He Understands Need for Speed

04/19/2009
By From the Lowell Sun

By Lynn Worthy

LOWELL -- UMass Lowell assistant track coach Mike Ekstrand isn't shy about telling you that what he does isn't exactly rocket science.

But with his history of results, he more than qualifies for a doctorate in the science of running fast.

The mad scientist of sprinting has made UMass Lowell his laboratory for 15 years. During that span he's coached 20 individuals and 17 relay teams to All-American honors. Of course, many of those individuals earned All-American accolades more than once, in more than one event and in more than one season.

"Just by doing that we've been able to build a pretty strong program," Ekstrand says modestly. "It seems like it's been able to keep going. We've been able to stay successful with it. It's always changing. You're always trying to read, learn, but there's always something new. It's not rocket science, either. You don't want to get too complicated."

UML head cross country and track and field coach Gary Gardner estimates that of the 101 All-American recipients in just the past seven years (all seasons), between 60 and 75 were under Ekstrand's direct tutelage.

"Mike just plugs them into the system, and I think they see the kids in front of them that have made the same jumps," Gardner says. "It's hard getting that first kid to do it, that's the hardest part. We've talked about it. You get the first kid to do it and the next freshman or sophomore sees that kid has done it and they're like, 'Oh, if he can do it and he ran no better than me in high school, than I can do it.' And you just keep plugging kids into the system."
A former distance runner at Westford Academy, Ekstrand became an assistant track coach at Westford in the mid 1990s after a 20-year hiatus from the sport after high school. He'd gone into the Navy, and then worked construction.

"They had an opening and asked if I wanted to help out," Ekstrand, a Tyngsboro resident, says. "I had some free hours in the afternoon, so it kind of happened by accident. I knew the AD over there, Al Duffett, at the time."

His best athletes were in the sprinting events, particularly the 200 meters and 400 meters, as well as the 4x400 meter relay. As a result, Ekstrand dove into the sprints and absorbed as much knowledge as he could.

"In those couple of years I went from not knowing a lot to having to learn real fast," Ekstrand says. "So I was just reading and talking to coach (George) Davis at Lowell, I kind of got a basis and just learned enough to get those guys through and get them good enough for college."

He got to know then-UML coach Davis because Davis had been recruiting some Westford athletes. Eventually, Ekstrand joined Davis' staff after a part-time assistant position opened up. He's been with the school ever since.

Through the years he has developed his own training program. During a typical indoor track season, Ekstrand can be responsible for as many as 35 athletes on a daily basis. Their events vary from 800 meters down to the 55-meter dash, not to mention jumpers and hurdlers.

"I think good coaches -- and there's plenty of them out there -- will take different athletes that may run the same times, but they have to be coached differently. They have different strengths or weaknesses. That's one thing that we definitely will do here with kids, and we've done it all the time. We've had kids that are All-Americans that will run basically the same times in the 400, but they'll train a lot different."

Junior Donte Brown, a resident of Raynham, came to UML having done short sprints and the 110-meter high hurdles in high school. Even though Ekstrand pegged him as a 400-meter runner as a freshman, Brown had doubts.

"I just kind of toughened up from Mike," Brown says. "Mike and just doing my workouts. Everyone on the team older than me was like, 'They'll get you in shape for it, so don't worry.' They've all been there, too, and it's true."

Brown earned All-American honors as part of the 4x400 relay team last winter and as an individual in the 400 meters.

Senior Haley Catarius of Marshfield recalls her visit to UMass Lowell, saying, "As a perspective student they mentioned that I would have possibly the opportunity to become All-American. Having someone say that, I didn't really comprehend that. Really, could I do that? Would that happen? But now that I'm here it seems that they were completely right about that. They have a very good idea of the athletes that come in here, what they can accomplish."

Catarius is a two-time All-American in the 800 meters with a winter season and a spring season left.

While his position is part time, Ekstrand puts in full work weeks nearly year round to recruit and train sprinters for the track program. He also works a full-time job from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. at a group home for handicapped adults in North Reading.

Last year, he got an offer to coach at a Division 1 school. Instead, he remained at UMass Lowell, citing his relationship with Gardner, the support of athletic director Dana Skinner, and the blue-collar brand of athletes he gets at UMass Lowell.

He appears to have found a home with the River Hawks. Asked how long he plans to continue coaching, he simply says "as long as it's still fun."