Every coach waits for that season. The one in which they have a special group of athletes — who work well together, feed off of one another, and help the team remain motivated and hungry.
Joshua Eberly, head coach of the Western Colorado University Mountain Sports trail running team, would say that describes his team to a “T.”
“These athletes are a special group of kids — something I have never experienced before in coaching,” said Eberly.
In fact, “special” pretty well sums up the Western trail team’s recent season.
In their final race, on Saturday, Nov. 17, at the Dead Horse Ultra in Moab, Utah, Jeshurun Small won the 50-kilometer race with a time of 3:17:57 — which is a new course record. The previous record holder’s time was 3:31:56.
“If you look at the course record for that 50K, three of the top 10 are Western athletes or alumni,” said Greg Chase, director of Operations for Mountain Sports.
But it wasn’t the first time Small set a course record. At the Indian Creek Fifties southwest of Denver on Oct. 13, Small won the 15-miler with a record-setting time of 1:46:30.
In the 50-miler, Madison Hart had an impressive showing, coming in third place with a time of 7:39:55.
Success continued to follow Western in the 30K. Christian Kerr finished second behind Western alum Timmy Parr, while Sylar Drakos finished fourth.
Drakos also had an impressive season after having ankle reconstruction surgery less than five months ago.
The same could be said for Hart. While she didn’t battle through an major surgery, she did set a course-record time of 2:29:10 in the 15-miler at the Indian Creek Fifties.
And at the Moab Marathon and Half Marathon on Nov. 3, four of Western’s trail runners — Small, Gordon Gianinny, Brian Whitfield and Kerr — finished in the top 10. Small led the way, finishing fourth, while Gianinny, Whitfield, and Kerr came in 8th, 9th and 10th, respectively.
The women were just as impressive in Moab. Ellie Walton set a personal record, finishing with a time of 4:57:15 — 90 minutes faster than last year. Kendal Cox also set a personal record with a time of 5:18:22.
In the half marathon, Jacob Dewey dominated, winning with a time of 1:34:26.
Despite their achievements, the Western runners are still working to improve. They practice five-six days a week for two hours each day, with two days of core workouts and two days of lifting weights.
“It’s not just going out and just running on how you feel,” said Eberly. “I found that coming up with a good routine of variable training really helps get the athletes to the top competition.”
Chase added that while coach Eberly has implemented a high level of structure in practices, he also adds and adventurous side to practice.
“Whether it’s running West Elk Peak or going up doing some of the Crested Butte mountain runs, I think that keeps kids fresh,” said Chase. “They get a lot of time on their feet, but they are the greatest trails you have ever been on.”
Chase added that the best part of the Mountain Sports program is that kids from all over receive help to perform at their highest level, while also getting to tour the Gunnison Valley.
“I’ve been doing this for awhile and seen a lot of kids come in, whether it’s a NCAA sport or mountain sport and train too hard, resulting in them burning out,” said Eberly. “I try to take a mix and match of NCAA and rejuvenating these kids, finding out their true joy of why they started running.”
The best part in coach Eberly’s mind is when a runner climbs to the top of a 13,000 or 14,000-foot peak and looks back, thinking to themselves, “I just ran that.”
Little time off
While trail running is a nine-month sport — fall, winter and spring — roster size tends to take a dip in winter, with some runners transitioning to Nordic or alpine skiing or ski mountaineering.
“We have a trail runner on each of our winter sports teams,” said Chase. “That’s what Mountain Sports is built off of. Having snow and dirt, with year-round competitions.”
Once spring hits, Eberly is faced with the challenge of making sure the trail runners don’t push themselves too hard in coming off their winter sports season.
“That’s one of my biggest challenges — not pushing them to do more, but pulling them back to not do as much,” said Eberly.
Eberly will also give the athletes time off during the year, so the athletes are able to hit the reset button before getting back at it. Once summer comes around, Eberly gives his runners time off, allowing them to choose races in which to compete — while also providing recommendations on certain mileage and workouts.
The dedication and strong work ethic of Eberly’s trail runners has earned them an opportunity at something special.
Future of the sport
Western trail runners will make an appearance in Austria this coming summer. Adidas Terrex has offered to pay for a men’s and women’s team — consisting of three Western runners on each team — to compete in the Trail Running World Championship June 27-29.
In order to choose which three men and women are going to Austria, Eberly will make the athletes go through a qualifying process for the spots. While the decision will be made on more than simply race performance, exact details are still being worked out.