On the Run: High times for Western State
GUNNISON – Cole Murch’s lungs burned, his legs, heavy as anvils, dragged and it felt like someone was jabbing needles into his side.Well past the point of exhaustion, Murch, a runner for Division II Western State College, knew he had to keep up the blistering pace. The Mountaineers were depending on him.With tears rolling down his face, Murch willed his body across the finish line, where he collapsed and had to be helped to his feet.”Everyone was like that,” Murch recalled of last year’s cross country national championships. “We give everything we have to this team.”Little Western State, with an enrollment of 2,400, has built a powerhouse running program in the Colorado mountains, winning title after title with so-called outcasts who train year-round in a town that has world-class fishing, skiing, hunting and mountain biking at its doorstep.Runners come here, and they never leave.Yes, the Mountaineers’ cross country team has reached celebrity status in Gunnison, a town of 5,300 better known for its bone-chilling winter temperatures.Gunnison has become an unlikely nirvana for distance runners. The Mountaineers’ men’s team has won six of the last seven Division II crowns, including the last two. The women’s squad has captured three of the last six national titles.Western State doesn’t draw the nation’s best runners. Colorado, Stanford and Arkansas – winners of 14 of the past 16 men’s Division I-A national crowns – get All-Americans, while Western takes the “leftovers.”That’s just fine.”These kids are hungry,” Aish said. “They’ve been rejected from every other school. They’re branded as no good. These kids have the heart. They want to work hard. They’re like clay, ready to be molded into champions.”Coach Duane Vandenbusche has run the program for 34 years. Given the job out of necessity – no one else wanted it – he’s built Western into an internationally renowned program. The Mountaineers have three runners from overseas, including sophomore Esther Komen from Iten, Kenya, who finished second at nationals last season.”It feels like home here,” Komen said.Kim Hogarth heard of Western’s reputation all the way in Nelson, New Zealand, and wanted to be part of it.”The school’s got a great reputation,” said Hogarth, who didn’t realize Aish was a coach at the school.Hogarth arrived at Western as a 29-year-old freshman, having served eight years in the New Zealand military. He wasn’t sure if Vandenbusche would even let him run, given his age.But Hogarth fit the mold of hard worker and has become one of the team leaders.”I came a long way to be part of this,” Hogarth said.A history teacher by trade, Vandenbusche is as much motivator as coach. He preaches family values – “I’ve got three rules: Be a good person, good student and good athlete, in that order” – liberally quotes George Patton before big races and runs practices his own way.On a recent afternoon outside town, Vandenbusche had his team run 1,000-yard intervals around a dirt track he’d set up near his home. He followed them on his mountain bike, barking out instructions.Around each bend in the road was a Who’s Who of Western runners, who show up when they can to help at practice.There was Elva Dryer, a former two-time national champion and an Olympic qualifier.”He always believed I could do more than I ever could,” Dryer said. “That’s what kept me reaching higher and higher.”Also on hand were Scott Nagelkerke and Alisha Williams, both on national championship teams for Western and recently married. They came back to Gunnison in part to help run a local hotel their families just purchased.”We’ve always had such close teams,” Nagelkerke said. “When you sweat together as much as we do, you bond. I’ve made such good friends through the program.”After the workout, Vandenbusche ordered the team down to the Gunnison River, where they waded into the 58-degree water up to their knees.”It’s a great healer of injuries,” said Vandenbusche, sitting on the bank of the river and watching his runners laugh and splash in the river.”I don’t know how much longer I’ll do this,” said Vandenbusche, who recently turned 69. “I tell a lot of recruits that as long as I’m healthy and enjoy it, I’ll keep doing it. Gunnison is one of the most special places I’ve been at. It’s off the beaten path.”Not to mention high up.Western State’s success might be linked to the fact it sits at 7,723 feet above sea level. The school boasts the highest basketball gym and football field in the world.The Mountaineers frequently go on long runs through Hartman Rocks – a mountain biker’s paradise that rivals Moab, Utah – and also head over to Crested Butte to train at anywhere between 9,500 to 11,300 feet.”It’s very important to run at elevation,” Vandenbusche said.It’s a similar situation at Adams State, a southern Colorado school that sits at 7,544 feet and is the second-highest campus in the nation. The Grizzlies have won 11 of the last 14 women’s titles.The two rivals, who’ve captured every team title since 1999, are currently ranked 1-2 in the Division II polls. The Grizzlies knocked off the Mountaineers over the weekend in a match one school billed as USC vs. Notre Dame.”Without Adams State, we wouldn’t be this good,” Aish said. “Without us, they wouldn’t be that good. Because of each other, we’ve become two of the best programs in the country in any division.”
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