Run, Buffs, Run
Here's how you go about getting an interview with the nationally respected coach of the University of Colorado's best hope for a national title this fall: Walk into his windowless ground-floor office, sit down on the only chair and say, "Hey, coach. What's new?"
Don't be ridiculous: This isn't the Buffs' celebrity drillmaster, Gary Barnett, who is kept hidden behind Byzantine layers of football assistants, media officers and institutional importance. That's not the style of Mark Wetmore, the wisecracking, ponytailed New Jersey native who guides the university's top-ranked, defending-champion cross-country team. The CU football team's every move might be analyzed as closely as an Alan Greenspan facial tic, but if you really want real athletic drama and brilliance, Wetmore's is the team to watch.
You wouldn't know it from the crowds, of course. On the same day the gridiron Buffs were hand-delivering their claim for a national title to cross-state rivals CSU in front of 70,000 fans, the university's runners were kicking off their season with a time trial observed by fifty or so die-hard followers. Following a tradition that most college football squads would find baffling, the team's veterans slowed down at the end of the run and allowed a newcomer -- a walk-on freshman from California named Casey Burchill -- to win the race.
As good as Burchill is, it's unlikely that he'll see the tape again this year. The CU runners, who edged Stanford by a history-making single point at last year's NCAA finals, are returning three of the nation's best. And as recently as last week, the number of bona fide stars was four. A day after the time trial, though, Dathan Ritzenheim, a wispy, adolescent-looking sophomore who is probably the best distance runner to come out of an American high school since Dean, Liddy and Haldeman played front line for Nixon, announced he had suffered a season-ending leg injury.
Ritzenheim, who last year finished a remarkable fourth in the NCAA cross-country finals as a freshman, was heavily recruited out of high school by running factories Michigan and Oregon. Yet he says he was drawn to Boulder instead by the team's tight-knit and easygoing upperclassmen. "The guys -- not so much as a team, but as people -- were awesome," he says. "It was an easy decision."
That cohesiveness was demonstrated right away when Ritzenheim was invited to live in the Fight Club, a sprawling six-bedroom pad badly in need of landscaping work perched on the edge of Boulder Canyon. The house has served as the unofficial headquarters of the cross-country team's talent core ever since it was purchased three years ago for that purpose by the Torres twins.
The Torres brothers, of course, would be Jorge and Edwardo, the heart of the Colorado harriers and the primary reason the Buffs are favored to win it all again. Born ten minutes apart, the two had been tearing up cross-country courses across the Midwest for a half-dozen years before moving to the Rocky Mountains. "They're two guys who simply have a love for running," says Wheeling (Illinois) High School cross-country coach Mark Saylor. "That's all they ever wanted to do."
The youngest of five sons of a suburban Chicago jeweler, the boys grew up quickly, drawn into the family business at an early age. Jorge began competitive running in sixth grade -- not long before he fired his first employee, at age thirteen. "I asked my brother Dan what I should do for a sport," he recalls, "and he suggested cross-country." The twins seldom did anything without the other, and Edwardo began running after his brother.
Running didn't agree with Jorge at first. "I would go to practice every other day, cut courses," he remembers. In retrospect, he says it was no surprise when his junior high school coach cut him from the state team. "But that pissed me off," he says. That winter, he ran and ran. The following year, he won a national title for junior high students, and, with very few exceptions, he hasn't had to follow another runner since.
Anger has always worked well for Jorge. After placing second in the Illinois state championships his freshman year, he vowed to win it the next time around, and he did. And then did it twice more for good measure. Along the way, he became the first schoolboy runner ever to qualify for four straight annual Foot Locker national championship races, the last of which, in 1998, he won, setting a course record.
Saylor says that in addition to Jorge's being born to run, his drive made him a coach's dream. "He just wanted to be so good that it didn't take much to work with him. Some other kids complain: 'It's too hot; I'm tired; I don't want to run fast today.' With Jorge, it was always, 'Okay, now what?'"
Colorado has enjoyed a reputation as a runner's haven for more than a decade. With so many top runners deciding to call Boulder home -- Frank Shorter and Mark Plaatjes, to name two -- Wetmore points out that "there's no better place to be a distance runner than Boulder." The university's program, too, has built itself by accumulation, one fast runner at a time. The Torres brothers had heard of Steve Slattery, now a four-time All-American track athlete, so they decided to check out CU. Ritzenheim, in turn, knew of the Torreses: "Having them here was a big draw for me."
"When you look back five or six years ago," Jorge adds, "this program would get only one big hitter and be really excited. Now we're getting four or five guys who'd run No. 1 for any other school. Now, every fast kid in America wants a piece of the Buffaloes, to see what they're about."
That rep has allowed Wetmore to use a Zen recruiting approach. Although Jorge and Edwardo were considered top prizes for any number of university running teams (there was little question they'd separate after high school), the coach let them come to him. During their junior year, the brothers flew out to Boulder on their own, finally bumping into Wetmore almost by accident. And then he became really standoffish.
During an official visit, Wetmore bluntly told Jorge that scholarship money was tight and that he couldn't guarantee anything to him or his brother. Jorge recalls, "I'm thinking, 'Do I really want to come to Colorado when I could go to another school and get a full ride?" It was a question he had to answer by himself: Wetmore didn't contact the Torreses again until after they'd committed to Boulder.
Though successful by most measures, the first couple of years proved disappointing for Torres and the Buffaloes. Ranked No. 1 before the NCAA finals in 2000, the team ended up losing to Arkansas. Jorge, too, had been crossing the tape seconds too late at nationals. His sophomore year, he finished third individually. Last year he was favored to win the race outright. And he probably would have, were it not for the last-minute arrival of a mysterious new student at Eastern Michigan University.
A transfer from Kenya's Tambach Teachers College, Boaz Cheboiywo had run in only one meet before showing up at the NCAA pre-finals on a 10K course in South Carolina last October. But he didn't remain an unknown for long. In that first race, the Indiana State Invitational, he opened such a large gap between himself and the field so quickly that he turned around and motioned his teammates to follow him. They couldn't, though, and he set off on his own, setting a course record.
At the pre-finals last October 14, Cheboiywo blew away the field again, obliterating the previous course mark by nearly half a minute. (The record was held by Adam Goucher, another Midwesterner who was to become a CU star.) Torres finished eighteen seconds back in second place -- a record-setting pace had it not been for the sudden appearance of the Kenyan.
The NCAA finals a month later were a repeat. Setting yet another course record, Cheboiywo pulled ahead of the field quickly and stayed there easily. "I never gave up," Jorge Torres remembers. "And I was cutting the gap between us the last minute or two. I just didn't have enough." He ended up nineteen seconds behind, with another second place. Edwardo came in fifteenth, exactly a minute behind the pace. (Freshman Alan Webb, one of only four high-schoolers in history to break the four-minute mile, finished eleventh.)
For Jorge, that leaves only this year to grab the individual cross-country title, the sole accomplishment missing on his resumé. With a full scholarship to back him up (he and Edwardo finally began receiving one their sophomore year), he began chasing Cheboiywo in earnest this summer. Barring injuries, the two will meet again later this fall.
The work took place almost exclusively on hills, which burn the legs and empty the lungs. "I was teaching my body to go through the pain," Jorge explains. Mondays and Tuesdays began with twelve-mile trail runs. Then it was back for lunch and a rest before another five- or six-mile run in the afternoon. Wednesday mornings brought fifteen more miles, another lunch break and a six-mile pace run. Thursdays were easy days -- only twelve miles in the morning. Fridays, it was back to the grind: a dozen miles in the morning, some interval work later in the day. Saturdays were usually the same. Sundays meant twenty more miles.
The work was brutal, and sometimes Jorge's mind wandered. "I dream of races," he says. "The Olympics, or the world championships. I see myself surrounded by African runners, European runners, wearing different uniforms. And I'm winning.
"When I'm running by myself I think, 'Why do I do this sport? Why do I do it so much?' But then I'm jumping trails, looking at trees, the sun or rain beating down on me -- and it's like nothing else. It helps your soul. When you finish a run, it's like winning the lottery."
On a recent afternoon, CU's runners begin arriving at their workout, today a series of 300-yard intervals at a moderate early-season pace. Wetmore has stagger-scheduled them in small groups so that the field adjacent to the basketball arena doesn't become too crowded. A gang of young women arrives just as Wetmore and his only trainer are concluding a conversation in which she has made a plea to ban track athletes from scooters after yet another ankle injury. ("We start the year with 85 runners and end with 70," she says. "Lots of injuries.")
"You all ready?" Wetmore asks the young women. "Need to rest? Stretch? Meditate? Pray?"
After everyone is set, the coach points to the far end of the grassy field. "Run around the rusty buffalo down there; follow the edge of the field until you get to the big tree in front of the yellow roof over here. That's about 300 yards. If you're going to make a mistake, make it going too slow."
The group starts off. More gangs of men and women filter in. Last in are Jorge and Edwardo. Typically, they arrive together. Wetmore points out the course and cautions Jorge to take it slow. "You could run [an eight-kilometer course] in 23 minutes right now," he admits. "But you'd have a broken leg next week."
The twins take a warmup sprint, and then stop. Jorge jogs over to the trainer; "I have a blister."
"Oh, c'mon," Edwardo says. "You wuss." After Jorge's taping, the two take off toward the rusty buffalo at a brisk pace.
The twins start out together, but Jorge soon surges ahead. Though top runners generally are difficult to tell apart, his stride is genuinely artful, a study in motion economy. Where other runners lean and flail and twist, his upper body stays virtually stone-still and upright, his arms and legs pumping in small, precisely repetitious movements. From a distance, he moves so lightly he seems to be gliding across the ground. After the 300-yard interval, he slows down and lets his brother catch up.
Wetmore says this could be Jorge's year: "Only three collegians beat him all of last year. He could run an excellent race and still come in fourth. But those guys will have to run the best race of their lives to beat him. He's trained harder and trained more. And he's angrier."
The coach admits the team's title hunt probably won't happen in front of screaming fans. "We're not football, and we're not basketball, and we're not women's basketball," he says.
Jorge shrugs; he's not in it for the crowds. "I'm doing this because I love it," he says. "If nobody comes out and watches, that's fine."
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