Storybook ending for Williston cross country star Abigail Touhey, head coach Greg Tuleja

  • Williston Northampton cross country coach Greg Tuleja, left, and star runner Abigail Touhey chat following a race earlier this season. PHOTO BY DAVE SONDRINI/WILLISTON ATHLETICS

  • Williston Northampton senior Abigail Touhey moves through the course during a race earlier this season. PHOTO BY MELISSA BROUSSEAU

Staff Writer
Published: 12/2/2021 6:24:59 PM

EASTHAMPTON – Greg Tuleja pointed out Williston Northampton School senior Abigail Touhey as she emerged from a building about 200 feet from where he stood.

“Look at her – she even walks fast,” Tuleja said of his cross-country star. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Touhey is always in motion. The Florence native has been running for as long as she can remember, first at the indoor and outdoor tracks at Smith College, then at local 5Ks around the Northampton area. This was all before the seventh grade, when she joined the cross-country team at Williston and was introduced to Tuleja, who at the time was beginning his 34th season as the head coach of the Wildcats. 

Neither Tuleja, assistant coach Martha McCullagh, or Touhey had any idea what to expect next.

“It was very unexpected. When I came at first, I didn't think that I would be anywhere near the top of the team,” Touhey said of her running career. “I remember my co-captain this year, Annika von Schoeler-Ames, and I at our very first race in seventh grade – we were at the starting line, and we (said) ‘Oh, I hope we make JV!’” 

Both of them finished in the top five of that race, and for Touhey, that surprise finish was the start of one of the most prolific running careers that anyone at Williston had seen. 

“It's hard to ignore a seventh-grader that's running that fast,” said McCullagh simply. 

A duo of legacies

As Touhey began to rack up awards and records in her running career – school course record holder, four-time All-NEPSAC winner, six-time team MVP, and countless meet wins – Tuleja began to realize something: he was going to put off his retirement a little bit longer.

“I've been saying for about five years, ‘I have one more year,’” said Tuleja ruefully. “I just turned 70. So it's kind of old to be doing this. I still like it, it makes me feel young, working with people like Abigail, but I was seriously considering retiring for five years or so. But once Abigail got be a sophomore, (I thought) why the heck should I go now? I’ll just wait and retire when she does. That's what we agreed on.”

Touhey's sophomore year was one of her best – she won every dual meet but one, and ran the fastest time of her career, a robust 19 minutes, 45 seconds on a 5K course. That same year, she was even placed in Tuleja's advisory, getting her coach in her corner both athletically and academically. As she's gotten older, it isn’t just her running that’s improved, but also her relationship with Tuleja, who was already established as the face of Williston cross-country with a legacy of his own.

Tuleja has shaped the cross-country program at Williston into what it is today. In his second year in 1984, the team had just four girls on it; now, in his 39th season, there were 28 girls on the team in a school of approximately 450 students. Before Tuleja arrived, a few coaches came and went in somewhat quick succession. When he got to campus, he realized he had found a place to stay.

“Greg is wonderful to work with. The relationship he has with the girls is really exemplary," said McCullagh, who has a storied cross-country coaching career of her own, and was a rival coach against Tuleja before joining the staff as an assistant several years ago. “Even though we've both been coaches for a long time, I've just continued to learn from him.”

Road blocks

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Touhey. Like all other high school athletes last season, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered her junior year, a real disappointment after such a strong showing as a sophomore.

Tuleja and McCullagh did their best to keep things competitive, but there was only so much they could do without any meets against other schools.

“We did a lot of blue-green races, where we took the girls’ team and the boys’ team and split them up (into) a blue team and a green team… and we'd compete," McCullagh said. “It was as close to a real season as we could have without competition.”

“The goal… of having a competitive season and getting better and stronger each week is to get PRs on our course and get personal records,” Tuleja said. “That junior year for Abigail, I felt bad for her because she was in really good shape when she came back. But there's no competition.”

With that unsatisfying season fresh in her mind, Touhey went into the offseason and trained hard over the summer to come back for a strong senior showing. But despite all the work she'd done, she crossed the finish line of her first race in 27:15 – far slower than she knew she was capable of running. 

The mystery was solved when she went to get some bloodwork done. 

“I ended up getting my blood tested, and it turned out I was quite anemic,” said Touhey. “So we got iron supplements. And from there, I began progressing, I mean big chunks per week. Coming back and winning the first race back after that was definitely a big part of this season." 

A storybook ending

With her iron levels back at a healthier level, and a season full of competitive races, Touhey’s senior season has been as close to a storybook ending as you could ask for. Her times continued to drop, sometimes over a minute at a time, and she won her final two meets of the season – the NEPSAC Division 2 race with over 100 participants, and the NEPSAC All-Star meet, which invites the top 20 runners in every NEPSAC division for a final race. 

It was exactly the ending that Tuleja had hoped for, both for himself and for Abigail. 

“For me, to have her do that in the last two races of my career – I don't know if you saw me at the end," said Tuleja, turning to Abigail and laughing. “I was pretty happy.”

Did he tear up, watching her cross the finish line at the all-star meet?

“I've pretty much been tearing up all season," said Tuleja. “I can say that Abigail is probably the best runner I've ever coached.”

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