May 1, 2009
By Larry Watts
How did Michigan State's Shane Knoll develop into a sub-four minute miler?
One theory is it started at home, where he is one of 15 children, currently ranging in age from 7 to 32. The Spartan junior fits right in the middle. He has five older sisters and two older brothers and five younger sisters and two younger brothers. In other words, one had to be quick to make it to this dinner table.
"There were no second helpings," he says. "But I love it and it always has been a lot of fun. There was always someone to hang out with and something to do. Something was always going on in this household."
Knoll says his Warren, Mich. two-story house is hardly a mansion. There are three bedrooms upstairs and two more in the basement.
"The boys would usually start out playing soccer and baseball and then by fourth grade we were playing football," he says. "My older sisters all played soccer and the younger ones are runners now. We were all involved in sports of some kind and my parents try to make as many of our events as possible.
"I raced a lot with my sisters. And if they beat me, it would be gab, gab, gab, gab."
His mother, Nancy, even picked up running about 10 years ago. She just ran her second Boston Marathon, but Knoll says he never goes running with her.
"She's not competitive; she just likes to run," he says. "She's always begging me to go running with her, but I can't run that slow."
Another theory on the development of his speed comes from working a paper route for two years. When it snowed, his father would drive him and his two older brothers on the route.
During one particular early morning snowstorm, his father's car got stuck. Knoll was the chosen one to make the deliveries to nearly 50 homes.
"My father knew my brothers were bigger, so it would probably take them awhile to make the deliveries," he says. "So they stayed in the warm car putting rubber bands on the papers while I'm running through the neighborhood."
Although he did well as a runner in middle school, his passion was to play football in high school. However, his father and middle school track coach intervened and talked him into cross country.
"As a kid I really wasn't into running," he says. "The only thing I liked about it was I could talk junk to the other runners.
"I loved playing football, especially linebacker on defense. If they had let me stick with it, I'd probably be a first round draft choice."
After spending two years running at Lansing Community College, Knoll joined the Michigan State track team as a sophomore last year. He clocked season bests of 4:01.45 in the mile, 2:25.55 in the 1,000 meters and 1:51.10 at 800 meters during the indoor season, but a quad injury kept him out of the outdoor campaign.
It didn't take him long to establish himself as one of the nation's best collegiate middle distance runners. At the prestigious Notre Dame Invitational in January, he broke away in the final 300 meters to victory. He not only became only the second Spartan runner in school history to run a sub-four minute mile, but his time of 3:57.36 erased the 37-year school record held by Ken Popejoy.
"It was really nerve wracking," Knoll says of the race. "The crowd was really into it and everyone started going wild. They started banging these drums the last 150 yards. It was a very surreal moment. It was great to have both of my parents and one of my younger sisters there to see it.
"I can't even begin to explain how my body felt. I was tired, but I kept moving my legs. Shortly after I finished, I fell."
Although he told people back in seventh grade that he was going to break the four-minute barrier, Knoll says it was mostly just talk.
"I didn't really think it would happen," he says. "The best I had done this year was a 4:03 twice, but I really hadn't been in a fast field."
When he got back to Michigan State, his girlfriend and several other friends threw him a surprise party at his apartment. When he walked in, they sprayed him with cheap champagne.
"We still have some of it on the ceiling," he says. "She's a pole vaulter on the women's team, so I told her she has to get up there and clean it off. That's not going to happen."
Knoll credits head coach Walt Drenth for giving him the confidence for his record run. It was Drenth who predicted during the cross country season that he would break four minutes.
"I was having my best cross country season, usually running between fifth and seventh (runner) on the team," he says. "I was mostly out there to contribute during the workouts because cross country is a different beast and I don't like those longer races.
"But coach Drenth told me I was going to break four. He's the big reason I came here. It's not all running; he really cares about you, your goals and your family. And if you're injured, he doesn't ignore you because he wants to make sure you are getting better."
Shortly after breaking the mile record, Knoll received a congratulatory letter from Popejoy. He says that is one letter he plans on keeping.
"He (Popejoy) is a judge in Chicago now," the Spartan junior says. "So if I ever get into trouble in Chicago, I'll have to look him up."
Three weeks after setting the mile mark, Knoll erased another Spartan indoor record. This time it was a 1:48.97 in the 800 meters at the Grand Valley State Big Meet.
Though both times qualified him for the NCAA Indoor Championships, Knoll elected to concentrate on the mile, where he was the top seed. But the Great Lakes Region indoor athlete of the year could not duplicate his earlier fete. He earned All-America honors for placing 12th (4:05.05) but failed to make the finals.
"I just didn't run like I felt I could," he says. "It wasn't my day to run fast and it just didn't happen. Not making the finals was a big disappointment.
"Obviously I wanted to do the best I could and showcase my abilities, so that kind of sucked. I guess I'll just have to prove myself outdoors now."
Knoll has already qualified for the regional meet with a time of 1:49.62 in the 800 meters and he'll be looking to qualify in the 1500 this weekend when he tests himself against a very talented field at the Jesse Owens Invitational at Ohio State. He has clocked a season-best 3:49.42 in the 1500.
"The competition is going to be very good," he says. "There will be a rabbit setting the pace and a lot of fast guys."
Knoll, who logs 70 miles over six days of training each week, says he really hasn't set any definite goals for the outdoor campaign other than doing the best he can and scoring as many points as possible for Michigan State at the Big Ten Championships.
"Hopefully, I'll make it to Nationals and then we'll see what I can do there," he says. "I want to prove myself for the way the indoor season ended, but I also want to have a good time with it. I'm just trying to get in some good workouts and get my body ready."
Beyond his majors in interdisciplinary studies and psychology, Knoll has made no future plans other than to become a community counselor.
"I'll have to go to grad school first, but I do like dealing with kids and those kind of issues," he says. "I don't think I would seek out a professional running career, but if someone wanted me to do it I would. "But I would have to run a lot faster in order to compete with those elite guys. Maybe I would increase my mileage just to see how far I could test my body, but I don't think I would ever run a marathon."