By Citius Mag Staff
September 8, 2023
The following is an excerpt from "Running Up the Mountain: Northern Arizona Altitude, Lumberjack Attitude, and the Building of a Distance Dynasty" by Matt Baxter and Ron Mann with Soulstice Publishing of Flagstaff, Ariz.
The NAU men’s cross country team stopped in their tracks to look up at the flock of vultures circling overhead. It seemed like a bad omen to be followed like prey on a local Terre Haute trail just two days out from nationals. But by this point in the season, the team was used to having eyes on them.
Undeterred, the Lumberjacks continued to navigate their first run in Terre Haute. The mixture of hidden single-track trails in dense brush and dirt roads with open space made it likely someone would get lost. A small gap formed between the team’s front and back halves, and a wrong turn from the back half split the group in two. They ran separately until the two groups popped out at opposite ends of a dirt road.
Tyler Day started toward the other group, snapping his fingers. The rest of his group followed his lead until the sound of synchronized finger-clicking reached the ears of their teammates.
Snapping fingers echoed through the trees as the two groups approached each other in true West Side Story fashion. At the center of the trail, the runners collided with laughter and hugs, greeting one another as if their miles spent apart were the length of summer break.
Goofy, loose, funny, maybe even a little weird—these adjectives perfectly described the NAU men’s cross country team. The men gave the appearance of taking nothing too seriously. That was their greatest strength. And it was on display during the entire season.
The guys looked sharp as they attended the pre-competition banquet rocking flannel shirts—paying homage to their lumberjack roots. While some teams wore three-piece suits, the NAU team dressed like their outfits were sewn from their personalities.
Once the dinner concluded, all teams in attendance made their way to an auditorium up the street for the awards presentation. Two incredible careers at NAU were honored that evening, with Eric Heins being named Mountain Region Cross Country Coach of the Year and Futsum Zienasellassie the Mountain Region’s Athlete of the Year.
When the awards section of the evening ended, a band played a few songs to round out the night. As the band set up, all but two teams departed the auditorium—leaving only the Oklahoma State University women and the NAU men.
Although slightly deterred by the lack of attendees, the band struck up a tune and the OSU women started dancing. Andy Trouard and Day joined in the festivities at the front of the stage while the rest of their team and coaching staff watched with amusement from twenty rows back. It was harmless fun in the tiny mosh pit until Trouard boldly climbed onto the stage with the intention of jumping off into the crowd.
“Don’t do it . . . don’t do it,” Heins muttered under his breath as he watched Trouard leap from the stage.
The NAU team held their collective breath as one of their historically injury-prone athletes tested his durability just two days before nationals.
The next day, Trouard appeared to have survived the jump as he plodded around the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course during the team’s pre-meet jog.
It was shorts and T-shirt weather on this beautiful seventy-degree day in Terre Haute. Everyone appreciated the unusually warm weather for November in Cross Country Town USA. They also understood that pleasant conditions weren’t in the forecast for race day.
One silly pre-meet ritual the NAU team had adopted was to run the first mile slower than ten-minute pace. While other teams blew past the Lumberjacks, they jogged along at what was, for them, a walkable pace, calling out anyone who accidently picked it up to anything resembling a run.
The mood of the team was light, as though they were ready for what was to come but hadn’t yet taken the time to think about exactly how they should feel about it. A shared nervous energy wouldn’t set in until the team assembled in Heins’s hotel room the evening before the race to hand out numbers.
As each athlete sat silently staring at the number in their hands, Heins spoke. Before every race, Heins always had words of encouragement for his team. This time, he kept it short.
“You guys know what to do,” he said before kicking everyone out of his room.
“You might want to pack a jacket,” Baxter told Zienasellassie as he looked out their hotel window.
At midday, when more than 200 young men would fill the starting boxes awaiting the gun, it was going to be thirty-six degrees. Wind gusts of thirty-one miles an hour would create a windchill temperature below freezing.
Baxter and Zienasellassie left the safety of their room and headed out to join their team in the lobby prior to departing for the course. As the elevator doors slid open, the two athletes were greeted by a couple of NAU supporters.
“Are you guys looking forward to the race?” one of the women asked as the doors closed.
“We sure are,” replied Zienasellassie, smiling between the visible nerves.
The woman smiled back as she introduced herself. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Coach Heins’s mom.”
Baxter stood in the corner, taking in the bigger picture of this elevator ride. “All season, we knew that trying to win in Terre Haute was a big deal to Heins. I never even considered the fact that his family was equally invested in this,” Baxter said. “It added another layer of pressure, seeing the excitement and confidence on his mom’s face—I wished I had that.”
Heins’s family members weren’t the only ones who made a long trip to watch the Lumberjacks compete. NAU President Dr. Rita Cheng and her husband, Thomas Cheng, were there, along with NAU Athletic Director Lisa Campos, Senior Associate Athletic Director Robyn Sharp, and Ron Mann, driving in from Louisville. NAU had also invested in a videographer to follow the team all weekend.
With the team assembled in the lobby, the guys piled into a van with Heins at the wheel and Mike Smith riding shotgun. The nervous energy in the van was almost unbearable; if it hadn’t been so cold outside, every window would have been rolled down to let it escape.
Most of the guys were looking out the van windows, lost in their own worlds, when an ad came on the radio that drew everyone’s attention. It started by posing a question, “What is this sound?” Puzzled faces listened to the cracking and crunching noises coming from the radio, trying to decipher what it was.
“That’s the sound of your neck breaking in a car accident,” said the voice from the radio.
The team audibly cringed as the ad continued.
“What is this sound?” said the voice as a squishing noise played.
“Turn it off, turn it off!” yelled Beamish from the back.
Smith had clearly dropped the ball on his DJ duties. The team laughed as he fiddled with the radio stations to find a less grotesque pre-race playlist.
The athletes’ seriousness eased slightly, if only for a second, but straight faces returned as the van pulled into the parking lot.
Standing by the kilometer-to-go mark, Heins took a deep breath as he surveyed the setting for his last race as NAU program director. The mixed emotions he’d carried since the spring filled his eyes with unshed tears. The last long run was bearable, as was the last Lumberjack workout and the last pre-meet with his athletes. But nothing compared to the feelings simmering before the impending last race.
This moment of reflection wasn’t solely focused on the finale. “Leading up to the race, I remember it being a fun year,” said Heins. “It took me a long time to realize how to focus on the process, not just the end result.”
When Heins had downtime during the season, he made trips to Durango, Phoenix, and Houston to see his family. This time away from Flagstaff kept him relaxed and enjoying the season more than he had in previous years.
With the team expected back from its warm-up any minute, Heins regained his composure as he walked to the tent. The energy he left at the start of the final kilometer might fuel the Lumberjacks soon, as they dug deep to survive the home stretch.
Before the team could embrace the pain of the finish, however, they had to endure the nerves of the start. With their starting box wide enough to fit four at the front, NAU put their expected top finishers with their feet on the white paint. Numbers 394, 399, 393, and 390 would lead their teammates into the unknown.
The starting pistol raised, Baxter’s eyes fixated on the barrel, ready to see a puff of white smoke that would give him permission to recruit every fast-twitch muscle fiber in his body.
Then . . . smoke.
Citius Mag Staff