Cross-country can be a brutally hard, especially for runners who were phenoms in high school. For North Carolina State, the secret is simple.
Moments after Katelyn Tuohy won the Division I women’s individual cross-country championship, she looked back at the horde of runners streaming into the finishing chute.
Gasping for breath, she counted her teammates.
“Is that five?” she asked between gulps, her eyes darting among the runners flinging themselves across the finish line. “Where’s the team score at?”
Tuohy, a third-year runner from Rockland County, N.Y., was doing the math. The top five runners on each team score points that correspond with their finishing place, and the team with the fewest points wins the championship. She had finished first; 1 point for North Carolina State.
The math added up as another N.C.A.A. cross-country trophy was handed to the gaggle of giddy N.C. State runners, clad in tank tops in 30-degree temperatures in Stillwater, Okla. Their coach, Laurie Henes, beamed. For the second year in a row, she and her team were at the top of the sport.
In an intense sport that can be rife with toxicity and burnout, Henes has quietly — and consistently — built a women’s running program that has frequently been ranked in the top 10 of Division I since she started working for N.C. State in 1992. In the past eight years, her team has finished in the top 10 at the national championships seven times. Six of those finishes were in the top five.
“It’s a lot of fun to win,” Henes, who became head coach of the women’s cross-country team in 2006, said. “But I think we are in that position because we were having fun before that. We have fun all the time.”
It’s not a sentiment heard frequently from a top collegiate coach, especially a top cross-country coach who has consistently recruited some of the nation’s most promising high school runners.
It’s part of what attracted both Tuohy and another high school standout, Kelsey Chmiel, who finished third at Saturday’s national race, to the team.
And it’s something that Henes has long made clear in the recruitment process. Julia Lucas, a writer and coach who ran for the Wolfpack from 2002-7, remembers the difference between Henes’s approach and that of other coaches.
When Lucas was on recruitment trips as a high school student, she recalled usually being told what a coach believed she wanted to hear: That this school or that coach would make her an Olympian. When she visited N.C. State, she was given a tour, introduced to the culture of the team, and told that if it felt like a good fit, great, and if not, that was OK, too. She signed on.
“To be working so hard at just being excellent at what you do, and being happy and healthy at the same time is certainly not mutually exclusive,” Lucas said in a phone interview. “Laurie is proving that in fact that it is mutually beneficial but very hard to manage, there’s a necessary sophistication at work there.”
Lucas called Henes a “protector,” a coach who does everything “in service of relieving these women of these harsher realities of being a woman in the sport.”
Henes, a former N.C. State runner herself, would know.
She is one of only a handful of women who are leading a women’s collegiate running program. According to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, 43.7 percent of head coaches of N.C.A.A. Division I women’s teams in the top seven conferences were women in the 2021-22 academic year. But the number of running programs led by women is much lower.
In the same academic year, only 19.9 percent of women’s cross-country programs had women as head coaches, one of the lowest percentages across Division I sports. Her journey from team staff member to head coach followed her own successful collegiate and professional careers. And her leadership was also informed by coaching her daughter, the professional runner Elly Henes, when she was a student at N.C. State.
While many of her counterparts have leaned into using new tools or data to analyze athletes’ bodies and performances, Laurie Henes has taken a more nuanced approach focused more on the long-term health and success, in and out of college, of her athletes.
When the N.C. State football team got a Bod Pod, a human-sized capsule that measures body composition, Henes thought it could be a great opportunity for her athletes, too. But, she said, “We realized really quickly we weren’t using the data, and it wasn’t worth the data if someone had the tendency to have disordered eating or compare themselves to other people.” It was an easy decision to stop using it.
To purposely lean away from data and toward a healthy, deliberately fun culture is uncommon at this high a level of competition.
Instead, it’s more common to hear athletes share what they describe as toxicity when it reaches a breaking point. In the past handful of years, many runners have spoken up after reading about — and recognizing — Mary Cain’s experience. Cain, a wunderkind once heralded as the future of American distance running, described how she experienced years of ridicule about her body from Alberto Salazar, her former coach. In the months and years following Cain’s disclosure, runners around the U.S. have shared their own similar experiences: fat talks, shaming and manipulation, harassment, and a fixation on body composition numbers over mental health.
Creating a healthy, inclusive, well-rounded culture is at the forefront of the N.C. State program. There are brunches after long runs. There are combative game nights and extremely fierce mini golf sessions. There are cooking competitions modeled off the television show “Chopped” at the Henes household and dinners hosted by the upperclassmen. There’s a lot of basketball, too, even if HORSE has been encouraged over one-on-one games.
“Coach Henes definitely cares about us as people before she cares about us as athletes,” said Chmiel, who is studying to be a veterinarian. “We are here for four years, she sees the ups and downs and she sees that running is just a part of who we are and not who we are entirely.”
On Saturday, as her athletes wove around the 6-kilometer course (3.7 miles) at Oklahoma State, Henes said she mostly stayed out of the way. Even cross-country running, with no timeouts, can be over-coached, she said. She picked a spot where she could give her runners the feedback they wanted, and trusted the rest to their training.
Tuohy, the favorite to win the title, had wanted to know just one thing when she passed her coach. “Tell me the team score with 400 meters to go,” Henes recalled Tuohy asking.
The team celebrated its win on campus in Raleigh on Saturday night, lighting the bell tower in N.C. State red. Many of the team members would be going home for Thanksgiving, and a handful would be headed to Boston for their first indoor meet in early December.
But there was also something a bit more pressing in the weeks ahead: the annual dessert contest, one that involves as much eating as baking. Henes’s husband, Bob, is the judge. A very large chocolate chip cookie won last year.