Athlete Spotlight – Elite Team: Henry Sterling

With both the middle school cross country season and the elite teams’ fall road racing / cross country season beginning in earnest next week, we sat down with another veteran member of the NE Distance Elite Team, Henry Stirling, to see where things are at with his training and the team as a whole. Henry has been perennial contender on the New England Running Circuit since joining NE Distance in 2014. He claimed both the USATF-NE Indoor 3,000m and USATF-NE Cross Country 10k titles in 2015, and ran a personal best of 8:39.27 in the 3,000m Steeplechase in 2016. As another experienced coach within NE Distance’s Athlete-in-Residence program, the team will undoubtedly look to him for guidance as the middle school season gets underway.

Quick Facts

Name: Henry Sterling

Age: 26

Hometown: South Freeport, ME

College: Dartmouth College

Specialties: Mile, Steeplechase

Sponsor: Saucony

Favorite place to run: A small patch of dirt road near my house in Maine

Race rituals/superstitions: Nothing in particular

Go-to pre-race meal: Some form of red meat with either pasta or potatoes and a salad

Go-to post-race meal: Either a burger or Pizza

Favorite running quote: “I know the feeling of not having it that day and maybe running five seconds slower per interval and that’s OK because I’ll still get the benefit that workout is supposed to give” – Ben True

I love Ben’s attitude towards running, and that’s something I think about all the time, always trying to stay positive and focused even when it isn’t your day.

Photo credit to Scott mason, Michael Scott, and Game Face Media.

Q & A

To start, tell us a little bit about yourself!

I grew up in Maine loving the outdoors and playing organized sports. I loved to try all different sports, not just running, which is something I think has helped in my longevity as a runner. Soccer was really my first love, along with lacrosse and basketball in middle school. Although much of my success in those sports was most likely due, in part, to my natural ability as a runner. To unwind and recharge I like playing and listening to music (piano and guitar), although I am currently sans piano in our Providence apartment, so it has been mostly just guitar. I also really love going to the movies.

How and when did you start running?

I first started running “competitively” in 4th grade with the Harraseeket Harriers, a local group in my hometown. Every so often we would race other towns at Winslow Park, a 1200m dirt road loop by the water, and I loved it. I would always bolt to the front and just try not to die as hard as anyone else. One day Joan Benoit (Joanie) came to give us a talk about running and I remember her telling us to pinch our index and middle fingers onto our thumbs when running got hard, as a way of taking our mind off the pain. It’s still something I think about today, that is, how to deal with the pain running brings sometimes. In 6th grade I didn’t make the soccer team because there were too many players, so I did cross country, but that was the only year of cross country, middle or high school, I ever ran. Still, in the back of my head I knew I was pretty good at running and thought it was something I should keep trying. So in 9th grade I decided to choose outdoor track over lacrosse, a big decision for me at the time. In my first race, a 1500m, I wore 400m spikes (they were my school’s colors so I figured that was good enough) and my coach told me not to go to the front. Well, I went to the front and ended up winning the race. And as they say, the rest is history.

When did you first join NE Distance? What was it that drew you to the organization?

I joined the team in the fall of 2014 after graduating from Dartmouth. I had heard about the team from an email my college coach sent out in 2012, so I kept tabs on the group and decided I wasn’t done with running just yet. A big part of the program that drew me in was working within the community. I had a feeling for a long time that I wanted to become a teacher because I had always loved working with kids. I thought the idea of running and coaching would be really cool. So for me it was a no brainer: continue to train professionally while getting a foot in the door of the teaching world? Yes and yes!

How do you like living and training in Rhode Island? What is it like to be a part of its ever-growing running community?

Living in Rhode Island has been going pretty well so far. I grew up in a very quiet neighborhood and went to college in the woods, so anything slightly resembling a city was going to be a change. However, it’s not unlike Maine in that you can pretty easily find yourself some quiet roads to run on. We also have one of the best long running locations I have been to in Arcadia Management Area (seriously, if you live in RI and need a good spot for a long run, that is a must). It’s definitely cool to see how the running community has taken off here. With the likes of PC and Brown, two very good running schools, and one of the biggest XC Invites around in the Ocean State Invite, not to mention adult running clubs and running groups popping up left and right, Rhode Island has really turned into a mini running Mecca.

What is your favorite part about coaching a middle school team? How has coaching changed your perception of the sport of running and the impact it can have on a person’s life?

My favorite part about coaching middle school running is the idea that “what you get out is what you put in” really comes to life. It never gets old seeing how a kid can struggle at practice and then get to a race and see that all the hard work they put in can help them improve by a couple minutes. Then something clicks, and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I can do this!” It has been incredible to see kids who maybe aren’t the most competitive surprise me and stick with running even when we’re not in season. I remember after our first year seeing one boy running after school with his headphones (I let it slide…) just to go out and enjoy getting exercise. As long as kids are having fun and testing their competitiveness, I feel I’ve done my job as a coach.

What has been your greatest athletic achievement as a member of NE Distance?

My greatest athletic achievement probably has been breaking 8:40 in the steeplechase last year and running in the USATF Outdoor Championships in 2015.

What is the most valuable lesson that running has taught you thus far in your career?

Running has taught me that a healthy combination of positive thinking, self-reflection and hard work go a long way. This being my most disappointing year athletically, but I learned more about what I need to excel as a runner than years past. I know now that it’s better to use self-reflection, rather than self deprecation after tough races. I like thinking about what were the good things about a race, and what was something I could work on next time. I also found that it was important to remember that not all “good” races require zero reflection, and not all “bad” races require endless dissecting. Running has taught me that while succeeding is obviously the goal, getting up after being knocked down is the only way to grow.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to young or beginner runners?

I would say to always try and find the positives and learn from any situation. If you’re training well and feeling healthy, excellent! What have you been doing to keep you healthy? What things are helping your training? If you’re injured, that’s OK, because it can be a time to strengthen a weakness and come back a better/stronger runner. Remember to think long term: one amazing week of training doesn’t mean you’re the best runner ever, and one lousy week doesn’t mean you should quit. Patience, perseverance, persistence.

What is your favorite workout?

My favorite workout is a combination of track and hills that we did a lot more of this spring. Something like 1200m on the track, 2x200m hill sprint, 1000m on the track, 2×200 HS, 800m track, 2×200 HS, and repeat 3-4 times. It keeps your legs guessing!

What is your most memorable race?

The first time I ever ran the Paul Short Invite in college is a race that always sticks in my mind. It was really the first time I experienced over 300 runners on the start line, that terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach of anticipation, and the feeling that anything was possible with your teammates by your side. The first 400m was completely silent aside from the pounding of feet and people breathing. It sounds sort of bizarre but it was wicked intense, like we were running into battle.

What are you most looking forward to this upcoming season?

I am most looking forward to fall training, which is a great time of year and a great time to train in New England. I am looking forward to getting comfortable at higher mileage weeks and gearing up for indoor races with some good XC and fall road races.