There is no denying runners are tough, but Nate Houle, ISU’s new head cross country coach, takes it to another level. Houle was hired on at the end June of 2015, just months after undergoing surgery to remove a cancer that originated in his sinuses.
In Oct. 2014, Houle was diagnosed with stage three squamous cell carcinoma. He underwent radiation therapy for about two and a half months at Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City.
Houle said he was referred to Huntsman due to the rarity of his case. Squamous cell carcinoma is a cancer typically seen in older people who have a history of smoking, so Houle said many of his doctors were shocked that he was a young athlete who didn’t smoke.
An additional concern with Houle’s case, was the cancer had breached in his nasal cavity. The cancer spread into his mouth and through the bone underneath his eye. This led the surgeons to believe Houle would likely need to have his eye removed in order to fully eradicate the cancer.
However, when Houle underwent surgery, the doctors discovered the cancer had miraculously not touched his eye.
“It took me a while to even process it,” Houle said.
Now, a year after his surgery, Houle says he has definitely learned a lot from his experience, including some things that he says can be applied to cross country.
“It’s hard to develop any strength without being pushed a little. These guys and girls want to be better, but obviously sitting around isn’t going to do it.”
He says that as a coach this year, he hopes to increase the team’s mileage to what he knows it can and should be.
“Instead of the guys averaging 50-60 miles a week, it’s not enough. We need to get them up to 80-90 a week,” he said.
Houle also added, “[This experience] has refined me a little bit in my perspective, in terms of just enjoying life a little bit more.”
He compared the experience to a series of workouts that push you, but after everything is done, you compete at a higher level.
Running has been a big part of Houle’s life ever since he was a child. Houle said he began track when he was just seven-years-old and competed in his first U.S.A. Track and Field (USATF) championships when he was only eight. By the age of 10, he had won a national title and went on to win two cross-country national championships with his high school.
However, he said that at this moment in time he is very low-key. During the surgery, doctors had to remove bone, muscle and tissue from Houle’s face, and they used materials from his leg to reconstruct his face.
Houle said that after his surgery, it took him a while to get walking again.
“Every time I tried to run again there were times that I had to sleep for days because I pushed myself too hard,” he said. “It’s definitely improving, but it’s slow.”
Despite the cancer, Houle plans on running a 10K trail race in March, which he said is giving him something to look forward to.
“It’s a long story,” Houle said. His experience is not something that he enjoys talking about. “It feels like a long time ago. A lot has changed since then. I feel a lot better.”
In the end, Houle said that he feels blessed to have this job and be where he is in his life.
“There’s some big stuff in store here, and I’m excited to see what happens. We have a great team with a lot of great kids,” he said. “I’m happy to be here now. I’m very happy.”