Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
After a stellar cross-country season during her senior year at Carleton University, then-collegiate runner Cassie Funke-Harris couldn’t wait to take to the track. But an unexpected injury—a misdiagnosed pain in her IT band—kept her from competing.
At the time, she was gutted. But she cross-trained and came to practice anyway. There, on the sidelines, coach Dave Ricks offered her his insider’s perspective: the reasoning behind each day’s session, how he noticed one athlete cruising through a hard effort while another struggled.
“That gave me a better appreciation for the fact that there was more to coaching than just, ‘Here’s this workout,’” Funke-Harris says.
The unexpected education came at a critical time. She’d majored in biology and planned to study virology—perhaps even, she says wryly, predicting emerging pandemics—but a summer spent in the lab after her junior year made her realize the field wasn’t for her. “I need to interact with people,” she says.
Though she’d loved sports from an early age, coaching hadn’t crossed her mind as a career path until then. “My background was science, and I started to appreciate there was more actual science to it,” she says. “But there was also kind of an art. You had to pay attention, you had to watch what was going on.”
She still wonders what might have been had she had a full senior track season. But she’s grateful for what’s emerged instead: a fulfilling career guiding other runners to success, including eight years in the top job at Amherst College.
“The impact that my coaches had on my college experience and the person I became and the experiences I had—I started to realize how profound that was,” she says. “I thought, ‘If I can impact even half a dozen people the way they impacted me, that would be really rewarding.’”
Building on Strengths
Funke-Harris grew up a multipart athlete in rural Kansas—volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter. She ran track because it was the only spring sport available, starting out in sprints before realizing the longer the race, the better her performance.
In her first cross-country race at Haven High School, Funke-Harris took two wrong turns and fell down—but still finished first. “I was always really competitive,” she says, and had begun feeling her height and limited jumping ability was hindering her in volleyball. “Being able to win something and do well at it was really fun.”
At Carleton, in Northfield, Minnesota, she thought she’d run and play basketball, but the school was so good at hoops she dropped that plan. Her focus narrowed, she continued to improve. She helped her cross-country team to the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 2004 and placed 22nd as an individual in the NCAA Championships; on June 20th, she’ll be inducted into the school’s hall of fame.
Making It Work
After graduation, Funke-Harris worked a temp job in an office and started volunteer coaching at her alma mater under women’s head coach (and Dave’s wife) Donna Ricks. She stayed at Carleton a year before leaving to get her master’s degree in kinesiology at the University of Texas in Austin.
Midway through the two-year program, Donna called her with news. Carleton’s athletic department had approved two full-time assistant positions, complete with benefits. She could have one, but only if she made it back by December.
Funke-Harris put her degree on fast-forward—working through the summer and changing from an M.S. to an M.A.—and went back to Northfield to begin her coaching career in earnest. At Donna and Rick’s kitchen table, she learned to plan seasons and workouts and track progress.
After about three-and-a-half years, she felt the pull to lead her own program. But, by her own admission, her criteria were quite specific: she wanted to stay at a small, Division III private school with an academic focus. It’s where her experience and passion rested. Still, she knew it described about 30 or so jobs in the whole country.
It was her husband Stephen who saw the posting at Amherst College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, and encouraged her to apply. Funke-Harris figured she wouldn’t get it; in fact, she was shocked when she landed first a phone interview, then an invitation to campus. Only then did she and Stephen—an architect who’d just landed a gig after a months-long, post-recession job search—actually contemplated the possibility of moving East.
Of course, she got the offer and accepted. Her husband now works in New Haven, and they live in Hartford, Connecticut, with hourlong, opposite commutes. Still, she feels fortunate they’ve each been able to find jobs they love in their specific niches.
Wins in Running—and Life
Funke-Harris says another reason she didn’t pursue a science career was the unbearable thought of investing years in an experiment that might flop. In coaching, conversely, her efforts have paid off more certainly and swiftly.
The Amherst men’s cross-country team won their conference championships in 2017 and 2018 and placed second last year; meanwhile, many individual women saw success, including Nicky Roberts, who placed fifth in the 2017 NCAA Division III National Championships.
But one of her proudest moments wasn’t about winning races. After the previous men’s distance coach left in 2018, Funke-Harris brought athletic director Don Faulstick a proposal. Instead of hiring a new men’s distance coach, why didn’t they combine men’s and women’s teams and hire a track coach instead?
Bringing genders together would improve team dynamics, she told him, and a track coach would aid in recruiting. He agreed—and Funke-Harris thereby became the first female head coach of a men’s program in Amherst history.
The work is harder than ever, and with two children under age 4 at home, Funke-Harris has limits on her time and energy. “But I love my job the last couple years even more than I did before,” she says. The athletes are having more more fun, and so are the coaches. “The place that the program is at now is so good.”
One thing Funke-Harris prides herself on is giving her athletes all the tools they need to thrive, both in the sport and outside of it. Take one of her men, who thought he might quit the team after not being chosen to run at cross country nationals.
By encouraging him to reflect on the deeper rewards of running—in part, by keeping a gratitude journal—she watched his attitude shift. What’s more, he also achieved his goal of racing at nationals the following year, and set a few personal-bests on the track on top of it.
“This isn’t just about running,” she says; it’s preparation for life. “You sometimes have to think about what’s really important, and it’s not necessarily just outcome-based.” Like many people, he’s still working on staying process-oriented, she says. But all she asks for, from her team and herself, is commitment and progress.
This story is part of a series on women in coaching, where we highlight female running coaches and their individual paths to success. Find more here, and discover tips from these women to improve your own running here. Feeling inspired? Check out our in-depth look at how to become a college running coach with advice from the coaches featured in this series.