Staff, athletes building foundation in fall for season ahead

MIKE HARTMAN Associate Editor

Fall is an important time of the year for the newer additions of NAZ Elite — both on the roster and the coaching staff.

Krissy Gear, Olin Hacker and Abby Nichols all recently moved to Flagstaff to begin their rookie campaigns, and have been given time to ease into their new lifestyles in and out of running shoes.

Alan Culpepper, who officially took the head coach position in May, said what the young group is going through as they begin their journey as professional runners is a “significant” step in life, relating it to making the move to college.

The NAZ Elite coaching staff did what it could to inform the athletes what the transition might look like, seeking to provide a sense of comfort during what can be an intense, exciting and stressful time in a young person’s life.

“I think that all that we have done has gone very smoothly so far,” Culpepper said of helping the rookies transition to the team and Flagstaff. “Obviously there are those natural periods where it just takes a little time to settle in, but I am very pleased with the temperament of the team and just the overall vibe. Seems like people are happy, happy to be here.”

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Fall is also, Culpepper said, “not to overstate it, but it’s really the most important time of the year, because it really sets the tone for the entire season.”

It’s a time when racing bedrocks are built, and the rookies, veterans and the team’s young core all have big races on the horizon.

“There’s really no way around the work that has to be done in order to ensure that you set yourself up for a productive season,” Culpepper said. “I think we talk about it pretty straightforward, but it’s like pouring a foundation for a home. You have to pour the foundation first. You can build a house, and that’s all the fun stuff — all the posting workouts and posting on Instagram about how pumped up you are about some session — but your house can be a little shaky if you haven’t really laid the proper foundation to sustain it throughout the whole season, but also to absorb the work appropriately.”

Bringing aboard the newest members of the team has had its challenges. Rookie Adriaan Wildschutt, who is still in Florida pursuing a master’s degree, is battling back from a bout with COVID-19 while doing his work remotely.

Wildschutt and the three other newest rookies signed with NAZ Elite in the summer.

“He ended up missing a little bit more time than we had anticipated,” Culpepper said of Wildschutt, “but he’s slowly building up, and we are being very proactive about including him in all of our team meetings and team discussions, and then just me reaching out to him individually just to make sure he’s coming along.”

And the coaching staff — which also consists of assistant coach Jenna Wrieden, who joined in January of 2021 — continues to gel, NAZ Elite Executive Director Ben Rosario said recently.

“It’s a real coaching staff now — which I think is healthier,” Rosario said. “Honestly, I think it’s healthier. What other sport do you expect one coach to manage everything? That’s just not a healthy environment and it’s not sustainable for the long term. Now, with Alan, myself and Jenna, everything becomes so much more about the program as a whole. I think that’s important as opposed to putting all the pressure on one coach.”

Culpepper is plenty busy up and down the roster. He’s also helping Rosario with getting Matt Baxter, Stephanie Bruce and Aliphine Tuliamuk ready for the New York City Marathon on Nov. 6, working heavily with the former.

“He’s definitely the head coach and that transition is as close to complete as can be,” Rosario said last week. “Even this afternoon, we’ll be out looking at Steph and Aliphine and watching them do a workout together.”

Culpepper said he’s been learning a lot about what marathon training looks like specifically in Flagstaff. He spent most of his racing career in Bolder, Colorado, and said despite it being at elevation, Bolder was still different than Flagstaff.

He’s also loved the dynamic of working with the young core of the team, the veterans and the athletes in between.

“It’s very different, but it’s still equally as fun and equally as engaging,” Culpepper said. “It’s just that it’s very different. It’s a great challenge for a coach, but I feel great about that combination.”

Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @AZDS_Hartman.

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