Editor’s note: Dan Marshall was interviewed via email and phone for this story. Quotes from the email lead off each section. Other quotes are from the phone, unless specified.
After 23 years — long enough to coach two generations of runners — Dan Marshall is leaving as the cross-country coach at Seward High School and he’s the first to admit not everything worked out as planned.
“I didn’t come to Alaska to coach,” Marshall said. “I’m from Montana. I came to Alaska to hunt and fish and coaching really got in the way of all that.
“But sometimes you just need to leave the things you want to do in order to do the things you need to do.”
The seven Class 1-2-3A individual champions? The five girls state titles plus nine runner-up finishes, plus the three boys state crowns plus six runner-up finishes? Not part of the plan.
Missing out on state just once with the girls and three times with the boys? Putting over 60 runners in collegiate cross-country and track programs? Not part of the plan.
Using a measured training program to foster a love of running and lifetime participation? Having a Tuesday night running program during the summer that some credit with changing the very culture of Seward itself? Again, not planned.
So what happened to the plan? How did rods and rifles become singlets and spikes?
Marshall has been involved with running most of his life, but he elects to say little about his experience before arriving in Seward.
“I didn’t have great coaching as a runner,” he said. “I knew what a bad example looked like.”
Thanks to three mentors at Seward, though, Marshall found good examples. In 1992, Marshall’s first year at Seward, he was an assistant under basketball coach Chuck Boerger and cross-country coach Nate Davis. He also got to know athletic director Roger Steinbrecher.
“Roger taught me that the program is more important than the individual,” Marshall wrote in the email. “Chuck taught me that success happens in the details.
“Nate taught me that the love of running is more important and more valuable than talent.”
When Davis accepted a position at Grace Christian in 1995, Marshall’s Alaska dream was altered.
“Roger Steinbrecher was a persuasive guy, and although we lost Roger in 2009 to cancer, I think about him always, when I think about the last 26 years of coaching at Seward High,” Marshall wrote.
A silk purse out of a sow’s ear
“At Seward High, we made a point of holding kids back, and not allowing them to tip over that edge. We made sure the training was correct for each individual runner. We were careful that our weekly mileage was correct, our repeat times were accurate and that every runner on the team had an individual training regime within the larger framework of the team’s regime.”
Upon taking the reins in 1995, Marshall found immediate success with the tried-and-true coaching formula of having a training program that works and that can be taught, and motivating athletes to follow that program.
Ronn Hemstock had a front-row seat to it all. He has been at Seward High School for 23 years and his main claim to fame is wrestling coach, but he also drove bus for Marshall’s teams for 15 years.
“Dan has a gift,” Hemstock said. “He can really turn a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
“He really understands training, he understands motivation and he’s extremely gifted at communicating thoughts to others.”
Patti Foldager served as Marshall’s assistant for 16 years and saw time and time again how Marshall inspires runners. Foldager said Marshall trusted the young athletes to make a choice on their own, like gunning for a state title.
“He let them make the decision and by them making the decision, later on when things got tough he could say, ‘Hey, you guys wanted to take on Grace Christian. You guys wanted this,’” Foldager said.
Foldager’s daughter, Denali Strabel, won a state title in 2005. Strabel said that she is not a patient person, but even as Marshall’s measured program had her missing many of cross-country’s big early season meets, she never lost faith.
“I always trusted him with my running career and I don’t trust too many people with that,” Strabel, a 2008 graduate, said. “It’s something so precious to me.”
The belief in Marshall went beyond faith in a training program.
“He was like a second father,” Strabel said. “He would just give me this look when he knew I was going to win.
“I’d get so excited, like, ‘Yeah, it’s time.’ But he had that with everyone, too.”
Aubrey Smith graduated from Seward in 1998, moving on to Northern Michigan University where she earned All-American status five times in cross-country skiing.
“He really believed you could do way more than you thought you could,” Smith said. “He saw that in you, and wanted you to believe it, too.”
As a sophomore, Smith was way behind two rival runners. Marshall kept pounding into her head that she could beat both. She eventually beat one. The other was Glennallen’s Christy Virgin, now the celebrated mountain runner Christy Marvin.
“I thought she was untouchable, but I was trying to challenge her for the state title,” Smith said. “I passed her in the last half mile, but she passed me back.
“I never even would have been anywhere near her if it wasn’t for him.”
Marshall said he takes great pride in his last three seniors — Emma Moore, Ruby Lindquist and Zen Petrosius — running their fastest 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs at the state meet in late May. Lindquist swept the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 Division II state titles.
The goal of Marshall’s training program is the last two races of the year are the fastest, and the last two races of a high school career are the fastest.
The revelation at Skyview
“Running and racing force us to face big questions about who we are. Will we give up, or will we persevere? Everyone wants to know if they measure up and if so, how? Teenagers especially are asking those questions, and the culture is often giving them the wrong answers.”
Smith was running at Skyview High School when Marshall had one of the most important moments of his career.
“Aubrey Smith was on the course for 19:30, but the kids at the back of the JV race were putting out the same kind of effort without the talent and ability, for 10 minutes longer,” Marshall said. “They were not putting out less, they just didn’t have the ability the front-runners have.
“At that time I had a real revelation that was pretty amazing. I’m glad it happened early in my career, because I turned around and started looking at things differently.”
The revelation? “It’s not that kids in front don’t need good coaching. They absolutely do. But the kids in the back require the same things. They’re just as important.”
Marshall said many, media included, miss this by focusing on winners and losers.
“There’s great stories and drama being played out through the race,” he said. “There’s many great stories never revealed.”
That’s why Marshall’s pat response when asked about a meet was, “Great, thanks for asking.”
“There’s just so much that’s not explainable,” he said.
Hemstock said Marshall’s passion for each runner is not lip service. He said that six years ago, his heavyweight wrestler, Leon Hood, started with a time of 48 minutes in cross-country. Hood ended up breaking 30 minutes.
“His real forte is to get kids to push themselves beyond what they believe is possible — and that’s everybody,” Hemstock said.
Everybody, including Hemstock.
“He kind of turned me into a runner,” he said. “When the team was doing a trail run, he’d assign me a group of kids to run with.”
Hemstock completed his first Mount Marathon four years ago.
Some coaches wander the halls in search of state champions. Foldager said Marshall searched for those who wanted to run.
“Dan was always on the lookout for a runner, whether it was a skinny kid or a chubby kid or whatever,” she said. “I swear he always goes up and down the hall looking for something in somebody.
“He has always picked up these kids, and they felt honored to be picked. I don’t know that I see that anyplace else.”
Individual champions — a happy by-product
“Frankly, racing over distance is hard. It is unpleasant. It is painful and it is necessary that teams are built, attached to each other in a common purpose. It is not that difficult to quit on yourself. It is much more difficult to quit on those that are depending on you to do your job.”
Marshall, who served as the distance coach on the track team for many years, says track is the time to focus on winning individual titles.
Cross-country is about what can be accomplished together.
“I never did coach a runner to win an individual title in XC,” Marshall wrote.
His talented runners fell in line with that attitude, which is where Marshall’s aborted Alaska plan comes full circle.
Sometimes you just need to leave the things you want to do in order to do the things you need to do.
“He encouraged everybody to love running as much as he did,” said Mackenzie Barnwell, a 2011 Seward grad. “Whether you were No. 1, 10 or 100 on the team, he had the same energy for everybody.”
Matt Adams, a 2005 Seward graduate, won a state cross-country title in 2004. He was fine with the team-first attitude.
“I didn’t question anything Dan said,” Adams said. “He never said, ‘Don’t win this race.’
“He did say, ‘Your team needs you. You need to stay as a pack, then break loose.’”
Smith and Strabel said they actually find the concept of individual first in cross-country to be the strange one.
“I had other coaches in my lifetime that did not do it that way, and I really didn’t like it,” Smith said. “I was brought up by my mom to cheer everybody on.”
In 2007, Strabel went into the final prep cross-country race of her career with one state title, while sister Rubye Foldager had two.
That day, Rubye finished third and Denali was fifth to lead the Seahawks to the team title.
Strabel said the team culture was so strong that it was actually confusing to be singled out as a winner.
“A lot of girls on the team were actually from JV, and they didn’t even realize me and Rubye won previous titles,” Strabel said. “We just never talked about it.
“The focus was always on team. We wanted the team to be the powerhouse rather than one person.”
Marshall prepared Foldager for a running career at California State University Stanislaus in many ways. Team first was not one of them.
“It confused me in college when the focus turned to the individual,” Strabel said. “I was not used to that.
“Our team was really precious.”
Changing a culture to match a city
“On the trails, in the mountains, the runner discovers an internal quiet that rejects the societal addictions and time consuming activities that occupy so much of good life. With the earth spinning beneath the feet, the cardiovascular engine settling rhythmically into a steady beat, the runner can find that place where her thoughts no longer reverberate around the inside of her skull, and she realizes that the physical, the emotional and the spiritual are all connected, and there are few places and venues left that allow the opportunity to reduce overstimulation and enjoy a daily ‘Reset.’”
Driving into Seward, one sees runners, bikers, a sign for the Lost Lake trail and mountains — lots of mountains.
The invitation is to come out and play. But according to Foldager and Smith, it wasn’t always that way.
“It was just a few people when I came in the ’70s,” said Foldager, who arrived in the winter of 1977. “The only people I saw running were my husband (Flip Foldager) and Fred Moore.”
Fast forward to Smith’s time at the turn of the century, and the song remains the same.
“When I first started coming home from college in the summers, I was still one of the only ones going out and training running mountains,” Smith said.
Marshall, along with Flip and Patti as assistants, needed to build enthusiasm for running when Marshall took over the program.
“The Seward trail systems are a runner’s paradise,” Marshall said. “We took advantage of that.”
The coaches also took advantage of the lore of Mount Marathon Race and local legends like Moore, who has completed Mount Marathon 48 straight times.
“I asked him, ‘So Fred, what’s your goal for Mount Marathon this year?’” Marshall said of a recent meeting. “He said, ‘To win.’
“So there you go. He didn’t smile when he said it. He turned and walked away.”
A series of Tuesday night runs during the summer soon had the numbers in the Seward program swelling.
Marshall said there were 280 students at Seward in 1997, and 55 were out for cross-country by 1999. The coach added that the school is now at 150 kids, with the cross-country team still drawing 35.
“He made it a huge priority to get us out on trail runs,” Smith said. “It’s fun and beautiful and it’s what you should be doing when you live in Alaska, not just pounding pavement with a heart-rate monitor.”
Marshall said anybody was welcome at the Tuesday runs. The family atmosphere spread the running culture even quicker.
Hemstock tells the story of turning around on the bus ride home from state cross-country this year and seeing Sophie Dow. He told Sophie that on his first bus ride, Sophie’s mother, Rachel Dow (then Werner) was sitting in that chair.
Marshall’s wife, Jackie, and Patti Foldager trained elementary school kids for Mount Marathon. Dan Marshall started taking runners to a summer camp.
And then when former runners came back to town, current high schoolers found the allure irresistible. Dan Marshall saw it firsthand with his sons Jacob, a 2012 graduate, and Michael, a 2015 graduate.
“He probably doesn’t realize the impact he has had on the running culture,” Smith said. “It’s grown so much since I graduated high school.”
Runners for life
“I think that sports are fine. I have given much of life to sport. I think, though, that unless there are real life lessons learned … really learned, then it is nothing but games and entertainment, which is fine; but for the miler coming around the third lap, fighting against the flesh that demands he slow down, he will never tell you that it was ‘fun.’ He might tell you, though, that it was important.”
By instilling a love of running and sticking to a training plan that slowly builds runners up, Marshall was able to move over 60 runners to the college level and just as importantly create an ardent group of adult runners.
Hemstock said it’s easy to lose perspective on how many Marshall sent to run on collegiate teams. In Hemstock’s 23 years at Seward, he said the number of basketball players going on to play at college can be counted on one hand. He’s sent a couple of his wrestlers to compete at the college level, and the same goes for football.
Adams narrowly missed out on making nationals in the 3,000-meter steeplechase when he was a senior at Division I Montana State University Bozeman.
“I went to college, got a scholarship and ended up running at the Division I level,” Adams said. “It wouldn’t have happened without his help.”
But Adams kept on running after college. And in 2016, when he was living in Cooper Landing, he drove to Seward every day to help out with practice. Hunter Kratz mentioned that as a big reason he was able to finish second at state that year.
“I am a big fan of mentorship,” Adams said. “I got a lot out of that program and I wanted to do what I could to give back to it.
“Hunter’s a cool kid and I was happy to do that.”
Both Adams and Strabel agreed that Marshall got a big assist on creating lifetime runners from the parents in town.
“Kids in Seward are like family and team-oriented,” Adams said. “Maybe they don’t produce a top athlete every year, but part of Seward High School athletics is taking it into adulthood.
“Dan is definitely at the forefront of that mentality.”
That’s why Mount Marathon attracts so many former Seward cross-country runners.
“When I finish Mount Marathon, I’m like, ‘How did Team Seward do?’” Strabel said. “I really think it’s because of not only Dan Marshall but a lot of parents here.
“They always made running fun. It was never anything you needed to stress about. I don’t think Seward runners burn out because they love to run.”
That led to one of Marshall’s favorite moments as coach.
“I’ll tell you what gives me great joy,” Marshall said. “Maybe three years ago, I was at the (Mount Marathon) women’s race and somebody pointed out a dozen or 14 of Seward women getting their picture taken.
“They were all Seward cross-country runners, every one of them in their 30s and 40s, and it was really stunning and a revelation to me.”
Personality that drove the program
“Our goal was always to first and foremost, teach running. To show high school kids that they were more than what Teen Vogue was telling them that they were. They had the ability to go beyond their own perceived limitations and not just survive, but thrive.”
Marshall is not retiring from teaching at the high school or Kenai Peninsula College. He’s just pulling back from a loaded schedule that has seen him do two full drama productions, newspaper, yearbook and coach cross-country, basketball and track.
“This is the first year I’ve taught that I won’t be doing any of those things,” he said.
Nobody associated with the cross-country program can imagine it without him.
Jason Hofacker has gotten to know Marshall by coaching cross-country and track at Anchorage Christian Schools for 22 years.
Hofacker said Marshall taught him how to keep meets fun. A trip one summer to see Jackie and Dan showed Hofacker how Marshall is able to relate to athletes so well.
“I’d never run the Mount Marathon Race because I think it’s crazy but fun, so I did the mountain with the two of them,” Hofacker said. “He was 10 to 15 years older than me, but coming down that mountain he destroyed me. I was running with Jackie and having trouble keeping up with her.
“That shows kids he not just telling them what to do. He can do it too.”
Patti Foldager and Adams give examples of how Marshall kept road trips interesting with his sense of humor.
Foldager remembers one time when some girls were late getting back to the bus in a parking lot near a busy intersection.
“They had to sing ‘I’m a little teapot’ and do the story right there by the stoplight,” Foldager said. “It was rush hour and 5 or 6 o’clock and they had to sing at the top of their lungs.
“The kids on the bus laughed so hard and the girls were so red.”
Adams said that when a bus once broke down, Marshall told the kids they’d have to hitchhike to the meet instead.
“It was shocking because I’m pretty gullible,” Adams said.
Adams also loved the stories Marshall would read at the beginning of practice to inspire the team.
His favorites were “The Seven Golden Cheetahs” by Peter M. Leschak, which is about reaching Runner’s Nirvana, and “Beating Gumby” by John Bingham, which is about reaching inside for the courage and will it takes to defeat a dogger competitor.
(Yes, Mount Marathon aficionados, this is where Joe Nyholm got the idea to dress as Running Gumby. Marshall said it still gives him joy to think of Nyholm working quietly and consistently to become the No. 7 varsity runner as a senior.)
What Smith always will remember about Marshall is an open classroom door. Smith is now a teacher at Talkeetna Elementary and knows the value of morning prep period.
“I have a lot of stuff to do to get ready for the day,” she said. “But whenever I needed to come in, he said, ‘Aubrey, it’s great to see you.’ He’d put everything aside just to be able to talk and make sure I was OK.
“That’s emblematic of him as a person and a coach.”
Smith realizes time is finite, and says Jackie is a saint for letting Dan devote so much to kids.
“Every time I go back to Seward, we talk just the same way,” Smith said. “He wants to hear how I’m doing. He’s such a good listener.”
Smith had another legendary coach in Sten Fjeldheim at Northern Michigan University. She now coaches skiing herself at the junior Nordic, middle and high school levels.
“I’ve always felt coaches in life like Dan and Sten are so influential,” Smith said. “They’re coaching at a time when maybe you don’t want to talk to parents.
“Kids need role models and coaches can be some of the best or horrible. Dan is one of the best so I’m lucky he was my coach.”