STANFORD, Calif. – After a standout high school career, freshman Sean McGorty emerged as Stanford’s No. 1 runner in his first collegiate cross country race and will be vital to the Cardinal’s hopes at the Pac-12 championships Saturday in Louisville, Colo.
McGorty’s high school credentials include a runner-up finish at the FootLocker cross country national championships and a Virginia record for two miles (8:45.61) in winning the New Balance Outdoor track nationals last spring. He also was fourth at the 2013 U.S. junior track nationals in the 1,500 meters, behind current teammate Justin Brinkley, who won the title.
McGorty, a native of Fairfax, Va., ran unattached at the Stanford Invitational, placing fifth against mostly small college competition. But Chris Miltenberg, Stanford’s Franklin P. Johnson Director of Track and Field and cross country head coach, lifted the redshirt off McGorty for the Pre-Nationals on Oct. 19 against some of the country’s best teams. McGorty finished fifth overall and No. 1 for Stanford, clocking 23:38.97 over the 8-kilometer (4.97 miles) course in Terre Haute, Ind.
Stanford entered that meet ranked No. 29 in the country, but its fourth-place finish helped jump the Cardinal to its current No. 13 and stacked its portfolio for an NCAA championships at-large berth, should the team need it.
This week, McGorty talked to gostanford.com about his background, his season, and his approach to his first Pac-12 championship meet.
Q: What were your expectations coming into the season?
A: It was still undecided between Coach Milt and I on whether I would redshirt or not. He wanted to bring me along and see how I responded to his training and, based on that, make the final call. It helped a lot having the Stanford Invite at home, so we could all run unattached and that could show whether I was ready or not.
Q: Did you have any problems with redshirting?
A: Regardless of whether I was redshirting, I was going to race at least three times (as an unattached runner). But I love competing. Having this opportunity to compete in a Stanford jersey is pretty awesome, especially being able to do it as a freshman.
Q: You seem to really race well in big meets. How are you able to do that from a mental standpoint?
A: From the time I first started running, my parents and high school coach always worked on being mentally tough. There are days when your legs aren’t feeling that well, but you always want to be as strong mentally as possible, because running, even though people would probably say it’s mostly physical, has a huge mental side. If I can keep my nerves under control and stay focused on what I need to do, that greatly helps me when it comes to competing.
Q: Is that an advantage you have, especially against someone of similar ability?
A: It’s something I’ve worked on over the years. It’s something that I have in my arsenal. I don’t know if it’s an advantage, but it’s something I know I can use.
Q: How have you adapted to Coach Milt’s training?
A: In the summer, it was pretty easy to get adjusted. I worked off what I did in high school and it was an easy transition. When I got to campus, having him there for the workouts and monitoring everything brought it to a whole new level. I’m really enjoying it right now. I’m very happy with how it’s going. This was the perfect choice.
Q: Is there something that he stresses that you’ve really used?
A: He’s always talking about working as hard as possible, blue-collar. He also wants to focus on us and not get distracted by everything around us. I really like that. It really helps not only me, but our entire team stay focused on what our goals are.
Q: How do you know when to defer to the older guys and when to run your own race?
A: Coach Milt will talk with everyone individually before a race and is good at giving everyone a tentative plan. Obviously, if a race goes out like you’re not expecting, you’ll have adjust. That comes with experience and, at this point, I might not be able to respond to changes in the race as much as the older guys can. But that’s something I hope to learn.
For now, it’s been great to have him to set out a plan that I can follow as best I can. I was able to do that to the best of my ability at Pre-Nats and it was able to work. It really gives me a lot of trust in him.
Q: Do you feel comfortable running different paces?
A: In cross country, courses are so different that there are going to be different paces. Basically, 8K is a lot different than 5K (the most common high school distance). That was something I learned at Stanford Invite. That was a big learning experience for me. Looking back and talking with Coach Milt, I was able to change the way I ran the 8K. There will a lot of pace changes in the race, but the way he sets the training prepares us to handle the different stages of a race. Even if a race goes out faster than we’re expecting, he will have us prepared for that as well.
Whenever we’re doing a workout, he always explains why we’re doing that workout, what it’s helping us to work on, and what it’s preparing us for. He wants us to be prepared if a race goes out fast, or if it goes out slow and everyone’s really hammering at the end. He’s really good at designing workouts that can instill confidence heading into a race.
Q: Do you feel that your middle-distance background helps your speed?
A: I think it could. Coach Milt reminds me that I have that speed and I should try to use it at the end. I was able to do that at Pre-Nats and that sort of surprised me. I wouldn’t have thought that I had that extra gear in the last 400, but it taught me to trust in my kick and know that it’s always there to use. I do think that helps, even though it’s a little harder to get to after an 8K. My legs are a little more tired.
Q: Can you talk about your background?
A: My mom (the former Vicki Verinder) ran track and cross country at Langley (Va.) High School, which is very close to where I live. She went to UNC-Chapel Hill to run. My dad (Kevin McGorty) was a very successful decathlete. He won Golden West and junior nationals in high school and went to UNC, and that’s where my parents met. My mom was very successful in the ACC and my dad was more successful at the national level. He won the ACC three times and went to the Olympic trials twice (1988 and 1992).
He coached at Centreville (Va.) High School and had multiple state champions (including Rickey Harris, the 2000 U.S. boys high school track and field athlete of the year). Now he coaches multi-events, pole vault and high jump at George Mason University.
Q: So, track runs in the family?
A: Yes, and I have two younger brothers that run as well. Nothing was forced upon us. There’s a program near us where every Sunday in the spring, they would have an hour, or hour and a half practice. You’d do different events like learning how to long jump, or practicing the high jump. Sometimes, you’d practice different running stuff.
I was big into soccer then, so I wasn’t able to do as well in track as other people who had been training year round. But heading into my freshman year, my mom encouraged me to run cross country. The plan was to do cross country and then basketball in the winter and soccer in the spring. But cross country went pretty well and I liked it. At that point, my passion for basketball was fading, so I thought I’d do indoor track. When that continued to go well, I decided to do outdoor track. After that spring season, I left my club soccer team and decided to run all year. If I missed soccer, I’d go back, but I ended up enjoying track more.
Q: Did you compete in events besides running?
A: My dad always wanted us to at least try field events. When I was in seventh grade, I tried a pole vault camp. It was very cool, but it was never something that I figured I had time to do. I focused more on the longer distance stuff. I do think it would have been fun to at least try pole vault. My dad loved it, so it would have been cool to have that with him. We’ll see if one of my brothers – my youngest brother, Brandon, might try it and do more field events. He’d probably be more of a decathlete than me and Ryan, but we’ll see.
Q: The team wasn’t ranked very high going into Pre-Nationals, and really surprised people.
A: Yeah, Coach Milt told us not to worry about it. We know how good we are. We know how good we can be. It was nice to show that we didn’t deserve that ranking. It gave everyone a good laugh when we first saw it, but we also know that we have a lot of room to improve and we’ve got to keep working as hard as we can until next time we go to Terre Haute.
Q: How do the Pac-12’s fit into the big picture this season?
A: Obviously, we want to do well and have as much team success as possible. It also will give me a lot more experience racing the 8K. It’ll be my last 8K before the 10K (in the West Regionals and NCAA’s), which will be another big jump. I think everyone just wants to run as well as possible and go after some of the top teams in the Pac-12.
Q: Did you get a lot out of the high-altitude camp at Mammoth Mountain before school started?
A: It was pretty awesome, not only for the running, but just to get to know everyone. I do think we got a lot of great training there and hopefully, the altitude training will help in Colorado. Also, it was just a good transition before school, to get all that good work in before you had to come in and balance school. If we could still be just training there, life would be a lot easier.
Q: Had you ever trained at high altitude?
A: No, I never have. You definitely feel it, but you also can convince yourself that you’re feeling it more than you are. Heading into Colorado, it’s important to be mentally strong, because you know you’re going to start to feel it. But if you can tell yourself you’ve been at altitude before and can continue to work hard I think that can help during the race.
Q: How much do you sacrifice the opportunity to run up front as opposed to trying to stay together as a team?
A: At least for the individual plan he’s set for me, I’ve never had to hold anything back. If I hold something back in the beginning, it’s because I know I’m going to have to work really hard in the last 3K. It’s better for me to tuck in and conserve energy and try to move up in the last 3K. It’s the same for Erik and Jim, and the other guys. I don’t know the individual plans they’re given, but I know that they’re basically going to go out with the top guys. They might not take the lead, but they may just tuck in there. That way, in the last 3K, they can attack as much as possible and pass guys. We did a pretty good job with that at Pre-Nats, but we’ll keep on getting better.
Q: Will your main event in track will be the 5K, or the 1,500, or even the steeplechase?
A: I haven’t thought too much about it. But I’m sure Coach Milt will let me experiment and let me figure that out. I definitely would enjoy doing a 15 and a 5K more than a 10K.
Q: Will the other freshmen, who are all redshirting, live vicariously through you?
A: Everyone has their own plan. I know they’re working as hard as possible. In a couple of years, our class will be in a great position to do some damage at the national level.