BOULDER – The last thing Mark Wetmore wants from Ben Saarel is to see him become a slacker – not that there’s even a remote chance of that ever happening. But Colorado’s veteran cross country/track coach would like to see his newest (and potentially finest) middle-distance runner dial it down just a bit, kick back and relax.
That might happen when the clock strikes never because, well, Saarel is wired to not only compete but to excel. From the way Wetmore describes him, he’s the Energizer Bunny times nine. “Driven” is about six adjectives short of describing Saarel’s motivational level; if he isn’t going full speed in every pursuit he obviously believes he’s coasting.
All in all, this isn’t a terrible dilemma for a college coach. Most see motivation like this in one of their proteges as winning the lottery. But Wetmore has been around long enough in the CU running world – 23 seasons, 20 as the boss – to comprehend the demands on student-athletes. And saying those demands are fierce falls ridiculously short.
Then along came Saarel, a built-for-endurance freshman who last fall could have breezed into any college that offers a high-caliber education and a high-profile running experience.
“There were some very, very big academic opportunities for him,” Wetmore recalled. “I’m sure anybody who thought they had a chance (to sign him) wrote to him. He probably narrowed his choices from over a hundred to the five he visited.”
Those five: CU, Wisconsin, Princeton, Stanford and Michigan. “Tough choice,” said Saarel, now 19. “But I have no doubt I made the right one.”
Saarel, of Park City, Utah, arrived in Boulder already in the passing lane. An engineering physics major with an interest (bet on it not being mild) in chemistry, he earned a 4.0 GPA in his first semester. And that, said Wetmore, was because “you can’t get a 5.0 . . . he finishes practices, takes his shoes off and goes to the library.”
When the Buffs leave the state for meets, as some will do this weekend for competitions in Austin, Texas and Stanford, Calif., Wetmore says Saarel “studies on the bus to the airport, studies at the airport and studies on the airplane. He’s a willing worker when he gets to practice and will do anything we ask of him. If he’s ever tired he doesn’t show it. He’s intense in practice, intense about his school work. I’d like to find a way for him to get a 3.999 (GPA) and relax a little, gear it down a little more.”
Fat chance, indicated Saarel, who settled on CU because of “a fantastic physics and engineering department” and, of course, Wetmore’s national reputation for grooming elite runners. “He’s one of the best coaches and I thought he would be the best coach for me,” Saarel said.
Saarel didn’t start running until he was a high school freshman, and that came at the urging of his sister, Emma, now a runner at Swarthmore (Pa.) College. After starting in cross country, he branched out to track, and in a short time reached a comfort level in both.
After winning the Utah State Class 3A cross country championship in the second-fastest time (14:56.7) ever run on the course, he was named the 2012 Gatorade Utah Cross Country Runner of the Year. Other accomplishments that year included first place at the Foot Locker West Regional and a second-place finish at the Nike Cross Nationals Southwest Regional championship. In track as a senior, he also won Utah state titles, with record times in the 800 (1:51.13) and the 1,600 meters (4:07.95).
“At first I thought I’d never run further than a mile,” Saarel said. “I got tired, but every time you get used to it and the idea of running longer distances. I found I’ve really come to enjoy it. I think it’s one of those sports where you’re really in touch with your body. You’re able to get a good sense of everything that’s going on. You’re asked to push yourself to the limit and it’s really fun doing that and seeing how you can get into it.”
Like all else he attempts, Saarel is into it in a big, big way at CU. Last fall, in his first cross country season for the Buffs, his finishes earned All-Pac-12 First Team, All-Mountain Region and All-America honors. In his first race for the Buffs – the NCAA Pre-Nationals – he was CU’s No. 2 scorer with a ninth-place finish. In the NCAA Championships, he finished eighth as the Buffs won their fourth NCAA team title since 2001. He became CU’s first true freshman since Billy Nelson to earn All-America recognition. Nelson, who finished 42nd that year (2002), now is one of Wetmore’s assistants.
Saarel is among 14 CU student-athletes who will compete on Sunday in the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford, while a pair of CU sprinters will run at the Longhorn Invitational on Saturday in Austin. Saarel is scheduled to run in the 5,000 meters on Sunday night.
The list of Wetmore’s running apprentices at CU stacks up against anyone’s, but he believes Saarel could be a cut above. “There could be big stuff coming if we manage him correctly and he manages himself correctly,” Wetmore said. “He could be one of the best we’ve had here in a long time. He was eighth in the NCAA in cross country, third in NCAA 3,000 meters – the first American in the race – and has run a very fast 1,500 meters (3:41.54) recently, the fastest any freshman has run here.”
Continued Wetmore: “Adam Goucher was a huge talent, Dathan Ritzenhein a huge talent, Jorges Torres . . . but (Saarel) has already done things they didn’t do. Dathan was fourth in NCAAs, Ben was eighth – but Dathan didn’t run 3:41 as a freshman. Adam was second as a freshman in the cross country nationals, but he didn’t run a 3:41. This guy is a special talent, special in his versatility, and he’s being compared to some lions.”
Asked if he thinks Saarel can develop the perspective to match his abundant talent, Wetmore said, “They change at this age from year to year and you wouldn’t think it’s that much. But an 18-year-old is really different from a 23-year-old. We’ll have to see how he handles managing it. It won’t be long before there’s cameras and microphones in his face, cameras looking at him at the starting line. That’s a whole new world. He had a certain amount of that in high school; the media had wind of him a year ago. I think 18-year-olds now are used to some things they weren’t 20 years ago, but underneath it all there’s still an 18-year-old.”
Even now, though, Saarel seems about as well-grounded as any freshman on campus. Wetmore’s praise, he said, “means a lot to me. There’s a ton of good guys around here, so many good ones right now that any one of us could get to that next level. I’m honored to be working with him and maybe trying to reach those upper levels. But at the same time you never know what’s going on down the road. Things change; you just kind of have to smile and go along with it. (Staying grounded is) one thing I’ve always done. Know where you’re from and know things can switch around.”
Maybe just a little contrary to what Wetmore has observed, Saarel says he does indeed have an outlet to kick back – although after running and academics “most of my time is used up. Right now there’s not too much (extra time). If I can go for a hike after cross country or track season it’s a lot of fun. I like hanging out with friends and I’m a big fan of good food if I can find it.”
Finding it shouldn’t be a problem. Finding the time to find it, then eat it, might be.