Jon Shaffer: A Middle-distance Hurdler

While many 400m hurdlers double in the 110’s, open 400, or open 200, there also those who take more of a middle-distance approach by doubling in the open 800. One such athlete is Jon Shaffer, a junior at Marquette University in Wisconsin. Shaffer, whose personal best in the intermediates is 52.63, also has a 800m personal best of 1:49.21, which he ran this past indoor season at the Notre Dame Last Chance Meet in late February, making him the only runner in Marquette history to run under 1:50 in the 800. Shaffer has found that running the 800 and training for it has improved his late-race stamina in the hurdles, making him a more confident runner with a stronger base.

Shaffer first began running track when he attended a track camp during the summer between his sixth and seventh grade years. In seventh and eighth grade he ran track for his school, and “pretty much tried all the events because the coaches noticed I was a pretty good athlete,” he said. He added that “I ran a 56.3 in the 400, and everyone was like, wow, that’s really good for how young you are.” Nevertheless, Shaffer’s first love was not track, but soccer – a sport in which he excelled. “I still thought my future was in soccer,” he said. “I had dreams of playing in the World Cup. I went to Marquette[University] High [school] for academics, but also for soccer, because they had one of the best soccer programs in the state.” He noted that even though he was an emerging track star, “I always played high school soccer in the fall, and would play club soccer and run track in the spring.” It was after suffering a serious concussion on the soccer field during his freshman year at Marquette High that Shaffer “started to really focus on track.” He says he still misses soccer, particularly because the Marquette University coach was the coach of his Olympic Development team, but he acknowledges that track is “probably my better sport anyway, plus I don’t get hurt as much.”

In addition to soccer and track, Shaffer also wrestled during his freshman and sophomore years of high school. He says that wrestling helped him develop more fully as an athlete. “That was a weird thing with me,” he explained, “because I was kind of the opposite build of a wrestler; I had strong legs, but a weak upper body. Wrestling really got me flexible, and also a lot stronger. It kind of evened out my body.” Shaffer didn’t start hurdling until his sophomore year, and found immediate success in the 300’s, finishing the season with a pr of 40.5. “That’s when I started to get really excited about track,” he said. At the state meet that year, which included only private schools, he finished fifth in the 400 and sixth in the 300m hurdles. In his junior year he “dropped the 400 once I realized I could be a good hurdler,” and finished third in the hurdles at the state meet (private and public schools combined), running a 39.7 in the finals. In his senior year he pr’ed with a 38.6, having given up soccer after the fall season because Marquette University offered him scholarship money to run track.

Shaffer didn’t start running the 800 until his freshman year of college. “The thing was,” he explained, “I was planning on just running the 400 hurdles and the four-by-four, but my coach at the time, [Ray Williams], decided to run me in the 600 a lot indoors to get me a good base for the hurdles. I was running in the 1:22 range. Then our last meet before conference, our coach said everyone’s gonna run an 800 before the season’s over. I asked a bunch of the distance guys how to run it; they said sit in the pack and use your speed at the end and try to out-kick everyone. I ran like a 1:56 and won it, then the head coach said you’re running it in the conference meet. I got like sixth in 1:57.” Still, until this year, Shaffer’s focus was strictly on the intermediate hurdles. “I had never concentrated on the open 800 till this year,” he noted, “when we got a new coach, [Bert Rogers]. His philosophy is that the 800 and 400 hurdle runners should be able to do the same training. And my time just started dropping. Now we’re in a dilemma because I could run a really good 800 outdoors, but I’m a hurdler. Our plan right now is to keep running the 400 hurdles. With my times dropping in the 800, I could really run a fast hurdle race. I’ve only run it once this year so far, at Purdue. I wanted to run 52.5 to qualify for regionals, but there were twenty-five to thirty miles per hour winds. I ran like a 54, and wasn’t too disappointed about the time, but was disappointed because I finished third. The next week I decided to run the 800, but I ended up getting hurt running the eight.” Because of back problems, Shaffer plans on running the 800 once again at the Drake Relays on the third weekend in April, and to sit out the 400 hurdles. He hopes to run the hurdles at the Wisconsin Twilight meet and at the C-USA Outdoor Championships later this spring.

In describing the workouts he did to improve so dramatically in the 800, there were two in particular that stood out. In the fall and early winter, the middle-distance runners would do 800 repeats – “We’d do four of them; we’d try to do ‘em in 2:20 to 2:25. We’d do that once a week. Once we could hit the times consistently, we’d drop down to 2:15 to 2:20.” In February they’d do a workout that was particularly designed as a race predictor: “We’d run an 800 with the first 500 at race pace – 70 to 71 seconds, then we’d get a 45-second rest and hit the last 300 hard, as fast as we could. And we’d try to hit our target time for indoors” when adding up the first 500 and the last 300. “That helped me get used to the pace of the 800. Then ten minutes later we’d run a 400 as fast as we can. It was a tough workout.” Shaffer added that he did not do any hurdling at all this past winter, because “Coach didn’t want me to because my 800 time was dropping so fast. I started at 1:55, then 1:52, then 1:49. I wanted to do hurdle drills, but Coach didn’t want anything bad to happen because I have really bad ankles. The 1:49 qualified me provisionally for nationals, but I didn’t get in. When I found out, that’s when I started doing hurdle drills.”

Because Shaffer doesn’t run the 110’s (due to hamstring and ankle problems from his high school days), his hurdle drills are designed to sharpen his technique, and to enable him to enhance his ability to lead with either leg. Because he stands only 5’8”, he finds it most effective to do the majority of his drills with the hurdles at the 30” setting. He’ll space the hurdles about twelve feet apart and do three reps of trail leg, three reps of lead leg, and then switch legs and do three more reps on each leg before going over the top of the hurdle three times. From there, he’ll do the fence drill with the hurdle set at 36”, focusing on “keeping my foot dorsi-flexed, making sure I’m not kicking my butt with my ankle. I do that ten times with both legs.” Shaffer first taught himself how to switch lead legs while still a junior in high school. “I started out as a right-leg lead,” he said, “but I wanted to learn to use my left because I could run faster, so I just started practicing using my left. Now I can lead with either leg very well.”

During the spring season, Shaffer has been practicing over the hurdles twice a week – Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesdays, he’ll do something like the following: set up the hurdles at the intermediate marks, at the intermediate height, and do one run-through over seven hurdles, then two reps over five hurdles, then three reps over four hurdles. Shaffer gets a three-minute rest between reps, and Coach Rogers records the touchdown times for each rep. The Thursday workout, which is closer to the weekend competition, is usually a race-predictor type of workout, similar to the one he would do for the 800 during the indoor season. “In spikes, as hard as I can, I go over the first seven hurdles, then I get a 45-second rest, then I go over the last three and through the finish line.” Again, as with the 800 workout, the added time for the first seven and last three through the finish line will indicate the kind of time he should be able to run on race day. And again, there’d be an all-out 400 tacked on at the end, after a ten-minute recovery period.

Shaffer has had two coaches during his time at Marquette, both of whom have significantly aided his development, although in different ways. In his first two years, Shaffer was coached by Ray Williams, who achieved All-American status as a 110m hurdler back in the mid-90’s at Division III North Central College in Illinois. Of Coach Williams, Shaffer says that “he was a really good hurdle coach, so he helped me a lot in getting my form down. I had a tendency to lean back a bit while going over the hurdle instead of really attacking it. Coach Ray really helped me to attack the hurdle.” In regards to the improvement in his hurdling technique over the years, Shaffer commented that “in high school I got by on being fast, but I didn’t have good form. It was still pretty rough when I got to college, so Coach Ray taught me form – more or less 110 form.”

This year, Coach Bert Rogers, a Wisconsin native, has been working with Shaffer, emphasizing a middle-distance foundation to improve Shaffer’s conditioning. Shaffer says that Rogers “has helped a ton in terms of fitness and getting me to peak at the right time. I’ve gotten to the point where I believe I can run the times I wanna run. My freshman year, I was saying to myself that it would be really cool to break fifty [in the 400 hurdles], and now the 800 has given me a really good base, so now I know that all I have to do is put it all together on one day.” Shaffer also likes the fact that Rogers posts the workouts for the week in the beginning of the week, so he knows when he needs to mentally prepare for the really tough practices. Knowing that the harder workouts come on Tuesdays and Thursdays helps psychologically as well. “[Coach Rogers] believes you shouldn’t do really hard stuff [on] back-to-back [days]. So he gives us lighter stuff on the other days; it’s hard, but just not as intense. We’ll go longer, but not as fast.”

Shaffer feels that evidence of his improved conditioning can be found in his 4×400 relay splits, where he runs anchor leg. “Last year’s four-by-four splits,” he explained, “were in the high 48’s; this year I ran 47.1 indoors. I’m a chaser, I like to come from behind, except in the 400 hurdles. In that race I go out really hard and try to hold on. In the four-by-four I love it when we’re behind so I can go after people. So my 400 splits usually depend on how far behind we are. This year,” he added, “we’re going a lot faster in practice. I hadn’t gone under 58 in practice before, and now I’m going 50, 51. We used to do a lot of over-distance, but didn’t get much speed work. Coach Rogers does a great job of balancing those two things.”

When it comes to counting strides between hurdles, Shaffer, like many hurdlers who feel confident alternating lead legs, does not do so. He feels that if you can only lead with one leg, then you have to count steps to avoid stuttering; otherwise, you don’t need to. “But,” he said, “I do know that if I hit the first hurdle with my left leg, then I’ll keep the same lead leg until about the seventh hurdle. I take fifteen strides between the hurdles. At number seven, I start to fatigue, so I use my right.” Instead of concentrating on counting his strides, Shaffer puts his mental energy into making sure he stays in a tall running posture and that he keeps his ankle dorsi-flexed when he takes off going into each hurdle, as he has a “tendency to drop back on my heels.” Having Coach Rogers record his touchdown times also has proven to be very beneficial. “Even if I feel slow,” he said, “I can see where I’m slow because [Coach] gets my touchdowns in races and in practice, so I can gauge, compare, get a chance to get a concrete idea of what I’m capable of.”

When asked to identify athletes who have influenced him positively, Shaffer pointed out Michael Johnson and Edwin Moses – two of the giants of the sport of Track & Field. Johnson in particular served to pique Shaffer’s interest in the sport because Johnson’s year of greatest glory – 1996 – coincided with Shaffer’s first year of running track, as a seventh-grader. Besides the big names, Shaffer also looked up to the older athletes on the track team at Marquette High. “I could never meet MJ or Moses in person,” he explained, “so I would look up to the seniors in my high school. I’d talk to them, see them do very well, and try to follow their lead.” Shaffer himself started a trend at Marquette High, as he was the first intermediate hurdler in school history since 1986 to break 40.0 in the 300’s, and three other athletes have done it since then. As a collegian, Shaffer no longer looks up to other runners, but studies them in order to maximize his own potential. “By watching other elite guys run,” he remarked, “I can see what they’re doing, compare it to what I’m doing, and it helps my coaching mind. It has also added to improved performances over the years.” As a student of the intermediate hurdles, Shaffer feels it is important to not just mindlessly follow the instructions of his coach, but to think actively himself so that he can better internalize his coach’s lessons. As he put it, “I think like a coach, so I critique myself really well. Coach Rogers sees what he sees, and says what he says, but my ability to notice it too helps me to understand what he is saying.”

Off the track, Shaffer is a history major with a focus on the cultures of China and Japan. After he graduates from Marquette University next year, he hopes to spend a year at Marquette High in an alumni service program in which he would teach history and coach track. Also, he is very enthusiastic about being a leader regarding diversity issues on campus. He has created his own student organization called “We Lead” that helps address some of the university’s diversity problems. Being half-black and half-white, Shaffer is quite aware of the need to educate students and faculty alike on the topic of how diverse we all are beneath the color of our skin. “People think I’m Latino, Asian, Puerto Rican, Greek, Middle Eastern,” he said. “That goes to show that diversity is about more than just race, or else you’d know what [ethnicity] I am. We have to look at other things people do, so I just try to educate and make Marquette’s campus aware of other aspects of diversity that don’t include race. If you’re a minority, you’re always gonna feel isolated. I feel out of place to a degree in both [black and white] worlds. But common interests outside of race bring you together. [‘We Lead’] is trying to bring in other aspects of people’s lives to look at.” It would probably be fair to say that teammates on athletic teams, because they spend so much time striving together for success in a common endeavor that lies outside the normal boundaries of race-identity in the larger culture, are more aware of the relevance of Shaffer’s point than most people would be.

Being a good teammate is very important to Shaffer. He uses his coaching mind to help his teammates, both male and female, with their hurdling technique and running form. Also, when discussing his goals for 2005 outdoors, he placed a heavy emphasis in the 4x400m relay. “I’d like for us to run a sub-3:10,” he said, “and get to regionals. That’s probably the toughest goal, but we really do think we’re capable of doing it.” Shaffer’s other goals are to run under 51.0 in the intermediate hurdles, and to qualify for regionals in the 800 as well.

When asked to elucidate what he has learned from his years of hurdling competitively, Shaffer made the following observation: “The hurdles have taught me that if you work really, really hard at perfecting little things in your life, the big picture will come together. Even if you don’t reach the ultimate goal that you set out for yourself, you’ll realize that you got where you were trying to get to all along. You might not get to sub-50, but you will have improved so much that you can’t walk away disappointed. That kind of success gives you confidence to work really hard in other aspects of your life.”

Those are very wise words, I would say, coming from a 21-year-old. Obviously, the coaching mind of this middle-distance hurdler has served him well.

© 2005 Steve McGill

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