Stop by Lexington’s north Main Street on a fall afternoon and you’ll see the Keydet cross-country runners gliding by. Tall, lean, clad in black VMI gear, they make their mileage look effortless.
Keep watching. The old song from Sesame Street might play through your head: One of these runners doesn’t look like the other. One looks a tiny bit scruffy for a cadet and—just a little—older than the average cadet. A closer look brings the picture into focus. The calm-yet-energetic man running with the team is Andrew “Drew” Ludtke, Ed.D.—head coach of the Keydet cross-country team.
Ludtke began his college athletic career on the basketball court. He was recruited to play basketball at Lake Superior State in Michigan’s upper peninsula. A point guard, he was speedier than the rest of the basketball team. One day, the track coach spotted him and quickly recruited him to compete on a second collegiate team.
As an undergrad, he studied kinesiology and researched athlete’s psychology. In graduate school, one of his professors was an Olympian who also held the Canadian record in the mile. “His exercise physiology classes revolved around running,” Ludtke remembered. Outside the classroom, his track coach—who had competed in four Olympic track and field trials in the 5000 meters—was also a great influence.
“Having both the academic side of running and the art of running helped me at the beginning of my career,” Ludtke said.
Since his undergrad days, he’s made his early learnings into a two-part philosophy: Do your best and enjoy it. VMI is the fifth college he’s coached at, and he’s coached in all three NCAA divisions. The numbers, he says, really don’t matter.
“I stick with a philosophy of developing a person, rather than a difference in the number after the division,” he explained. “For a distance runner to develop, it doesn’t matter if they’re 5 years old, or 8 years old, or a college Division III, or college Division I. The philosophy is very simple; it’s to always do your best. And to make sure that you’re having fun and enjoying the environment that’s created.”
Distance runners, he noted, will rarely underwork. One of his jobs as a coach is to monitor his athletes to make sure they’re not overtraining. Overexertion is a direct path to injury and can even result in athletes leaving their sport.
“Overtraining shortens an athlete’s career or their interest level in the sport,” he said. “And if it’s not enjoyable, you have to make adjustments right away. You can’t just hammer through a wall.”
In VMI’s high-pressure environment, cadets are constantly trying to prove themselves. To temper the inclination toward overtraining, Ludtke emphasizes two things to his athletes: “Train, don’t strain” and finishing their runs feeling “pleasantly tired.”
When runners push too hard and try to prove themselves, “they may get to ‘pleasantly tired’ and then continue to push. Then they become completely exhausted and their bodies can’t recover,” Ludtke said.
"The philosophy is very simple; it’s to always do your best. And to make sure that you’re having fun and enjoying the environment that’s created.”Andrew “Drew” Ludtke, Ed.D.
He adjusts workouts quickly if an athlete is working too hard. He monitors and makes sure the athletes are “following the principles that will make them successful long-term.” Following these principles results in continuing success.
One of the most famous, and prolific—if the word can be applied to a running career—runners in U.S. history is Francie Larrieu Smith. She participated in five Olympic games, beginning when she was 19 and finishing in 1992, when she was 39.
Ludtke’s college coach, Greg Lautenslager, ran with Larrieu Smith’s group. From him, Ludtke learned how to carefully develop each runner to his or her best potential and focus on running longevity. Ludtke has followed this methodology and put his doctoral-level education in running to work, with demonstratable results. He’s coached multiple conference champion teams and many all-conference, division champion, and All-American athletes.
At VMI, the distance runners have seen continual improvement under his tutelage. At the 2020 Southern Conference championship meet, the men’s team finished second and the women were eighth. Two men, Jahanzib Shahbaz ’20 and Gavin Jenkins ’22, were named All-Southern Conference athletes for the second straight year. On the women’s side, Anna Armfield ’21 was the top VMI finisher at 15th—the top women’s finish in VMI history.
Before coming to VMI in 2015, Ludtke was looking to get back into Division I. VMI had several factors that interested him: New facilities, a tight-knit community for his family, trails and rural areas for long runs, and the intrinsic character of VMI’s cadets.
When he looked at VMI, the Corps Physical Training Facility was under construction—and it was a big draw for Ludtke. One the best facilities on the East Coast, he knew it would be tremendously helpful in recruiting. The seven-mile long Chessie Trail, which his team uses heavily, is an easy warmup jog down the road. When the team is further out from races, they’re easy to spot on Rockbridge County roads, including the Jacob’s Ladder route—a hilly, south-of-town loop with tremendous views of House Mountain.
Inside the CPTF, the athletes have designated exercise bicycles, ellipticals, and one anti-gravity treadmill. “If their legs are fatigued, they can still get a really good workout on the antigravity, the ellipticals, or the bikes,” Ludtke explained.
To use the anti-gravity treadmill, athletes strap on a bodysuit-like contraption. The machine inflates and supports the runner’s weight across their hips, thighs, and core area. On the machine, runners can opt to use less than 100% of their body weight, down to 20%.
“We can set the impact to a percentage where they feel no pain in their legs, but they will feel a workout in their heart and lungs,” Ludtke said.
COVID-19 affected cross-country and track less than many other sports. The cross-country team stayed outside for all their fall practices. During the track seasons, Ludtke is also an assistant coach for the track team, coaching mostly the same runners. Normally, the team would have done some track workouts inside. During 2020-21 season, every workout has been outside. This helps “free up space [inside the CPTF] for the other events,” Ludtke said.
He’s adjusted routes for his runners—they don’t run through Lexington—and expanded running routes to areas with fewer people. The team’s trail courtesies have evolved, too: “We try to announce we’re coming or get off the trail if there are community members on the trail while we’re coming through.”
During the indoor track season—Ludtke is the meet director for VMI’s indoor track meets—the track and field team does not have to leave VMI to compete. Even the SoCon indoor track championships were at the CPTF. Other colleges were on long waiting lists for VMI meets, while the Keydets only had a quick stroll down the hill.
In normal—aka, non-pandemic—years, alumni come to cheer on the Keydets at various races.
“I always appreciated the alumni who attend events and are interested in cadets’ lives. I feel like we are really blessed at VMI to have such great alumni support,” Ludtke said. “They are amazingly supportive and I appreciate all of them.”
Before COVID-19, Ludtke and his wife, Jen, hosted evening running camps for the Lexington/Rockbridge community. In winter, community members of all ages were able to come to the CPTF to learn philosophies to keep them running healthy for a lifetime.
“We were looking for a way to serve the community and find a need the community had,” Ludtke said. “I wanted to use my skills with teaching running form and organizing workouts.” He’s worked in camp settings since 1995 and provides specialized expertise to the community.
Though billed as running camps, the Ludtkes quickly learned the camps had a broader appeal: Athletes in other sports were interested in learning running form. People who initially said, “Just sign me up for one day” or were “forced in by their parents” returned—and “were hooked” after a few sessions. “I was excited to work with people in an organized way, and to see some of their results over the six-week or nine-week period, just to see them grow and develop,” Ludtke said
He and Jen are looking forward to holding the camps again, once COVID-19 is under control. “I feel bad for the kids that are stuck at home,” with most sports and fitness opportunities unavailable, he said. Meanwhile, he’ll continue teaching Keydets to enjoy their running journeys.
His own coaching journey started the day his athletic eligibility was up. Ludtke began coaching “Mean Green” University of North Texas runners. He remained in Texas from 2000-02, coaching the men’s cross-country to a conference championship finish in 2000 and second-place finish in 2001. The men’s track team was also Sun Belt Champions in 2002.
He moved back to his alma mater, Lake Superior State, from 2002-05. There, he guided the team to growth in numbers, as well as 76 school records.
He coached at Illinois’ University of St. Francis from 2005-12. Here, he was named conference cross-country coach of the year in 2010 and in 2011. Thirteen of his athletes earned all-conference honors, and four (two men and two women) earned All-American honors. Ludtke coached at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh from 2012-15, where his team earned two Division III titles, three Division III runner-up awards, he was named the 2013 national co-coach of the year indoor track and field, and coached athletes to 14 NCAA individual titles as well as six NCAA all-time records.
Molly Rolon Editorial Specialist