Allen returns to lead Tabor cross-country program

Joel Allen has returned to his alma mater to serve as the head cross-country coach at Tabor College. A four-time national qualifier in cross country, Allen’s experience as a former athlete provides a unique perspective that will inform his coaching strategy. Allen said his priority is to build the Bluejay program both in numbers and in talent.Joel Allen is the most recent successor to lead the Tabor College cross-country program.

The fourth coach to guide the team in as many years, Allen’s experience as a former Bluejay athlete gives him a unique angle from which to approach the new position, and he is confident in his ability to positively impact the program.

Allen said longevity was one of the factors in his hire. For him, coming back to Kansas is like coming home.

The Hillsboro High School and Tabor College product most recently served as a graduate assistant at Northwest Missouri State. He returns to Hills­boro with his wife, Jessica, who has accepted a position as Tabor’s administrative assistant for student life.

“Maybe this is something God gave to me, but I’ve always felt a draw to Kan­sas,” Allen said. “This is a great place for us to be.”

Running background

Running seemed to come naturally Allen, He was born in Omaha, Neb., the son of Brian and Carol Allen. During his early years, his family lived in a number of places as a result of his father’s pastoral ministry.

Allen said his speed was first evidenced on the base path in baseball, and he always enjoyed running the mile in school as a child. By fourth or fifth grade, Allen had recognized his talent. He joined the track team in middle school and ran cross country and track in high school.

Prior to Allen’s junior year at Cambridge-Isanti High School (Minn.), his family moved to Hillsboro. Allen, however, decided to stay in Minnesota to complete his junior cross-country season.

“We had a chance of going to state for the first time in a long time, so I stayed up there and we did that,” he said. “That was pretty awesome.”

After the season, Allen transferred to Hillsboro in November 2009. He joined the Trojan track and field team that spring and found success. As a Trojan, Allen was a two-time state qualifier, winning the Class 3A two-mile race at state his senior year.

In cross country, Allen placed second at the state meet to cap his high school career. His time of 16 minutes, 33 seconds was the fastest time clocked by a Trojan at Wamego and earned him the highest individual state finish by a Hillsboro athlete at the time.

Allen graduated from Hillsboro in 2011 and came to Tabor to continue running.

“Coach (Dan) Swaney did a great job of making me feel like I was needed and wanted here, and obviously having family connections helped a lot,” Allen said. “I decided to come here and had a relatively successful career here and had a lot of fun.”

Allen qualified for nationals in cross country all four years. His sophomore season, he placed second in the 8-k KCAC race. On the track later that year, Allen earned a second-place KCAC finish in the 10-k.

His first two years at Tabor, Allen ran the marathon at NAIA nationals.

At the indoor conference meet his junior year, Allen won the 5-k race and was part of the gold-medal distance medley relay team that set a new KCAC record. Both were come-from-behind victories, during a weekend that proved to be Allen’s favorite competitive experience at Tabor.

In the final leg of the distance medley, Allen overtook his competitor to give Tabor the victory.

“I was able to run the fastest mile I’d ever run in my life and outsprint the other Southwestern guy, make up a gap of about 15 meters maybe in the last 200 meters, so that was just a ton of fun,” he said.

Allen also was a member of the national-qualifying 4×800 indoor relay team his junior season.

During his final two years at Tabor, Allen served as a captain for the cross-country and track and field teams.

Allen graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in sports studies and spent the following year as a graduate assistant at Northwest Missouri State. He will continue working toward his master’s in applied health and sports science online.

Allen said he appreciates running for the mental challenge it provides. Progress can be slow, making it one of the more difficult disciplines.

“It’s a physical challenge, but really the challenge is mentally getting yourself to commit to doing what it takes to become better, which isn’t easy and has a lot of pain and fatigue involved,” he said. “Your ability to master yourself and the challenge that poses is the most valuable part about running.”

Personally, Allen said he is drawn to longer runs of 15 or 20 miles. He received advice on how to persevere from his father, Brian.

“One of the things that he said to me from the beginning, when I was in high school, was, ‘There’s going to come a point in the race where you are going to be hurting and you have to decide whether or not you are going to push through the pain or give in to it. The way you do that is not by making that decision then, but having made that decision before the race ever started.’”

Transition to coaching

Allen said returning to Tabor provides a unique perspective that will inform his coaching strategy.

“I get to use my experiences to mold the way I want to do things,” he said. “The easiest way to do it is just go to the memory bank and say, ‘OK, what did my coaches in the past do that I thought worked well? What were things that didn’t that we can do better?’ That grants me a certain amount of experience that a coach wouldn’t otherwise have, it being my first year.”

Two of Allen’s athletes are former teammates, and Allen said having that prior relationship established will be an asset.

“I do have good relationships with them already,” he said. “They’re seniors. They’ve grown a lot and are continuing to grow. They’ll be able to handle it with a lot of maturity. In a way, because of that previous relationship, it’ll make it easier for them to be ambassadors for me to the team in leadership.”

Allen stressed the importance of recruiting and building relationships with all of his athletes.

“I think my time here just impressed upon me how important it is to sell Tabor and the team,” he said. “Retention is just as important as recruiting. If you bring in five athletes, but they all leave the next year, what was the point? You’ve got to find people that are going to build a good team atmosphere.”

Allen said he hopes to create an atmosphere that fosters a love of running.

“We’re going to play games,” he said. “We’re going to intentionally do things that are fun in order to make this less mentally stressful. We’re going to cultivate an atmosphere where the team loves each other, wants to be around each other.

“If I can’t find ways to relieve the mental stress that is involved in running, we’re not going to be as successful as we can be.”

Allen’s competitive goals are for the Bluejays to contend in the top half of the conference, ideally the top three. His priority, however, is to build the program in both numbers and talent.

“I want to be able to see consistent success recruiting and in developing over the next three years, and beyond that too, but the reality is, what we have is the present,” he said. “I’m committed to being here for as long as I can be successful.”

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