Running and Winning with the Pack: A Conversation with Chancellor Woodson and Coach Laurie Henes
Laurie Henes, director of NC State track and field and cross country, joins Chancellor Woodson for a conversation on running, winning and the importance of fun in episode seven of Red Chair Chats.
From running with the Pack to leading the Pack, Laurie Henes has a long history with NC State. As a student-athlete, she won two ACC championships in cross country, an NCAA championship in track and field and multiple other athletic and academic awards. As a coach, she’s won eight championships with women’s cross country, back-to-back NCAA team titles, and coached multiple NCAA national champions. She has also coached runners to numerous NCAA and ACC individual titles in cross country and track and field, including her daughter, Elly. Chancellor Woodson talks with Coach Henes about the secret to the success of her program on episode seven of Red Chair Chats.
Chancellor Woodson: Hello, Wolfpack Nation. It’s Chancellor Randy Woodson for another edition of “Red Chair Chats,” where we get together with friends, alumni, faculty and staff, and just people that love this institution to learn more about them and have a great conversation. And boy, are you in for a treat today. We’re in the home of the first family of NC State Athletics and with coach Laurie Henes, probably one of the winningest coaches at NC State in our history, and we’re thrilled to be with you, Laurie. So, a little bit of background before we get started with the conversation. Laurie’s the head coach for both men and women’s track and field at NC State, longtime coach of our women’s cross-country team, been at NC State for 30 years, and just a phenomenal record of success. The reigning two-time NCAA champion in women’s cross-country. I could go on and on, but, you know, there’s this wall behind us that’s illustrative of just the amount of success that this family, both her husband, Bob, and their daughter Elly and Laurie have had at NC State. So, good morning.
Laurie Henes: Good morning. Welcome.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah, it’s good to see you. Thanks for doing this.
Laurie Henes: You too.
Chancellor Woodson: So, you’re, as I introduced, you’re one of the winningest coaches in our history. So, talk a little bit about our women’s cross-country team. We’ll start there. The reigning ACC champion, seven championships in a row, many over the life of the program, and the reigning NCAA champion, and hoping for a repeat. So, talk a little bit about what that means and what it means to be at NC State for all these years.
Laurie Henes: Yeah, I mean, I have just been incredibly fortunate to work with this group of women that we’ve had here over the last, you know, this last seven ACC titles in a row, and the two NCAA championships. And as you said, NC State is a huge part of our family. And so being able to, you know, be a part of bringing those ACC titles and especially these last two national titles back to NC State has just been so rewarding for me, and it’s meant so much to the women in the program and to our family as well.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, for those of you that don’t know this, Coach Henes when she was a student running at NC State, won a national championship as well as ACC championships, went on to coach her daughter Elly, who won a national championship in the 5,000, in which I think, if memory serves me correct, NC State has won more national championships in the 5,000-meter than any other university.
Laurie Henes: I think that’s probably true. Something that, yeah, we’ve been pretty consistently good at over the years. It has a, you know, large carryover to cross-country, so we’ve been very good in those events on the track as well.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, tell me about what it was like as a coach and as a mother to be there when your daughter won a national championship for our great university.
Laurie Henes: You know, I can very vividly remember climbing up to the stands and watching it. You know, there are times in certain athletes’ careers where you, you know that there’s a very good opportunity that they’re gonna walk away with an NCAA championship. We’ve had that with Katelyn a lot over the last few years. And so I just tried to remind myself, because I think coaches can get, you know, where we feel pretty nervous about these things as well, but just tried to remind myself to appreciate that moment. And it’s kind of carried over from that day.
You know, we talk about a family atmosphere here at NC State too, and so she was not the only athlete in that field and not the only athlete at that national championship. So, you know, there’s, I feel like there’s not much of a separation on the mom and coach there. I mean, pretty much, I’m pretty focused on the coaching side at that point when she was running for NC State and those types of things. But yeah, like, being in the stands and realizing that there was this, you know, great opportunity for her to do the same thing that I did 30 years later in the same stadium too …
Chancellor Woodson: Wow.
Laurie Henes: Was, yeah, just really amazing. And I think I’ve taken that with me, like, what I learned in that moment, to the NCAA titles we’ve won teamwise. I take a little bit of time kind of to myself, to just appreciate where we are. We talk about the process at NC State all the time. I mean, obviously there are outcomes and not that those aren’t important, but we really try to just focus on the process and being grateful to have the opportunity that we have. And so I really focused on that with Elly, and then I’ve done that, taken that forward, you know, to all of Katelyn’s championships and on our teams that, you know, not everything is always going to work out that way. You’re not gonna win the national title every year. You’re not gonna have the individual champion in every race that you’re at, but just really appreciating where we are, the process that it’s taken to get there, and really kind of trying to let go of the outcome, I think has allowed us to be really successful in those situations.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, you’ve mentioned Katelyn Tuohy a number of times. And many of us that are NC State fans, we’re of course thrilled with the national championship in the last two years and thrilled with her individual championships. She’s likely to leave NC State as one of the most, if not the most, decorated athlete in our history. And I was thrilled to see her return to NC State for this last year of competition. So talk a little bit about, you know, the current team, and in particular the leadership that Katelyn has provided, and what that means to have her back with so many other talented, talented runners.
Laurie Henes: Yeah. You know, the opportunity to be successful again this year with the same core that we’ve had over the last couple years I think is very rare in collegiate athletics. So, you know, Katelyn, Kelsey Chmiel’s even a year older and has been a part of all of those championships. Samantha Bush, who’s from Ohio has, you know, has gotten so much better since she’s gotten to college and been a key part of all of those championships as well. So to have that core all return one more time, I think they are really grateful to have that opportunity to run together one more time and the leadership that they provide. And they had greatleaders before them too. And that’s something that’s just very important to us as a program. We don’t actually name team captains. We want everyone to kind of figure out their role in the leadership of the program.
And Katelyn, I mean, the year and a half that she’s had has just been phenomenal. Four NCAA titles, three collegiate records, and some of them wasn’t close to the old collegiate record. So, you know, it’s been really gratifying for me to be able to help her. She chose NC State to win, to try to win team titles, obviously to succeed individually as she has, but to be a part of team titles. And for us to be able to have that happen, for her to help us have that happen and for us to be able to provide that for her is amazing. She’s, yeah, we’ve got lots of really hard workers on the team, but she’s, I mean, her work ethic is just unmatched. And her ability to learn from things that maybe didn’t go perfectly and adjust that and make sure that that doesn’t happen again is, I don’t think I’ve ever worked with someone with her ability to do that.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, and you’ve mentioned family a number of times and the way you shape your program as a family. And that was really highlighted in an article in the New York Times. And I know, Laurie, you’re the type of person that, “Oh my gosh. I don’t wanna be in the New York Times.” But for those that haven’t seen it, there was this phenomenal article about Coach Henes’ leadership and the creation of this family atmosphere within a sport that frankly can be a difficult sport for young women, particularly in areas like body-shaming and just the complexity of what it takes to be a champion. So talk a little bit about, you know, what that article reflected. And for those of you listening, I would encourage you to go to the New York Times and read this article. It’s a phenomenal lesson on leadership. So talk a bit about how you try to live those family values within the program.
Laurie Henes: Yeah. For sure. We’ve discussed this and, it sounds at times from that article like we just have fun and eat cookies — and we do have fun and eat cookies — but that’s, you know, this is –
Chancellor Woodson: One of the benefits of running is you get to eat cookies.
Laurie Henes: It is a very difficult sport. And I think one thing that really highlights that is, I believe that Katelyn may be only the second athlete in history to win a high school national title in cross-country and also win a collegiate national title over however many years. That’s only happened twice, which is –
Chancellor Woodson: That’s surprising.
Laurie Henes: It is.
Laurie Henes: And so, you know, there’s no guarantee that people, that, coming out of high school at the top are able to, you know, match that in college. But something that’s really important to me, and I know has always been important to Coach Geiger in this program, is that we try to help them develop the whole time that they’re here. And so the team aspect, the team aspect is very big across all six of our sports, indoor, outdoor track, cross-country. But in cross-country particularly, your success is gonna be based on other people lining up on the same line, on the same day, and being ready to get things done. So we preach, you have to run for each other, you have to believe in doing something for a purpose bigger than yourself. And in a very individual sport, that might not be for everybody. We might not be for everybody. And that’s OK, if we try in the recruiting process to be super honest about what it is that we’re looking for.
And we want people that want to be part of the team, of, obviously the individual goals are huge. We’ve had plenty of individual national champions, and we work very well individually with their training. But I think the idea, and they’ve said this, the women have said this in interviews, that you’re stepping on that line for a very difficult sport, and knowing that your teammates are going to put everything out there too, makes it a lot easier and takes a lot less, then there’s a lot less individual pressure, I would say. You know, we always say, when, when people are hanging out like, “Hey, you wanna go play soccer?” “Do you wanna go play tennis?” “Do you wanna play basketball?” No one says, “Do you wanna go play a 10-mile long run or cross-country?” So, you know, we know that we have to make it fun. And winning is fun.
Chancellor Woodson: I can assure you, I’ve never said that.
Laurie Henes: Right, you know, and so the winning part is always fun, but I really do believe that we’ve been winning so much because we have fun first.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah.
Laurie Henes: And think that can get lost at this level. I want practice to be the best part of their day. They can’t wait to get to see their best friends and work. And we want people for whom working hard together towards that common goal is fun.
Chancellor Woodson: So this year, you were elevated in your position as the head, both men and women, track and field and over both men and women cross-country as well. So you’re the head lady over all of this. And tell me — and you’ve mentioned Coach Geiger, just a phenomenal leader at NC State for so many years — but talk about, you’re one of very few women, that lead both men and women track and field. And I know you talk about it not in a gender way, you talk about it as in leadership, but what does it mean to you to now have this additional responsibility, and how has that changed your life at NC State?
Laurie Henes: You know, not a whole lot yet, but I know that that is going to happen. And, and you know Coach Geiger’s still the men’s head cross-country coach. And so the coaching situation for our student athletes won’t change, you know, what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis because we are a combined program. And I think that’s one of the great things about our sport and the NCAA as well, is that our men’s and women’s team have always met together. If there’s a sprint coach, they’re coaching men and women. You know, the distance side is the only one where it’s actually a little bit split, but we all work with both genders all the time. And so on that day-to-day coaching basis, not much. I think that I’ve got such a great support system with our assistant coaches and our director of operations who’ve been with us. Again, family atmosphere, all NC State grads mostly on the director of ops and assistant coaches side. And so having that support is huge. But I do think for women getting into coaching, it is important for younger women getting into it to see women in a position of leadership over and being able to be directors of program, and the women that are doing it are super successful. And, and I think that the key to keeping talented women in the sport is kind of what happens before they’re getting elevated to the director position. You know, I’ve got two children, and there were times, you know, when they were young that I was like, “I can’t do this. The travel is crazy.” And so I’ve had, you know, an incredibly supportive husband who, you know, was in the sport and understood. But also NC State was incredibly supportive during that time period. And again, Coach Geiger, who was the director, and would allow me to take an extra athlete on the trip so that I could maybe bring my children if I had to and didn’t have to be gone for six days at a time. And the administration supported that. And so I think that allowed me to stay in the sport where so many women may get out at that point and have a hard time getting back in. And so I think that universities are realizing the benefit of that in athletic departments and doing that. And I think that’s gonna keep more women in the profession, which will allow more women to eventually be directors.
Chancellor Woodson: Well I’m glad to hear that in our, in our history. You know, when I walked in this morning and met Bob, you know, you immediately talk, started talking a little bit of smack.
Laurie Henes: A little bit.
Chancellor Woodson: You know, about who has the, you know, the most this, that and the other. And Bob was a decorated NC State track star during his time at NC State with, you know, a significant number of ACC championships. But you got one up on him with the national championship. And I think, I guess that that makes evening dinner conversations more interesting.
Laurie Henes: It does, for sure. And I think especially when Elly was getting better throughout college, that was kind of more the family discussion, because she was getting all of the family records as you know, as we would say. But Coach Geiger was pretty funny about it. He would say that because Bob had run so fast people would joke with Elly, like, “Do you have the family record?” And Coach Geiger would always say, “Well, no, ’cause it’s, you know, however fast Bob ran is the family record, which she’ll obviously never get. So we talk a lot about that. But you know, I have a younger daughter who isn’t a big running fan, so we tried with family dinners, those types of things to not have them be all about running.
Chancellor Woodson: So do you still run?
Laurie Henes: Ah.
Chancellor Woodson: For recreation, for –
Laurie Henes: A little bit, you know, just a little bit of fitness. But I would say there …
Chancellor Woodson: I mean, you’re not following the team in the golf cart, are you? I mean, you haven’t gotten to that point.
Laurie Henes: No. I get down to practice, but for anybody who’s been on the track, or the soccer field or the softball area, walking back up those steps to WB, to Weisiger-Brown, is tough. So I will take the ride from Coach Geiger in the golf cart back up the steps once in a while.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, as you should.
Laurie Henes: Not down, but back up.
Chancellor Woodson: You gotta protect yourself for the future.
Laurie Henes: A hundred percent.
Chancellor Woodson: That makes complete sense. So it’s been wonderful to talk with you, and we’re so proud of everything you, you do at NC State. We’re proud of you, your family, and excited for the future. You continue to bring amazing athletes to NC State, and Katelyn Tuohy is the latest example, and they perform so admirably in the classroom as well. So when I think about what your program means to our university, it’s just such a great reflection on NC State. So we’re grateful for that.
Laurie Henes: Thank you. I know our women are grateful to have the support that we have from the university and our athletic department. They understand how important that is and how important that’s been to our success.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, Susan and I, my wife and I have been thrilled to host your cross-country, women’s cross-country team. We have a tradition of bringing national champions to the house, and it’s impressive to see what a group of long-distance runners can do at a dinner table.
Laurie Henes: For sure.
Chancellor Woodson: You know, as a man that’s not as fit, you know, being able to consume that many calories would be kind of a fun thing to do.
Laurie Henes: They love the food at your house. They’re excited when they go over there. They always ask what’s on the menu.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, we love to have them, so. Thank you all for hanging out with us for another edition of “Red Chair Chats,” and go Pack.