Sports player of the month

McCandless ’20 is NEWMAC runner of the year

Megan McCandless ’20 has made a tremendous start to her career as a student-athlete at MIT. She led a group of five Engineers who swept the top five positions in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) cross country championship, earning her both the NEWMAC rookie and runner of the year accolades.

Two weeks prior to the NEWMAC championship, McCandless finished 3rd out of 386 racers, running a 6K in 20:44.8 to lead the team to second place finish at the Border Battle. With her sights firmly set on the upcoming NCAA cross country regional and national championship, The Tech’s player of the month speaks about her decision to join MIT, the nuances of competitive cross-country racing, and how she has navigated the firehose without slowing down on the course.

The Tech: Congratulations on your first NEWMAC championship! My impression is that the MIT women’s and men’s cross-country teams are very good but with some of the numbers that you have been putting up, is it a fair assessment to say you are way above the competition?

Megan McCandless: I’m not sure if I would say way ahead. I have been doing well. It’s hard to tell because it’s cross-country and it’s different with every course, the weather on the day of the race, whether or not it had rained the day before — all of these can affect [one’s] time so it is hard to judge by time in cross-country. But right now I’m the fastest runner on the team so I guess that’s good.

The Tech: In high school you were a competitive cross-country runner. Can you talk about the choices you had in terms of choosing a Division I school or a Division III school and why you eventually chose MIT?

McCandless: I definitely considered it but the point of going to college is getting a good education and MIT is better than a lot of D1 schools and also because MIT is a D3 school so the focus is more on academics which is what I was looking for. I still want to run fast as fast as I can but it is secondary to getting a good education.

The Tech:  Do you ever worry that the competition might not be high enough to get the best out of you?

McCandless: Yes, but coach [Halston] Taylor seems to be the type of coach who will go out of his way to make sure I go to more competitive meets and face better competition.We have had some conversations about that — which meets would have higher level of competitions with more D1 teams.

The TechSo next up in your schedule is the NCAA regionals followed by the NCAA nationals — how do you like your chances of winning in those meets?

McCandless: Regionals, I would definitely like to win. I think if I race well and everything goes to plan I have a good shot of winning. Nationals is going to be much more difficult to win. A couple of weeks ago when we raced [at the Border Battle] I finished third and the top two girls were from D3 as well and the girl who won finished 20 seconds ahead of me and that’s a big time gap to make up. I want to go for it. I want to try but that is going to be a much more difficult goal to achieve.

The Tech: In the nationals meet you will face competition from across the country but most of your other meets that you have completed thus far are in the northeast region. As you were mentioning how much weather conditions matter, how much does that affect your ability to prepare for the nationals?

McCandless: The national meet is in Kentucky this year so it could either be warm it could be cold and we really don’t know what it’s going to be like. If it is going to be warm it probably would have helped us had we come from a place like Texas but we can’t really complain as it hasn’t been especially cold here. If it is cold it is the same as what we have been used to.  

The TechI assume you have at the back of your mind an idea of times you race (minutes/mile). Let’s say it is colder or rainy on a certain race day, how do you adjust? How do you know if it is okay to be ten seconds per mile slower or fifteen seconds per mile slower?

McCandless: It is hard to figure that out in cross country which is why we don’t focus on time as much. It is difficult to know how muddy the course is or how much the higher temperature will affect your race. So if it is hot out I would err on the side of caution. Let’s say I want to race at 5:40 mins/mile pace, say I would go out at 5:45. But mainly we go for place [after what distance to the finish line one breaks off for maximum pace] rather than time.

The Tech: Let’s say you race at a meet where you break your personal best. How do you get a sense that you can break your personal record at any given race? How do you know you can run faster than you ever have before?

McCandless: You just run as hard as you can. As long as you run as fast as you can, you can’t really be upset. It is basically a mental game in how hard can you push yourself.

The Tech: Tell us something about strategy. What is a typical race strategy?

McCandless: A lot of things go into a strategy. A big part of it is who the competitors are and what their styles are. For example, a couple of weeks ago where I was third, the lead girl likes to go really fast the first mile, and slows down a little bit. She is off the blocks so fast that no one else can keep up with her. So in that case, the strategy would be to keep pace with her early on and during the stretch that she has slowed, try and pass her. You don’t know if that will work but you might as well try because what you have been doing currently isn’t working.

The Tech: So if  I understand correctly, strategizing isn’t about figuring out at what pace you want to go the first x miles and then ramping up the rest of the way, it is also dependent on the style of the opponent.

McCandless: Yeah. You can do a time trial and run your own race but for the most parts you strategize according to who you are racing against. For example, in the NEWMAC championship, our plan was to have one of the Wellesley girls lead the race from the start. We just all passed her together. That sort of demoralized her halfway through the race. We swept the top 5 places, so it worked. Obviously this was a different strategy from the one I would use against the girl who won a couple of weeks ago.

The Tech: So if you game plan according to opponents, what if there is an element of surprise, like if the opponent doesn’t race how you thought he/she would?

McCandless: You try to have multiple strategies. You have to be flexible and have planned for as many scenarios as possible beforehand — what if this person is running faster than I thought or slower than I thought or what if person ends up not showing up. After a certain point, say 2 miles, it is about running  as fast as you can!

The Tech: Let’s say there is a race where you give it your all. How long is a typical recovery period? How long before you can go full throttle again?

McCandless: I would say the following Tuesday or Wednesday [after a race on Saturday]. But that is just physically. To do your best at a race, where you are mentally focused at all times, I would say a week or two between races.

The Tech: What has it been like competing with the MIT cross country team?

McCandless: It has been fantastic. It is such a great environment. They are always there for you. Taking the lead together in the NEWMAC championships was a lot of fun.

The Tech: You have mentioned Coach Taylor. He is obviously very renowned and has won coach of the year multiple times. What have you learn from him?

McCandless: Probably, to look at times less. I used to focus on times a lot more. How to stay more competitive and how to remain mentally focused during the race. Focus on the goal of trying to win.

The Tech: Quickly going back to the decision of coming to MIT, how has that experience been with regard to the academic load to go along with your cross country commitments?

McCandless: It has been that bad so far. I am also just a freshman so I assume it can get a lot worse. I haven’t had much difficulty. I obviously have to study but I am not stressed out about school work.

Editors note:  This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.