If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
That’s the position at least one prominent runner and coach has taken when it comes to the Hershey Harriers Athletic Club, a North Shore-based organization with a long and colourful history that in recent years has become known for producing deadly middle and long distance youth runners.
Colin Dignum is one of the track and field coaches at West Vancouver Secondary. Like all high school track coaches, he only has a limited amount of time to work with athletes during the short racing season. And so if he sees an athlete who is dedicated and talented and maybe in need of a little boost to go from the middle of the pack to the front, he has one simple suggestion: join the Hershey Harriers.
“The Harriers are a great club, great coaches, great group, and they’ll make you fitter and tougher and you will perform,” Dignum told the North Shore News in an interview last year during track season. “That’s what I tell kids: if you want to get really good at this, it’s an easy decision to make. If you want to stay in the position you’re in and keep getting beat by the Harriers, keep dabbling.”
The results from 2017 back up his claim. The Harriers are a club of less than 40 junior athletes led by just two coaches – Darcie Montgomery and Cindy O’Krane – but their athletes could be seen at the front of the pack in races all over the country last year.
In the senior boys 1,500 m final at the high school provincial championships, three out of the 12 finalists were Hershey Harriers, including Charlie Dannatt, who won the race and went on to smash a 42-year-old record in the 3,000-m final at the same meet.
It was the same story in the senior girls, junior girls and junior boys 1,500-m races at the provincial championships, where three out of the 12 finalists in each event were Hershey Harriers.
Similar consistency was found at the B.C. high school cross-country championships where hundreds of racers took part.
The Harriers placed four runners in the top-20 in both the senior boys and senior girls races. B.C. Athletics picked 12 racers to represent the province in the youth boys and girls categories at the Canadian Cross Country Championships held in Kingston, Ont., in November. Five of the 12 were Hershey Harriers.
Those strong showings helped the Harriers earn the Outstanding Club award at the North Shore Sport Awards ceremony held in March. It was quite a feat for a club that once soared with some of the best runners in the country but had mostly run out of steam before Montgomery and O’Krane rejuvenated the junior program a decade ago.
The Harriers were created by famed West Vancouver Secondary teacher and track coach Ivor Davies. Davies started coaching in the 1960s and over the years a group of dedicated and talented runners formed into a loosely connected team of runners.
They officially became a club in 1990 solely because they wanted to enter a relay race as a team and to do so they needed to be a club sanctioned by B.C. Athletics. Davies dreamed up the name Hershey Harriers because he often travelled to track meets and would always bring Hershey’s chocolate home with him to share with his five children. The kids were happy to have their dad back home but they were really happy to have that candy.
Davies, long retired, is still spry and keeping tabs on how his Harriers are doing.
“Now he’s an aged, crockety man,” says O’Krane with a laugh. “But he’s still moving around, I just love the guy.”
The Harriers were mainly a club for adult runners in the 1990s and 2000s, helping local racers stay sharp, including some who would go off to compete internationally for Canada. Legendary coach Frank Reynolds – a mentor to many distance runners on the North Shore – ran for the Harriers, as did O’Krane and Montgomery.
It was in 2008, however, that the Harriers got a big boost with O’Krane and Montgomery – who both competed internationally for Canada during their racing careers – joining together to start a youth program.
“We just wanted to coach and create a good group where kids could run and compete,” says Montgomery. “When we got the opportunity to start the junior group, it was like, no questions asked. We just jumped on it.”
They started with six kids. It was small, but it worked, in large part because of the dynamic created by the two coaches.
“I love coaching with Cindy, I think we make a really good team,” says Montgomery. “Lots of time we’re thinking the exact same things about a certain athlete. We’ll say things at the exact same time.”
“It’s really weird,” adds O’Krane. “It’s like one of those old couple type things going on now.”
The coaches say that their philosophy is based on creating a fun and positive team atmosphere where goals are set and chased, but there isn’t constant pressure to hit a certain time on the track.
“We really try to get them to focus on the process and it’s not just all about time and outcome goals,” Montgomery says.
The club has slowly grown in size, with athletes now joining young and staying on throughout their high school careers. It’s gotten to the point with many of the older athletes that the coaches don’t need to do much coaching or motivating because there is an understanding of what needs to be done.
“You gain a lot of trust over time with the athletes,” says O’Krane. “They see that we can help these guys perform, but also they just start trusting you. And once you have an athlete that starts trusting you and you have a good program, you have everything.”
In their 10 years the Harriers junior program has sent some athletes off to do great things. This year Nicole Hutchinson is burning up the track for Villanova University, earning the College Athlete of the Meet award for relay events at the famed Penn Relays held recently in Philadelphia.
Lindsey Butterworth posted huge results during her running career at Simon Fraser University and went on to compete in the 800-m race at the 2017 IAAF World Championships. Grace Thompson, Jesse Hooten, Simon Bill … the list of former Harriers who have gone on to race at top American and Canadian universities is long and getting longer each year. Last year was the biggest yet for the Harriers at the high school level, culminating in their recognition at the Sport Awards, but the coaches are hoping it’s just the start of something even bigger.
“We’ve just been building it and building it and building it,” says Montgomery. “It’s a long time coming – we worked really hard and the kids obviously have worked really hard. I think that was definitely the best year we’ve ever had but I can definitely see that it’s just going to continue to grow. We just have more kids that have a lot of talent and a lot of motivation and they’re ready to work hard.”
Earning a North Shore Sport Award provided more validation that they are headed in the right direction, added O’Krane.
“I feel really proud, actually,” she says. “We don’t need a lot of limelight. For me the outcome of this coaching is what you see in the athletes, the times they run, the smiles they have, the confidence that they build. And just to get recognition from the community, that’s awesome. And I think the recognition is not just due to performance but due to the number of kids we get and how engaged and happy the kids seem to be.”