which ultimately became several heats of controlled 3200m runs. 

He would lead all three sections, from the 5:30-per mile pace group, to 6:30, to 7:30. 

"I ran all of them to exhaustion," he said. 

One of Billing's key points -- and these coaches challenges have continued since he joined the Hall in 2008 and expanded to as many as nine heats -- is this: "Hold on as long as you can . . . until you can't.

"The second year we did it, it was four groups and I made it six laps at 5:00 pace," he said. "I fell over in a heap.

"One of the reasons I like this is that afterward, almost every kid was like, 'I could run one more lap.' It was partially a test of time, but it was more a test of toughness." 

From the start, Billings has always told his runners to take pride in improvement, too. For winners of his bets, sometimes he would buy them books as prizes, such as 'Running With The Buffaloes,' an in-depth profile of one writer's season with the University of Colorado's cross country program.

"If you beat coach, you won a running book," he said. 

Ultimately, Billings found his way back to his home state of Connecticut in 2008 after moving from California.

He's been at Hall going on nine years now, including three as its head coach -- he has 13 years of coaching experience combined -- and he continues to test his team's every year. His coaches challenges have gotten so big, in fact, that now he has several coaches and local residents who help lead the groups -- including Burfoot, who recently wrote about the experience on his blog. 

That's just one area of coaching where Billings, who had a runner, Ari Klau, make Foot Locker Nationals three seasons ago, does things different. 

But the spreadsheet is rather impressive, too. 

"Our program is pretty unique," he said. "We have 115 boys on the team. So we have this enormous range of ability. We're trying to meet the needs of everybody." 

Billings took the best of both worlds -- his gift of breaking down numbers and his passion for running -- and put it into a workbook. 

"We have all of our guys log their workouts," he said. "And we keep track of injuries. Maybe you ran 20 miles the week before and we might highlight that in yellow, so we can see when injuries occur and why. 

"We keep track of every race they've ever run in their career and we convert it to our home course," Billings added. "But we track how kids are improving relative to each other and that's cool, because the day after a race, you might see how that 25:00 compares to a 25:20, because the conversion might be what matters." 

Billings will break out with the entire group afterward and personally congratulate a runner who dropped two or three or even five minutes off a PR. 

"The guy who drops three or four minutes isn't hanging with our top guys," he said. "But I love that. Because that's their chance to get honored after all of their hard work." 

Ultimately, the head coach wants to inspire his team toward a state title and possibly more. 

His junior class is currently one of his most promising yet, and he sees good things -- after taking a look at his spreadsheet. 

"The fun thing is, so many things have to go your way," Billings said. "But it's not unreasonable to be dreaming that big. We've empowered them to dream that big." 

Sometimes there's a science behind it.