The Dean of MoCo Running

Sherwood High School Coach Dan Reeks at the Bull Run Invitational with Sherwood runners Maddie Peloff, left, and Grace McDonald. Photo by Debbie Harman
Sherwood High School Coach Dan Reeks at the Bull Run Invitational with Sherwood runners Maddie Peloff, left, and Grace McDonald. Photo by Debbie Harman

Dan Reeks believes in running. He knows what running did for him, and knows what running can do for others.

He started coaching in Montgomery County 43 years ago, during his early 20s. Back then he was a volunteer assistant for Paint Branch High School, and not necessarily volunteering by choice, either. Reeks, then a national-class runner, said he was concerned about an Amateur Athletic Union rule limiting how much money one could earn through coaching.

This was 1971. A year later, Frank Shorter would win gold in Munich, igniting the first running boom. Reeks — now heading into his 13th season with Sherwood High School — has not missed a Montgomery County cross country season since.

During his first decade of coaching, Reeks not only led Northwood High School’s girls cross country team to three state championships, but launched girls running in the county with the help of fellow coaches Kerry Ward and Greg Dunston.

Ward had guided Reeks while he was a senior at American University, and coached in the county for decades, leading Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Walt Whitman high schools to numerous state championships. Ward, while at BCC, also hosted the county’s first official girls cross country meet.

Dunston started coaching in the county in 1971, as well. The Georgetown Prep Coach, who previously coached at Walter Johnson, described their support for girls cross country thusly: “It was more a matter of thinking that you want equal rights for everyone.”

Dunston and Reeks got in the habit of bashing out Sunday long runs together. These days, they go for bike rides instead. The point is, these two have spent countless hours — many decades, even — talking shop, and fine-tuning a common approach to coaching.

“We want [our athletes] to have fun,” Dunston said, “and realize this is a sport you can do for a long time after high school.”

An interviewer described Reeks’ coaching streak as “amazing.”

“But it’s not,” Reeks said, “because, one thing, it’s fun. … I look forward to going to practice. I just like being around the kids.” He added: “It’s great to see them mature.”

At the end of each season, the Sherwood coach asks his junior and seniors for feedback on his coaching.

“And while it might be a benevolent dictatorship,” Reeks said, “the dictator does listen.”

Making the Team

Heading into his junior year, Reeks transferred to Palos Verdes Peninsula High School in Los Angeles County, where he quickly made friends with members of the track team.

Reeks tried out for the team, and was cut. Senior year, he tried to change that.

“I trained and trained,” he said. A few days a week, he said, he would run from his house up a big hill to the main road and meet up with a friend for training runs, an experience that taught him the value of group training.

Reeks made varsity cross country, “and that was it.” He knew what his passion was.

At Los Angeles Harbor Community College, Reeks started running twice a day to improve, following the lead of a teammate who had won Los Angeles’ city championship.

“He’d run, golly, I think he’d run in the high 9:30s [for two miles], and he got me to train with the coach who had coached him … and that got me down to 9:20 and 4:20 [for the mile],” Reeks said.

Those performances helped Reeks earn a scholarship to American University.

And as Reeks immersed himself in the sport, he quickly developed an interest in coaching.

“In college I liked supporting my teammates, and watching them, and just trying to figure out [what they were doing],” he said.

During his junior year at AU, Reeks mostly coached himself.

“I just followed the workouts I did the year before,” he said, “because I kept a training diary.” Then, as a senior, he met and was coached by Ward, who, like his first high school coach and others, had a big influence on Reeks’ coaching philosophy.

“I still use a few of those workouts,” he said. “I don’t make my athletes run 10 miles on the track, though.”

Years of Coaching

Reeks and his wife, Barbara, have been married for 40 years, and have two children, David and Emily.

His second coaching job, after Northwood, was at Eastern Middle School. From 1983 to 1998, he coached at Montgomery College — or “the MC,” as he calls it — where he started the indoor track program and each year qualified athletes for the NJCAA championships. He coached 17 junior college All-Americans.

Los Angeles Harbor Community College had enabled Reeks, who had only been running for one year at that point, to develop in athletics and academics and earn a scholarship to AU.

At Montgomery College, he saw his job as helping others do the same: to balance work, training and school. He takes pride in knowing that many of his athletes transitioned successfully to four-year colleges.

From the fall of 1999 through Spring 2002, Reeks coached at Winston Churchill. In his last cross country season there, the boys and girls teams both finished third in the state meet.

The decision to leave Winston Churchill was difficult. Reeks cried while breaking the news to the team.

But he also taught social studies in the county for 39 years – mostly at Wheaton – and wanted to close out his career coaching and teaching at the same school to reduce his commute. He was able to do that at Sherwood, where, at that time, the boys hadn’t won a dual meet in outdoor track in more than five years and the girls cross country team was at a low point.

This was the fall of the sniper shootings. John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo shot at people indiscriminately, causing widespread fear. Training was missed; many meets were canceled.

Still, that fall, two girls and two boys represented Sherwood at the state meet. That spring, the boys track team broke its losing streak.

Since then, in cross country, both teams have qualified for the state meet almost every year. In 2003, the Sherwood boys cross country team was second in the county, first in the regional meet, and won a state championship.

Reeks “always puts together competitive cross country teams,” said Kevin Milsted, the founder of MoCo Running, which chronicles the county’s high school running scene. “He has the technical knowledge to develop runners of all body types, and he has the personality and dry humor to engage athletes of all backgrounds.”

It has worked for junior Gary Confrey. As his mother Jackie put it, his motivation was lacking in areas where he did not already show skill. That changed after one talk with Reeks.

“He told him that if you want to do well, you have to put in the work,” she said. “It was simple but it flicked a switch. Now he doesn’t want to miss school if he’s sick because it means he can’t go to practice.” The first day of the school year, she said, “kids line up to see him and give him a hug.”

Reeks understands his athletes have a lot on their plate.  They are focused not only on excelling at running and academics, but perfecting SAT scores and college applications. “You have to get as much as you can out of them during practice,” he said, “and remind them that life is short.” (Dunston said almost the exact same thing.)

Reeks puts team captains in charge of summer training, assigning mileage goals for each class. To that end, early in the summer, the captains choose a location for team members to meet up each morning for runs, said senior captain Courtney Nakamura.

“He just cares a lot about the team and each individual person. It makes us all want to work harder,” Nakamura said.

Early in the season, they start with general workouts before gradually branching off into different training groups. A computer program called Running Trax, packed with performance charts, helps him individualize workouts.

“I have always written [out the workouts], printed them, and given them to the kids,” he said

A staple workout for Sherwood is a tempo followed by 12 200-meter intervals. To prepare for the state championship at the punishing Hereford course, the team goes to Lake Needwood and practices in an area known as “the dip.”

“His biggest priority,” said Ariel Mahlman, who graduated from Sherwood in 2013, “is definitely to provide his athletes with an understanding and passion for the sport … He is very easy to talk to and always offers great advice whenever you ask a question.”

Reeks’ athletes describe him as “silly,” as a “character,” as someone who makes them laugh with “cheesy puns.”

When athletes ask him how they can improve, though, Reeks gets down to business.

“You got to work,” he said. “Distance running, I always tell the kids, and I have for years, is the Puritan work ethic. You get better because you train.”

The MoCo Scene

One day in the late 2000s, Reeks was at his desk, grading papers, when, as he remembered it, “this exceptionally good-looking couple is at my doorway with a security guy who says, ‘This guy wants to come to Sherwood and run.'”

This guy was Solomon Haile, who in 2009 would win the Foot Locker Cross Country Championship. Haile had been training in his native Ethiopia, and had come to the United States for two reasons: to run and go to school.

“He was always centered, he had a goal, and he was smart,” Reeks said.

Asked to recollect highlights from 43 years of coaching, Reeks mentioned Haile setting the national record in the 5,000. He mentioned Northwood winning its first state cross country title in 1975. He mentioned, in 2003, the Sherwood principal running up to him on the Hereford hill and exclaiming, “We’ve won!”

But Reeks is well known and respected by Montgomery County coaches and runners for others reasons.

“I always thought it was really cool how supportive he was of me, even though I ran at a rival school,” said Sean O’Leary, who ran for Walter Johnson.

O’Leary got to know Reeks through the Concord Retreat Cross Country Camp, which Reeks has run for 30 years.

“Bottom line,” O’Leary said, “it doesn’t matter if you’re Solomon Haile gunning for the Footlocker National Championship or a freshman wearing basketball shoes running for a different team — Coach Reeks wants you to be successful.”

When Kyle Gaffney, a committed runner at Blake High School, needed coaching and training partners, Reeks – thinking of his own experiences running at AU – provided it.

Reeks is matter-of-fact about it.

“You just do that,” he said, “because you want to see the sport grow and you want to see kids run and do well.”

All the while, Coach Reeks’ legend in Montgomery County — whether he realizes it or not — grows with it.

“I have never seen anyone yell louder than him at meets,” said Owen Miller, Sherwood’s boys cross country captain. “He is incredibly enthusiastic.”

D.C. public schools cross country runners can look forward to a bigger state meet. These runners are members of the Tenleytown Running Club summer program. Photo: Jimmy Daly
D.C. public schools cross country runners can look forward to a bigger state meet. These runners are members of the Tenleytown Running Club summer program.
Photo: Jimmy Daly

By Dustin Renwick

Around the region, high school athletes log sweaty summer miles in preparation for the 2013 cross country season.

Pavement, trails and maybe a track or two keep these runners in shape for a fall that will hold several changes, all of which affect the postseason. Washington, D.C., has a date for a real state championship. State qualifiers in Maryland will test a new course. Realignment kicks in for Virginia high schools. For the most part, regular seasons remain intact, but that means these shifts are all the more important because runners will test them at a time when the biggest trophies and the brightest glories are in reach.

DC finds a date

College coaches looking for top recruits have an easy starting point in the state meet results. A champion doesn’t guarantee success, but a state meet title provides a glimpse of talent. Washington, D.C., hasn’t been able to provide a definitive champion in the past because the city doesn’t host an official state meet.

The mayor’s office created the District of Columbia State Athletic Association in 2012 with the idea that sports should have parity and athletes should play by the same standards in the postseason.

This year, the DCSAA will host a meet on November 2, a date between the championship races for the public and private schools in D.C.

“We want to have a state championship at the end of the year like every other state does,” said Kenny Owens, DCSAA statewide special events coordinator of athletics. “With this type of structure, we’re able to give kids more exposure rather than the regular league championships.”

The organization hosted its first state meet last year at Fort Dupont Park, but the date coincided with the Maryland and Washington, D.C., Private School Cross Country Championships. Teams were forced to choose between races, an untenable position for any event claiming to hold a definitive state title contest. Only a dozen schools attended.

Owens noted that one goal of the combined meet is to allow athletes to showcase their skills and give them a higher profile for college recruiters.

“You might be the best in your league, but there’s another league or school across the city that has great athletes, too. It brings up the level of competition.”

Right now, strictly comparing times between the events for the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association and the private school championships remains almost impossible.

That in itself stands as an illustration of the difficulty any athlete encounters when trying to claim the title of best runner in D.C.

“I think people have bought into what we’ve created and what we’re trying to do,” Owens said. “They see structure is being built where people are playing by the same rules.”

The DCSAA has named 46 schools in D.C. eligible to play under its guidelines. The organization encompasses public schools, public charter schools, private schools and parochial schools in the District.

Membership is voluntary, and there’s no guarantee of everyone showing up at the start line in November. Yet a fair opportunity presents itself this year.

“Our goal and our hope is that if you have a cross-country team, you want to participate,” Owens said.

Marvin Parker, head coach at Dunbar, said the race makes sense given that D.C. stretches a mere 68 square miles.

“It’s important to have our kids run together,” he said. “If you’re going to make an All-Met team, it’s easy to make when everybody’s had the opportunity to see each other.”

His team competed in the inaugural DCSAA championship last year, held at Fort Dupont Park on a different course than the DCIAA meet. A site has not yet been determined for this year’s race.

Hereford won’t host in Maryland

“When you think Maryland cross-country, you think Hereford High School,” said Seann Pelkey, head coach at Quince Orchard and this year’s meet director for the 4A West region.

The school has held every cross-country state championship since 1980 with the exception of two years. Exception number three comes in 2013. Hereford Athletic Director Mike Kalisz sent an email detailing the changes. Pelkey received the email on July 5 and sent it to local running websites to post.

Kalisz wrote that “extensive school renovations” at the high school will force the cancellation of the Bull Run Invitational in September. The course itself won’t experience any changes until November, according to the email, but Kalisz wrote that other elements of the construction process “will not allow us to guarantee a safe environment for all athletes and spectators.”

The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association has not yet identified a new course for this year’s state championship.

“We’ve been spoiled at Hereford,” Pelkey said. “The staff at Hereford do everything to get that course ready. Anyplace else we go is going to involve a lot more work, I’d imagine.”

With the course out for at least this year, though, coaches who have lobbied to move the meet in the past have another opportunity. Complaints against the course have focused on the challenging layout that includes plenty of hills and the
fact that slower times at the event could negatively influence college recruiters or national meet selections.

“It’ll be interesting to see if those people have more of a voice,” Pelkey said. “Hereford is one of those courses that never lets you settle into a rhythm. Teams may be physically gifted and ready to roll come state time, but the course beats them mentally.”

Quince Orchard took second in the girls 4A race last year, and Pelkey said the new course won’t alter regular season training. But travel could become a factor in planning for the fall. He said the team might switch around its schedule to get a feel for a new course if there is a regular season race held at what would be the state site.

Virginia shuffles postseason structure

More than 300 high schools in Virginia all face the implementation of a statewide postseason overhaul. The changes come as part of the Virginia High School League’s realignment plan for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.
The most distinct modification is  that the state will switch from a three-group system to a six-class system.

Under the old arrangement, schools were separated into the three groups. Schools with the smallest enrollments comprised Group A. Each group had four regions composed of districts, each with up to 11 schools.

Now schools will be placed into classes, starting with the smallest enrollments in Class A. Classes A through 3A will split into east and west regions. Classes 4A through 6A will divide into north and south regions. All regions will contain four conferences, each with up to eight schools.

Such semantic changes do carry actual consequences.

For example, the Chantilly Chargers won the boys Group AAA state cross-country title in 2012. Chantilly ranks as the seventh-largest school in the state, according to March 2012 enrollment figures used by the VHSL’s executive committee. That puts the school in the new Class 6A, the designation for the largest high schools.

“I don’t consider these changes to be an advancement,” said Chantilly head coach Matt Gilchrist. “I’m not happy about it. I think the realignment is a football- and basketball-motivated switch. From a track and cross-country opinion, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Several potential problems could arise with the new system when viewed from a cross country standpoint.
The state championship for cross-country will hold six races instead of three, meaning a two-day meet. Plus, six teams from each region now qualify for the state race instead of four. That math increases the total number of teams running on the state course to 72, from 48 in the old structure.

“What happens on Friday if it’s raining, and the course really gets destroyed?”

Individual standards also undergo a revision in the VHSL guidelines. In the old setup, the top 15 runners in each region qualified to race at state. The new policy will cut the number of spots to 10, but those 10 individuals cannot be members of the six teams that qualify.

“Now that kid in 17th, you wait until meets over, and did I get one of the 10 spots?” Gilchrist said. “Maybe that’s a blessing in disguise. I’ve had enough kids finish in my career in the 16th to 20th spots.”

However, Gilchrist said the new rules need to be tweaked. If five runners from the same school were to qualify as individuals this fall, they could not score as a team at the state meet.

“Don’t let them bring a full seven,” Gilchrist said, “but if you have five individuals, you should be able to score as a full team just like any other team.”

Gilchrist said he’ll prepare his team as usual in light of the modifications.

“You train the same way. You race the same way. You assess your team based on what you think they can do, and hopefully come postseason, that’s good enough to move on.”

The realities of these changes mean area coaches and school administrators have to think about new schedules, different travel plans, and the general sense that questions might outnumber answers until closer to the start of the school year.


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