Q&A with Cross Country’s Lucas Stalnaker '17
By Gary Lambrecht
By leading the Navy men’s cross country team to its first appearance at the NCAA Championships since 1997, Lucas Stalnaker ’17 concluded a highly improbable personal journey. When he reported to the academy for plebe summer in 2013, Stalnaker had completed his one and only season as a runner at Fort Mill High School near his hometown of Tega Cay, SC. Even though he was an all-state performer as a senior, Stalnaker was not recruited. That failed to deter him. He developed consistently over his first two seasons with the Midshipmen then had a major impact in the fall of 2015 by winning four races, including the Patriot League Championships. In November, Stalnaker became the second Mid to win back-to-back individual league titles. After placing eighth in the Mid-Atlantic Regional to lead Navy to a second-place finish, he wound up 69th in his final run to help Navy finish 26th out of 31 schools. Stalnaker recently chatted with writer Gary Lambrecht.
Q: As you reflect on your years in cross country, how do you feel about the way things ended at the NCAAs?
A: I beat some good runners and I lost to some really good runners. It was a surreal experience. Before the race, I remember looking at guys like [eventual champion] Patrick Tiernan [from Villanova] and thinking, “Why am I here?” Ultimately, I’m pretty happy with everything. As time goes by, and I find myself getting upset that I didn’t finish higher [at the NCAAs], I’ll remind myself that things turned out well after running in a sport that I chose on a whim.
Q: What sports were you playing as a youngster?
A: I started playing soccer when I was five, and that was my main sport for years. But by the time I was a junior, I was getting tired of it, so I decided to stop. But I couldn’t picture myself not doing anything [sports-related], so I decided to try running. I showed up, ran my first few cross-country races, and didn’t do that badly. After I won a couple of mile and two-mile races, it felt like I’d made a good choice.
Q: And the next thing you know, you’re earning all-state honors at Fort Mill and helping your school to county, regional and upper state championships. That sounds really tough to pull off for such an inexperienced runner.
A: Well, South Carolina isn’t exactly known for producing [great] cross country runners. Football is king back home—that and baseball.
Q: Did [Navy cross country coach] Al Cantello show any interest in you?
A: Not at all. In fact, when I attended the summer seminar [at Navy] after my junior year of high school, I went up to [Cantello] and said, “Hi. My name is Lucas, and I run cross country. Is there any chance I could run for you?” And he said, “You will never run for me. Just be on your way.”
Q: How much did that memory linger with you as you established yourself in his program and began to progress the way you did?
A: Honestly, when I first came here, I wanted to excel—and I felt a little vindictive about it. At the end of cross country season last year, I bought that story up while I was talking to him. He had forgotten all about it. We laughed and he gave me a hug. Once you’ve gotten a hug from that man, you’ve really done it.
Q: How would you encapsulate the experience of performing for a coach like Cantello?
A: On the outside, he’s this rough, mean old man. He is sometimes that man you despise more than anything else in the world. But he gets you fired up, and you start to realize that’s what he wants from you. When you sit down and talk with him in his office, you really see that he cares a lot. He just doesn’t like to show it [publicly].
Q: He’s practically old enough to be your great-grandfather. How does he relate to young men?
A: We [runners] contemplate that all of the time. How does he still do this? He had heart surgery last year, and he came back from it with even more energy. He’s got this fire in his spirit. You’ve got to be hungry to do this. You’ve got to really want to compete, and [Cantello] certainly brings that out in us.
Q: Over your four seasons at Navy, how much smarter did you get about the way you train and manage a season?
A: You realize this sport is not just about busting your ass every day and crushing 95 miles a week. Rest is so important. My plebe year, I thought every race had to be the hardest race of my life. I found out that was a stupid goal. I ended up with a stress fracture in one femur and fractures in each tibia—I thought they were just shin splints at first. It started to hurt when I did anything. Our trainer took a look at me and told me if I didn’t stop running for a while, I wasn’t going to be able to walk. I didn’t need surgery, but I was laid up for over three months. My learning curve was huge over three years.
Q: How much did you change your diet?
A: You definitely learn what you can or shouldn’t eat. [For example] If it’s pasta—whole wheat—I’m going to eat that for sure. I’ve learned to eat healthier in general. But I still will help myself to some barbecue, if it’s done right.
Q: Judging by where you’re from, I’m guessing barbecue is also king back home. How particular are you about the way it’s prepared?
A: I like to consider myself a connoisseur of barbecue. It’s got to be nice and pulled, maybe a little shredded. If it hasn’t been in a smoker or a pit for at least a day, I’m not interested. The sauce has to be mustard-based, but not too spicy, not too sweet. My friends [at the academy] say it’s just food. They think I’m weird.
Q: Other than the barbecue, what do you miss most about home?
A: My dogs. We’ve got three golden retrievers, and I raised two of them. I’ve got a huge photo album with me. If those dogs don’t like somebody, I don’t like them.