Entrevue avec Endurance/Endurance Interviews: Melanie Hughes

A couple weeks ago, Melanie Hughes left her Education program at Sherbrooke to take a scholarship with the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricanes, in Oklahoma, USA. In our first Montreal Endurance interview, we’ve caught up with Mel to see how things are going.

First, a quick bio:

My hometown is St-Bruno-de-Montarville, lived there my whole life.
PBs: 800m: 2:15.93 back in 2007 at the club provincials in Sherbrooke 1000m: 2:52.44 in February 2010 at the Boston Valentine Invitational 1500m: indoors 4:34.05 at the McGill Team Challenge in 2010. Outdoors 4:34.57 at senior nationals in Toronto this summer 3000m: 10:10.08 indoors at Quebec university provincials, outdoors 10:21.83 in 2007, haven’t raced any outdoor 3kms since 2007. 5000m: 18:22.82 at the Canada Games August 28th, 2009 in PEI, although I’m sure I can run faster than that seeing as I made the mistake of thinking I had one lap left, when in reality I had two, so I kicked at 600, stopped for a good 15 seconds and then was told I still had a lap to go, way to go Mel…

My program of study is Exercise Science with Teacher Certification, so basically being a physical education teacher.

So, first question, when did Tulsa first contact you about going down there? What was it that made you decide to go? When you were first looking at universities (and decided on Sherbrooke) did you consider any NCAA schools?

Tulsa first contacted me, or Andrew Maloney (the assistant coach) I should say, contacted me in September on facebook. From that point on it was a few phone calls back and forth, lots of emails where documents were sent back and forth and a lot of research was being done on both parts to find out if the credits I had earned over the past year and a half would be recognized. Another concern of mine was being able to come back to teach in Quebec and have a diploma that was recognized, so much research was done to answer all my concerns. Once those were settled it helped me make my decision to attend TU. A large part of what made me decide to come here was because of the training and running opportunities. They have a good running program with at least 3-4 girls that run between 4:20-4:30 in the 1500 and I liked how personalized the training was.

Another reason why I decided to come here was because although I loved studying in French, English is my mother tongue and I wanted to bring my grades up. They have my program here (Physical Education; however here it’s called Exercise Science with Teacher Certification) and it would be recognized once I came home to Quebec. I didn’t lose anything by coming here because I’m starting in my fourth semester, as if I had started my studies here because they were able to take some cegep credits and some university credits to make an equivalent of 3 semesters so that I would be where I need to be. As for eligibility, I have 2 and a half years left since I did a year and half at Sherbrooke.

When I first was looking into universities I didn’t consider NCAA schools because I had attempted that when I was in cegep and I was offered an 80% scholarship to Iona (private school in NY) but it still came to quite a difference to pay and they didn’t have my program. After that, I basically stopped looking into NCAA schools because I thought it was too complicated and expensive. My two choices in Quebec were Sherbrooke and McGill and as you know I chose Sherbrooke.

What are the differences and similarities between the Golden Hurricanes and the Vert et Or?

Many international students worry about coming to the States and being overtrained, but every coach and every school has a different philosophy so that won’t necessarily happen if you fall on a good school. For instance, Coach Gulley doesn’t make all his milers run the same mileage, even if they all race the same distance. He will create workouts and tell you to do a particular mileage based on your goals and what your body can handle. The money invested in sport as well as the facilities here are great as well.

With Vince it was personalized too in terms of mileage. All 1500 girls had the same workouts, but their times weren’t the same, neither was their weekly mileage depending on the person and their goals. At Sherbrooke you can keep your club coach if that’s what you really want, what happens is that your coach will probably try and make workouts similar to those of Vincent (Paquet, the Sherbrooke distance coach) so that you can run with the group. What I ended up doing was following Vincent’s workouts throughout the school year because it was just easier that way. I didn’t even attempt doing my own workouts because then I would have run alone which makes no sense when there were a few girls there to train with. Vincent’s workouts were very similar to Sylvain’s (Lavallée, Mel’s club coach with Montréal Olympique) anyway so it didn’t make much of a difference if I did his throughout the year or not.

Speaking of mileage, what is the most volume you’ve ever done in a week? What is about average, and what are you doing now? Assuming that, coming off injury, it’s not quite at maximum, how much do you see yourself running at you ramp up?

I think the most mileage I’ve ever done in a week is 65km, average would be 50+, right now I’m doing 60-65+, but I will probably will be around 70-75+ by the time I’m fully back into the regular training.

Another difference between the Golden Hurricanes and le Vert et Or is that here practices are mandatory. I’m not saying you didn’t have to show up to the practices in Sherbrooke, but if for some reason you didn’t go to practice, you didn’t really get in trouble, Vince would just be upset and ask why. Here, if you are on scholarship and miss your practices you may lose your scholarship. It’s an NCAA rule I believe that you have to check in with your coach 6 days a week.

Another difference here is that your school schedule is made and revolves around your training schedule, in the sense that coach tells you beforehand when practices will be during the season and based on that you schedule your classes whereas that is not the case in Sherbrooke, or any school in Quebec for that matter. It’s cool because you always have a full team at practices so always a good training group.

Do you mean that the school arranges your schedule for you? What if a required class is during practice time? Or is that just not possible?

I don’t know how it works for other students, I just know that in my case, my schedule was made for me and she purposely looked out for when my practices were. I know that some of the athletes on the team cannot make the trainings we have Tuesdays at 18h, but in that case coach offers a practice at 15:30 that everyone can make. Technically you should not miss practice because I believe everyone makes their own schedule knowing when practices are. Mine was probably made for me seeing as it’s my first semester here and I’m an International student who wasn’t too aware of how things worked here.

Another difference would be how much is provided. The day I got here I was given tons of t-shirts, jackets, pants, tights, shorts, racing uniform, sports bags, a pair of shoes, long sleeves, a pair of spikes all for free whereas in Sherbrooke you had to pay for your kit yourself. You had a rebate on shoes at le Coureur, but they weren’t free. Now, I’m really not trying to talk down to the program at Sherbrooke at all, I hope you understand that. They were very good to me and offered great services like physio and massage anytime for free, whereas here there’s not really physios or massages. Here they have athletic therapists, but they don’t really know how to diagnose an injury, you basically tell them what you want them to do, like oh work on my calf, massage it because it’s tight. As for massages, they have people you can go to obviously, but it’s not unlimited like it was at Sherbrooke. You have to see the coach and he will schedule the appointment for you, but you can’t go once a week like what I did in Sherbrooke.

Is this because of a lack of resources or because of some NCAA rule? In Sherbrooke were the therapists student therapists or were they staff members? What other methods of recovery are used at Tulsa?

As for the massages, I really doubt it’s a lack of resources because they have quite a bit of money, I’d say it’s more of a philosophy. They just don’t really believe in massages. They have many athletic therapists there to help you stretch, tape you and give you exercices, give you a rub down, but they don’t really massage or treat you like a physio would because they are not qualified in that department. They have a lot of heat and ice baths here as means of recovery. In Sherbrooke, there were two massage therapists, not young athletic therapists, so they were qualified staff who knew what they were doing.

Another difference here is that they are big on tempo runs. I never did tempo runs before, but here they are once a week and vary between three and six miles (the paces are different depending on the individual). In Sherbrooke, I did 3 track workouts a week, whereas here I do two because Saturday’s are often race days, but depending on the competition we will take it as a training. For instance, the meet this weekend was in Oklahoma state, not a very important meet so he told a few athletes to go slower than they normally would in a race, because it was supposed to be a training run.

We have weights to do twice a week where you are supervised by an athletic trainer. Every sport here has their own athletic trainer who creates a weights workout depending on your sport. Sherbrooke had an athletic trainer who created weight workouts for almost all the teams, however the track one was made by Vince and you did it when you could or if you could make it at 17h Tuesdays he was supposed to be there to supervise. As for the track workouts, in Sherbrooke whenever we had repeats it would be like 2x5x200 where the recovery between each would be really short and then u had 3-5 mins between sets whereas here they do 10×200 straight with a little more recovery between each 200 because there’s no sets, it’s done all at once. The coach here doesn’t like breaking the workout into sets, he likes doing many repeats one after another.

Another difference is that here you race almost every weekend, but you aren’t necessarily going all out in your races because we use some as trainings. Instead of doing intervals mon-wed-fri, we do tue-thur-and use the race sat as another interval day.

As for similarities, the team spirit or pride at competitions, wearing your school colors, cheering for your teammates, filming the races. I can’t think of many similarities because money wise, there’s just so much more invested here than in Canada, it’s a whole other game. For instance, they have the alter G trainer here, its a 75 000$ treadmill that lets you decide the body weight you want to have impacted when you run.

What is this used for? What I mean is, are there workouts specifically designed for it, or is it for people who are injured?

As for the Alter G trainer, I know quite a few people on the team will use it once a week as a cross-training tool, but the people who use it most are those that are injured because it allows you to keep running while being treated and trying to recover from an injury, that way you don’t lose to much of your shape. I ran on it four times when I arrived here because I wasn’t quite ready to run outside, so I went at 60-85% of my body weight and increased the time every day. When you are at 85-90% you are pretty much ready to run outside and on the track. I know a girl on the team who had a stress fracture last year and she used the Alter G trainer for quite a few months and she basically did all the track workouts the others were doing, but on the treadmill. So if they were doing 400 repeats, she would just do time intervals and the equivalent to what the rest of the team was doing. So, yes you can do workouts on it, but a lot of people just jog on it.

What about cultural differences? Is it hard to transition to living in the Southern US? (ps it is -22 here today so don’t you dare complain about the heat, haha!) Are there other Canadians on the team?

As for cultural differences, I’d say the biggest shock so far is the food, soooooooo much junk hahahah and the portions are huge. Also they are reaaaaaaaally into football and know nothing of hockey :p A few people have accents, but I haven’t seen rednecks with cowboy hats and Southern accents. To be fair, most of the student population are international students so there’s not that much of a Southern feel to the school. I am in the Bible Belt though, so that’s a cultural shock for me because I’m not very religious. Our Sunday runs are done at 8 so that people can go to church after, stores only open at noon Sundays because of mass in the morning, there’s mass sunday nights as well, so stores close early as well. I’m a bit afraid to offend someone here to be honest and I’m afraid they will think I’m the devil if I swear because you have some extremists here. I’d say there are more religious women then there are men. I see a lot of crosses and rosaries in girls cars, in the apartment or around their necks. So far it’s not that hard though to transition to living in the Southern US. People are extremely friendly, there are a lot of Mexican restaurants around because of a high Spanish population, but that’s obviously not a problem, just a fact. Temperature wise, it was 7 Celsius today, and so far the coldest it’s been is -10 C so no I won’t complain :p It does snow here and the roads do get a bit icy, but nothing compared to Quebec. If there’s too much snow or ice they actually cancel classes here which is cool for me because I’m used to way worse. I’m anxious to see what it’s like as of March when it starts getting really hot apparently. There other Canadians on the team, a girl from Nova Scotia, a girl from Ontario, a girl from New Brunswick, there’s a guy from Toronto, umm and I think there’s a few more Canadians on the team. There are a lot of International kids on the team. For instance, a lot of Canadians, one guy from Portugal, one guy from Scotland, three guys from the U.K., one guy from New Zealand, four girls from New Zealand, one girl from Germany, one girl from France, one girl from the U.K. and maybe other places too.

Is that something unique to Tulsa, or are other teams equally cosmopolitan? What’s the vibe like with the local/American students? Is there a kind of “hey those foreigners are coming and taking all our scholarships” kind of thing?

In regards to the International students, I haven’t been here long enough honestly to tell you if that’s unique to Tulsa or not. I do know; however that a school in our conference UTEP (University of Texas at El Paso) has a lot of Kenyan runners. The American students are veeeeery welcoming to all students. It’s not just in xc or track that we are that cosmopolitan. The tennis team for instance has one American, the rest are Russians, Australians, from South Africa, Spain, etc etc. There’s nothing of the sort of ah those foreigners are taking all our scholarships. So far I have seen nothing but friendly welcoming people.

Seeing as how you clearly would not have ended up in Tulsa but for running, does this give you a different focus on your education? And on your running career?

I wouldn’t say my focus on education has changed because I didn’t change majors or anything coming here, I’m still studying physed and plan on coming back to Quebec to teach physical education. The only thing that has changed is that I have more of a chance of improving in my running I believe by being here, but I’m not going to say I have specific goals just yet. First I want to see how the new school, coach and training group will influence me and see how things go as time goes by.

Other than the lack of tempo runs it seems like the training is fairly similar. Given that, and aside from money (which you mentioned, and is a pretty obvious reason for sure), why do you think the CIS is not able to match what is offered by the NCAA in terms of quality of competition?

I think the CIS and NCAA are just two completely different games. For one, the standards to qualify for CIS are much easier than NCAA and the calibre here is just so strong. Take the 1500 for instance, four girls on my team alone run between 4:20-4:30, one of them prob sub 4:20. That’s in one school alone, whereas in Canada I know of fours girls at the university level can run those times. There are just so many good runners and it’s insanely difficult to qualify for NCAA. A guy on the team told me that at regionals indoors (the qualifier for NCAA) he ran 1:46 and he still didn’t qualify. How many canadians can run that time point blank. I’m not knocking the Canadian circuit, I’m just saying that yet we have many talented Canadian runners, but not nearly as many as there are here.

What are your goals for this season, this year, and by the end of your stay in Tulsa?

My goals for this season, short term would be to get used to the new environment, work a lot of my speed towards the 1500 and by this summer run under 4:30 hopefully. For this year, I’d like to have a better time in both the 800 and 1500 outdoors and get a good mile time, seeing as I’ve never done those before (under 5 mins). I’d like to place better at senior nationals this year as well, but the focus I’d say is really on that 1500, it’s time to go under 4:30, no choice. My goals by the end of my stay in Tulsa is too soon to say because I can only determine my goals based on how it goes this year and in the next few months.

Thanks for being so generous with your thoughts and time. We look forward to keeping track of your results down south.