Louie Luchini on the Stanford “Machine,” Best Ryan Hall Story and Politics in the Age of Trump

By Kevin Liao

October 25, 2017

With cross country conference championship meets coming up, we thought it would be a good time to reminisce on one of the greatest teams in collegiate history, the 2003 Stanford men’s cross country squad. Last week, I had the chance to catch up with Louie Luchini, one of the integral members of that Stanford team, who has since moved on to the world of politics as a member of the Maine House of Representatives. Luchini looks back on his time on The Farm with the Stanford “Machine,” his experiences running for the legendary coach Frank Gagliano, and comments on the state of politics in 2017.

CM: When you first showed up in Palo Alto, how long did it take to realize the crop of guys you were with could achieve something special?

LL: Coach Lananna flew me out on my recruiting trip in February in the middle of a cold, snowy Maine winter. I was half a mile down Palm Drive on Stanford campus and I was ready to sign the papers. Out of all of the trips I took, I really connected with the guys [at Stanford]. I didn’t quite know how good we could be at the time. I just showed up and got my butt kicked everyday by Brad and Brent Hauser as well as Jason Balkman.

CM: You won two NCAA cross country team titles, but 2003 was the really legendary team. Your team scored 26 points in the freezing cold in Iowa. What do you remember from that race?

LL: That was an awesome day — probably my favorite athletic memory from Stanford. It was a really special team, and not just the seven guys who toed the line that day, but the entire group back in Palo Alto. We had over 30 guys on the team and they were all great runners. On the flight over, the seven of us made it a point to run for the guys back home.

I remember Ryan Hall taking the lead from the gun and leading our team. He really ran a selfless race because he had a chance of winning the whole thing, but he cared more about the team than his individual race. At 6K or so, I told Ryan to just go, but he wanted to stay and help the team win as a pack. Dathan Ritzenhein ran a phenomenal race and ended up winning it

I was more confident in the team than in my own abilities. I had some injuries. I had raced once in September and did Pre Nats, but then I sat out the entire season until nationals. I remember warming up for regionals with the possibility of racing, but my Achilles was kind of sore but I had so much confidence in my alternate that I handed it over to him. I had complete faith in him.

CM: Did you realize something quite like a 26 point performance was possible?

LL: I don’t think we ever talked about it. Going into the race, I hadn’t raced in five or six weeks. It was the least nervous I had ever been because I knew if I had a terrible race, someone could cover me — and that’s the concept of “The Machine.”

CM: Out of that group, Ryan Hall went on to have the most prominent running career. Do you have a go-to Ryan Hall story?

LL: When I was being recruited by Stanford, one of my negotiating chips was to get Vin Lananna to promise to have the team race in Maine. Vin agreed to it. It was the longest and probably most expensive trip of the year. So we go to Maine in Ryan’s freshman year and we run as a pack like we always do. When we get to 200 meters to go, Ryan throws down and outkicks me. He finishes first and I finish second. To this day, he still apologies to me for beating me on my hometown course since we normally we let our hometown guys win the race. But he was just a freshman and he was pumped for his first race in the Stanford uniform. I would never ask anyone to let me win, but Ryan still feels a little bad about it.

CM: Who would you put on your Mt. Rushmore of Stanford runners?

LL: That’s tough. I don’t think I could pick a top four because we were always about the team, about the concept of “The Machine.” It wasn’t about an individual.

CM: You ended up running post-collegiately, first based in Palo Alto and then up in Eugene with the Oregon Track Club.

LL: I ran for Frank Gagliano — one of the greatest guys I’ve never met. I’ve never met anyone who cares about others more than himself. I almost went to Georgetown because of him, but it ended up working out that he came out west.

CM: Gags always seems to have these giant training groups, yet everyone seems to be able to have that personal connection with him. How is he able to do that?

LL: He’s just a genuine guy who cares about everybody. He’s always asking, “How are you doing? How’s your family doing?” He wants to see everyone be successful. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the track or in school. He could sacrifice anything for someone if you asked him to do it.

CM: How would you reflect on your overall pro career?

LL: I don’t regret anything. When I was leaving college, I was thinking about med school or running professionally. Obviously it never worked out for me to make the Olympics, but if I didn’t do it, I would have it in the back of my head for the rest of my life.

I met so many great people, some of my best friends over these years. I just talked to Andy Powell earlier tonight. I never thought I’d become a big Oregon fan, but I have because Andy and Maurica are two of my favorite people in the world. I was the best man at their wedding.

CM: You’re now coaching high school kids back at your alma mater, Ellsworth High School. What are some things you pass on to the kids that you learned in your running career?

LL: The importance of teamwork is huge. The team element is why I loved cross country more than track. You trust your teammates — and it’s hard of trust anybody in politics.

CM: How much are you following elite running these days? Any favorite runners you love to watch?

LL: I don’t follow it a ton, but I’m a big Matt Centrowitz fan. I’m friends with him and his dad, and I think those guys are awesome. It’s been fun to watch the Americans do well on the world scene.

CM: Do you remember where you were when you watched the Centrowitz gold medal run in Rio?

LL: I was here in Ellsworth, Maine, pumped up and screaming at the TV. I remember texting them and saying, “We need to go to Las Vegas after this.”

CM: There’s this mythology about runners from Maine. For being such a small state, you guys have produced some pretty great runners. What’s in the water there?

LL: The Maine people have a tremendous work ethic and they’re super humble. That’s what I love about this state and that’s why I wanted to come back and work in politics. If you met Joan Benoit Samuelson, you’d never know from talking to her that’s she had a world record and a gold medal.

CM: Shifting gears a bit to politics: You were a human biology major at Stanford, so how did politics and the idea of running for office originally come about?

LL: In 2009, I went back to Maine and some people locally asked if I’d be interested in running for the state legislature and now it’s seven years later. I’ve always loved this community, so when people asked, I definitely willing to do it. Sports can feel like a selfish endeavor so to give back with public service feels great.

I never had been interested in politics in my life. I had always wanted to be a doctor. It took a lot of convincing from people locally — including from my good friend [and former pro runner] Matt Lane.

CM: Up in Maine, you’ve had some experience with a bombastic Republican executive in Governor Paul LePage. Is there anything in your experiences dealing with Gov. LePage that the rest of us can learn from with Donald Trump as the president?

LL: You just have to find areas of agreement and treat each other with respect— that’s the way to get things done. I’m a Democrat but I don’t bash the Republican Party for everything they do. I don’t smear people in the press. Finding those areas of common interest and seeing if there’s a compromise is about the only way you can move along.

Last session, I passed a $50 million bond for research and development and commercialization in high tech areas, and it was one of those issues where the Governor was with me. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to pass it, even though we don’t agree on everything.

At Stanford, I ran with people from a lot of different backgrounds. You just have to learn how to work together with everyone. It doesn’t always work like that in politics, which has been the frustrating part. You just gotta find the common points.

Kevin Liao

Sacramento-based amateur runner, photographer and writer. Once interviewed Taoufik Makhloufi in French. Enjoys politics a lot. Follow him on Twitter @RunLiao.