The Internet Home of Track & Field

 True cross country fans know our sport is more of a team event than most outsiders realize, yet there are plenty of individual standouts as well.  So, while honoring the tradition we have started at DyeStat with Interval Sessions, which introduced you to the top individuals in both track and XC, we launch Fall 2009 with "Star Squad Spotlight," giving you a chance to get to know not just the top individual runners in the country, but also the best teams.

 star | francis hernandez
by Dave Devine, DyeStat Senior Editor

A self-proclaimed "pretty typical Spanish kid" growing up as a Little Leaguer in Nashua, New Hampshire, Francis Hernandez was more interested in being the next Roberto Clemente than the next Steve Prefontaine.  Now, although he confesses an inability to name the starting lineup for the Boston Red Sox (and thought Nomar Garciaparra was still on the squad), the Bishop Guertin senior can reel off the all-time marks on New Hampshire's tough Derryfield Park cross country course, is conversant on the history of New England's top harriers and last year repped the Northeast region at the 2008 NXN Finals in Portland, Oregon.

This fall, Hernandez has lit up courses along the eastern seaboard, recording big wins at the Manchester Invitational and the Catholic Memorial Invite, as well as a fourth place finish at the prestigious Great American Race of Champions in North Carolina.  He leads a Bishop Guertin team ranked 36th in the latest DyeStat Elite ESPN RISE FAB 50, and fifth in the Northeast.  

DyeStat senior editor Dave Devine catches up with Hernandez as he prepares for his NH Class L meet on October 31st.

1) Congrats on a great start to the season, Francis.  Looks like you've been handling the tough competition up in New England, and had a strong fourth place showing at the Great American Race of Champions against some of the best in the country.  Looking back on the season so far, can you talk about what's gone well, where you'd like to improve, and some of the highlights of 2009?

Thank you very much. The competition so far has been great; Great American was definitely a race that I was hoping to run last year and pleased to run at this year. Going into GA I was pretty intent on winning, as I'm sure many of the athletes were. I knew that the first mile was going to go out fast due to the downhill, so prior to the race the team and I worked on controlling pace with some downhill training. Last year, I feel like I was almost fit enough to compete with the best in the country, so this year I talked with my coach and decided that we would do some big races to really test that theory. Training so far has been going excellent. Bishop Guertin got a new distance coach this year, Steve Hunt. Steve has done an excellent job and the team and I have added new aspects to our training such as hill work and more quality miles. Last year the method was basically to run high mileage throughout the year with one long interval workout a week. I've had two solid races so far, the Manchester Invitational and Great American.

2) I saw an on-line interview from a profile by the local station WMUR, where you talked about your time at the Manchester Invitational, and just missing the course record.  Can you fill us in the story on that one?  Who holds the record, how close were you, and when is your next opportunity to race there?  As you've emerged as one of the top guys in New England, and certainly New Hampshire, has your focus expanded to include both winning races and, when possible, going after all-time marks and fast times?

The Manchester Invitational is held at the notoriously difficult Derryfield Park in Manchester, New Hampshire. There's some massive hills on the course and a pretty long, straight 400 meter finish. I crossed the line in 15:25 and the state record for the course is 15:24, held by John Mortimer.  I get another chance to hopefully knock at least two seconds off my time at the class meet in two weeks; it's at the same course. My focus for the first half of the season is basically to go for all-time marks and fast times, as I am racing at my Class (L) and Meet of Champions. Towards the end of the season the focus is to help get the team to Nationals, and hopefully, if I get there again, compete better in Portland than I did last year.

3) When reflecting on some of the all-time greats to come out of New Hampshire, you can't help thinking about Pinkerton Academy's Matt Downin and Londonderry's John Mortimer, who went 1-2 in the 1994 Foot Locker National Championships.  Is that a pair of runners you're familiar with?  Do folks up there still talk about those two and what they accomplished on a national level, and are Mortimer and Downin still somewhat of a measuring stick for New Hampshire success?  Are there other runners you've come up hearing about, either from New Hampshire or the wider New England region?

A few summers ago I spent a week with Matt Downin while he was at the Foss Running Camp in western New Hampshire. It was pretty sweet to hang out and run with him. But yeah, Mortimer holds the record at Derryfield Park  and 3rd fastest time ever in 15:24, and Downin has the 5th fastest time on that course in 15:30. So I'm pretty familiar with both of them and I know that Mortimer coaches at Kentucky now. Other than those two, Ben True from Greely Maine is talked of a lot because he has the Derryfield course record in 15:17, that was back in the early 2000's. I'm pretty sure he went on to Dartmouth to run sub 4 in the mile, and now I think he is with the Oregon Track Club.

4) More recently, you've had a chance to see one of the best to emerge from New England, in Westerly, Rhode Island's Andrew Springer.  I know you had some chances to see Springer up close in races, and while I'm sure you were motivated to beat him, was there a certain level of being impressed with what he was accomplishing, too?  Could you look at Springer, from "little Rhode Island," having this big impact on the national scene, and think that it's possible to come from a small New England state and achieve success on the national stage?

Springer was definitely someone to watch during every race. His performances last year were absolutely incredible. Andrew Springer definitely took the spotlight for New England distance running last year. During last year's outdoor track season I was pretty excited to race him. However, as I ran across some problems last year and my season started to take a turn for the worse, I became more of a fan than a competitor of Springer. This year, with the help of my Coach Steve Hunt, I plan on making an impact nationally so I can represent  New England well like Springer did last year.

5) I know you qualified from the NXN Northeast Regional last fall to compete at NXN Finals in Portland, Oregon.  How was that experience for you?  What were some of the highlights of the trip west, and were there particular things you brought back from Portland in terms of training ideas, motivation, or inspiration for last spring's track season and your senior campaign in XC and track?

NXN Northeast Regional (above) was a big race for me last fall, and I was stoked on making it to Nationals. The experience was incredible. I'm sure everybody has heard of how incredible Nike is and how they take care of you out there. Basically, I went to regionals with intentions of doing whatever it took to get that 5th individual spot, and then went to Nationals expecting nothing and hoping to enjoy the experience. I got 63rd at nationals last year and was pretty disappointed with my time, but at the same time pleased with the fact that I made it there and got to chill with some pretty cool Northeast kids. After Nationals I was definitely pumped to get racing again during the indoor season and I would attribute my indoor success partially to my NXN experience. This year I plan on going to Nationals to race with some kids. If I stay healthy and make it through regionals, I want to finish near the top at nationals.

6) Besides being a standout individual, you're also leading a top team which has been ranked both nationally and regionally.  How do you balance individual goals and team goals, or are you pretty much devoted to doing whatever is necessary for the team at this point?  Can you talk a little about your Bishop Guertin teammates, the friendships there, and how you've developed as a team?

The Bishop Guertin team this year is incredibly talented and we have a coach that can harness that talent. The main focus for the team is to stay healthy. We are having some issues with keeping the guys injury free. Our number five guy who didn't run at Great American is out right now with a broken collar bone, and our number 3 guy, Jeff Lacoste, is having some problems with his calf. Hopefully, if we can patch up these little hiccups in our training, we can do well. Our number two man, Joey Jourdain, is very strong and ran 15:49 I believe at Great American. My individual goals and team goals work off each other, I know that the higher I place in a race, the better off it is for my team. The team chemistry is great, I absolutely love the guys. We lose 3 guys next year-- myself, Joey Jourdain, and Trent Fontanella. Trent is probably one of our most talented and consistent runners on the team, he really knows how to step it up for championship races and he can get real fit real fast with little training.

7) How did you first become involved in running, or realize you had a talent for the distances?  Were you involved in age-group events before you hit the high school level?  Were there other sports that preceded track and cross country?

I became involved in running because of my mom, actually-- haha. When I was in elementary school I hated running and wanted to keep playing baseball. I mean, I guess it's pretty typical for a Spanish kid who plays baseball to want to be the next Roberto Clemente. My mom signed me up for the Nashua Police Athletic Association and I started doing some of the Junior USATF cross country stuff. Up until high school I was not a big fan of running, basically until I started training with someone who was much better than me (Anthony Merra).

8) When you're not running and studying, what other things do you like to do with your free time?  What could we find you doing the day after the season is over, when you finally have some time to relax?

Um, I'm pretty standard I guess. I hang out with friends a lot, chill with my family,  my girlfriend, listen to Breaking Benjamin ( <3 Ben Burnley), XBOX 360 (FRANNYPANTS850 - add me), throw snowballs at my dogs, watch The Office. I don't really watch too many professional sports; it's pretty pathetic I know, but I couldn't tell you who starts for the Red Sox or Patriots.  To be honest with you, I thought we still had Nomar Garciaparra.

Photos (from top) - 2009 Great American - Walter Pinion;, 2008 NXN NE and 2009 Hartford Public - John Nepolitan