Charlie Payne has coached the women's and men's cross country teams at NCSSM the last four years. "The girls know they can talk to me, they trust me," he says.


Charlie Payne: As teacher and coach, he’s in it for the long run

Among the many lessons Charlie Payne teaches his students, in the physics classroom and on the cross country trails, is the power of perseverance. It’s a lesson he learned first-hand, he says, when distance running began to click for him in high school.

“By March of my senior year in high school, I was running six miles every morning, and that summer I ran 100 miles a week,” Payne says. His dedication earned him a spot, mid-pack, on the Division I cross country team at University of Richmond, his hometown university. “I’m not a very good athlete, I was one of those people who was the last person picked for a team. But I learned perseverance. And it’s made me appreciate all the kids who come out for the team every year.”

Mind you, this ho-hum athlete captained his college team in his senior year and, for years, regularly placed in the top 10 percent at road races of all distances. But he also found great satisfaction as a coach, breaking down the sport and science of running in order to help others reach their potential. He’s coached for nearly 50 years, motivating everyone from aspiring Olympians to Science and Math students who want to stay in shape for another sport.

Emerging leader (with long hair): Charlie Payne, far left, on the University of Richmond cross country team in 1973, his senior year, when he served as a team captain.

Early in his career, Payne moved between teaching school and owning or managing sports and running stores, but he always coached runners. In 1979 he moved from Richmond to Durham to serve as assistant track coach at Duke for two and a half years. Duke is where he met his wife, Cecilia, also a former college athlete who was coaching women’s basketball at Duke and field hockey at UNC-Chapel Hill.

In 1987, Payne joined the staff at Northern Durham High, where he taught “every science class” over the next 24 years and coached runners until retiring in 2011.

Payne returned to Richmond to teach for a year, then got a call about NCSSM needing a physics teacher. He was thrilled to land the job. He teaches in the residential and online programs, and this past summer he taught two Accelerator classes. “Each year I try to make my classes a little different. I’m learning a lot, Bob Gotwals [fellow science instructor] has helped a lot with teaching online. It’s nice to be in a place with multiple teachers in your department — and everyone’s bright.”

During Payne’s first year at NCSSM, cross country coach Nick Layman opted to leave his post to hike the Appalachian Trail, so Payne stepped in to help. He’s been coaching the Unicorns ever since. Last year he led the men’s team to its third back-to-back state title.

Teaching and coaching Unicorns

“I’m here for physics, that’s what I was hired for, it’s most important. But everything I do — teaching and coaching — revolves around a love for teaching, a love for learning,” he says. He brings great enthusiasm to both topics — leading Mini-Term trips to Switzerland to tour the CERN particle physics lab and taking continuing education and US Track Federation recertification classes to keep his coaching knowledge fresh. He’s always got two books by his bedside, one on physics and one on running.

Even though he’s been coaching for decades, he reads “every single bit of research on training that comes out,” Payne says. He’s seen theories and methods come and go and return. “A lot of us have gone back to Arthur Lydiard’s [legendary running coach who believed in systematic training] stuff, 40 years later.”

Of all the runners Payne has coached, from middle-schoolers to adult Olympic hopefuls, his Unicorn runners “are more self-critical and more goal driven.” He has learned to scale back their  workouts, knowing — firsthand, as one of their teachers — the workloads they carry. “Their times improve, and the kids learn they don’t have to do the same types of things as hard as they think.” He’s big on hill work, mapping out a season of workouts in advance, and teaching runners to be stronger in the second half of the race. “That’s when you beat people,” he says.

Despite teams of runners that can sometimes number close to 100, Payne works to get to know each student individually. “I will talk to each athlete, with real questions,” he says. “I tell the team that I consider this to be a successful program if there’s a delta for each student. If we don’t have that, we need to explore reasons why it didn’t occur.”

Over the years Payne has collected a wealth of stories about high-profile runners he’s met and races he’s run, like the pins he’s collected from his travels that adorn his signature fishing hat. Ask him about his own running and he’ll tell you that he is in training this fall for his 27th marathon, in Richmond in November. It’s a race he helped start back in the late 1970s, when he helped grow that city’s running scene.

Speaking of marathons, ask Payne about the 1972 Grandfather Mountain marathon in western North Carolina.

“I won it,” he’ll tell you, grinning broadly. “It’s not that big a deal because it’s not that big a race, but it was a feather in my cap. That was my Olympics.”