Cross Country Star Looks to Peak in Sixth Year
Sept. 19, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2011, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology from Princeton, Mark Amirault enrolled at the University of Virginia, where he planned to run for Jason Vigilante.
In late November, Vigilante abruptly resigned as UVa’s director of track & field and cross country. He’s now coaching at Princeton.
“It’s pretty funny,” Amirault said recently. “I come here, he goes there.”
The coaching change hasn’t deterred Amirault, who in cross country last fall placed third in the ACC and 27th at the NCAA meet. He’s thriving under the tutelage of Pete Watson, who took over in January as head coach for UVa men’s cross country and an assistant in track & field.
“I was really looking forward to running on the track for Vig, so that was a little disappointing,” Amirault said, “but I do think it turned out really well, much better than I expected. Because when that whole thing happened, there’s sort of this time where there’s no coach and you’re just like, `Oh, jeez, if they bring in some 800 specialist guy, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ But then they brought in Coach Watson.”
Since graduating from Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, Mass., Amirault has been exposed to three distinct coaching philosophies. At Princeton, where he won four Ivy League titles (two in the outdoor 5,000 meters and one each in the indoor mile and the outdoor 1,500), Amirault ran for Steve Dolan.
“It was very simple, pretty conservative kind of stuff,” Amirault said. “The workouts in volume weren’t too intense at Princeton, but the workouts were definitely harder than what we did under Jason [last fall at UVa]. Vig was more high-volume, low-intensity kind of stuff. His mantra was, `We’re going to wait and build through the season, really build.’
“It was pretty low intensity in the cross country season, whereas under Coach Watson, it’s sort of a combination of both. It’s fairly high volume, and we’re doing high-intensity workouts. Coach Watson, he’s challenged me the most in terms of the workload that we do.”
Watson, who previously had coached at North Carolina and Auburn, said it took time for his runners at UVa “to adapt to the volume and the intensity of the workouts. But the guys here — Mark, especially, and Chris Foley and some of the other guys — they wanted it. They wanted to do more.”
In his first indoor season at UVa, Amirault won the ACC title in the 5,000 meters. What makes him noteworthy, though, is not only his considerable talent. At 24, he’s the oldest runner in the Virginia men’s program, and he’s one of a rare breed: a student-athlete in his (or her) sixth year of college.
“Last year I still felt kind of like a college kid,” Amirault said, laughing. “It was my fifth year. But now, I don’t know, that one-year difference … I’m just not a college kid anymore.”
Injuries have marred Amirault’s college career, and those setbacks are why the NCAA granted him a sixth year to compete. He missed two seasons of cross country, two seasons of indoor track and one season of outdoor track at Princeton. He then missed the 2012 outdoor season at UVa because of a stress reaction in his left femur.
When Amirault was at Princeton, Watson was coaching at UNC.
“He was one of those guys who when he raced, it was like, “Mark Amirault’s back, he’s running fast,’ ” Watson recalled. “And then all of the sudden you wouldn’t see him again for two seasons. Everyone knew he was really talented. Everyone also knew he was very fragile.”
Amirault is healthier now, and “I think a lot of it has to do with him taking responsibility and going to the training room and seeing” athletic trainer Shelley Croom Blakey, Watson said.
“He’s spent a little bit more time doing some drills and a little bit more weight-room type stuff to help the bone density grow. And then running a little bit more, as crazy as that sounds. Running more, just not quite as hard, is going to keep him healthier.”
Amirault, from Walpole, Mass., about 30 miles outside Boston, had knee surgery the summer before his freshman year at Princeton and was sidelined for the entire 2007-08 academic year. “Not only did I not compete, I don’t think I ran a step,” Amirault recalled.
He then developed shin problems in the fall of 2008. Amirault didn’t make his debut as a Princeton runner until the spring of his sophomore year.
“Nothing had really changed, my shins were still killing me, but my coach just said, `You know, we can run or we can not run. It’s to the point where you just have to decide,’ ” Amirault said. “I sort of just ran through my shin troubles. It was painful, but they went away eventually.”
For the most part, he remained healthy his final two years at Princeton, and as a senior he placed 52nd at the NCAA cross country championships. Ivy League schools do not allow graduate students to compete, and with eligibility remaining in each of his three sports, Amirault attracted the attention of Vigilante as a Princeton senior in 2010-11.
“At that point, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Amirault said.
He was applying to medical schools, including the one at UVa, but “that didn’t end up happening,” Amirault said. “I thought Coach Vig would lose interest in me, but he kept pursuing me to run here. Unfortunately, I didn’t get in anywhere for med school, so I was like, `All right, this is about as good as a Plan B can get.’ So I ended up coming here.”
At UVa, he’s enrolled in a program in which he’ll earn a master’s degree in public health. Amirault still plans to attend medical school and has applied to 17 programs, including those at Dartmouth, Vanderbilt and Virginia.
“From a young age, I really just always wanted to be a doctor,” Amirault said.
“With some people, it kind of phases out or gets too hard,” he added, but not with Amirault, who hopes to start med school in 2013-14.
“I did some shadowing [of doctors],” he said. “I even did some shadowing at the running clinic here at UVa with Dr. [Robert] Wilder, who works with a lot of guys on the team, and I just loved it. It’s something that just really appeals to me.”
The start of med school won’t necessarily mean the end of Amirault’s running career.
“I do plan on continuing to train competitively for the first two years,” he said. “We’ll see how it works out. I think I should be able to do it, at least for the first year. My plan is to kind of move to the roads, maybe even a marathon. Who knows?”
For now, he’s focused on cross country. In 2011, Virginia finished a disappointing sixth at the ACC meet. With such runners as Amirault, Chris Foley, Sean Keveren and Kyle King in the lineup, Watson doesn’t bother trying to downplay the Wahoos’ potential this fall.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” Watson said. “It’s a really talented team. We’re deeper than the team I had at Auburn when we were fifth at the NCAAs [in 2008].
“The guys are good. They’re really, really good. They just had a terrible fall last year.”
In the latest U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association rankings, UVa’s men are No. 4 in the Southeast Region in cross country. The UVa women are No. 1 in the region (and No. 15 nationally).
Both teams will compete Saturday at Panorama Farms, UVa’s picturesque cross country course in Earlysville. The Cavaliers are hosting the Virginia/Panorama Farms Invitational, which will consist of a 5K women’s race (10 a.m. start) and an 8K men’s race (10:30 a.m.).
After four years in Princeton, which Amirault described as “pancake flat,” he was stunned by the terrain he encountered in and around Charlottesville.
“I remember coming here on my visit, and I couldn’t stop talking about how hilly it was,” said Amirault, whose brother, Michael, runs for Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. “But eventually you sort of get used to it, and you don’t even notice it any more.”
Amirault, Watson said, is “a good guy who loves the sport. I like the fact that he asks questions. He wants to know why we’re doing things. He’s kind of a track nerd. He does his research. He knows what’s going on in the world, he knows what the other people are doing, he likes to look through other people’s training and see what’s worked for other people. He wants to see how far he can go in this sport, which is pretty cool.
“We just gotta keep Mark healthy. As long as Mark’s running every day, he’s good. He’s just gotta have the discipline to let me know when he’s a little bit banged-up, and we’ll back off.
“You gotta figure out what pain is and what soreness is. Soreness is OK. Pain is not OK.”