During the 2011 men’s cross country NCAA Championships, a blond and somewhat scrawny freshman runner finished 252nd — dead last among runners who completed the race. In 2014, at the same event, he finished 13th. 

The performance helped Michigan to an 11th overall finish, the highest the team has placed in a decade. 

The runner, fifth-year senior Mason Ferlic, is now Michigan’s first back-to-back cross country All-American in more than a decade, and an All-American steeplechaser in track and field. He also won his first two conference titles last spring in the indoor 5K and outdoor steeplechase. 

In the three seasons between his freshman and senior year championships, Ferlic developed from an average recruit into one of the essential members of the men’s cross country team — he led the Wolverines in all six of the scored varsity meets last season. But rather than looking at his freshman year as an embarrassment, Ferlic identified what went wrong and learned from it.

“It’s called freshman runner syndrome,” Ferlic said. “I came in as a freshman and I wasn’t the hottest recruit, but I was ready to work hard and I was trying to prove myself. But if you’re always trying to prove yourself, you’re doing everything during practice and not having anything left at races. It was my Achilles’ heel, I was overly aggressive.” 

He added: “One race or one season doesn’t define you. It was the best freshman season to have. I never wanted to be last again. I wanted to go from worst to first.”

Now entering his third season as one of Michigan’s captains, Ferlic’s words sound like a perfected speech. Yet Ferlic tends to remain in a more supportive role, choosing to lead by example and only stepping in when he sees his teammates struggling.

He’s particularly helpful when it comes to the balance between academics and athletics. Ferlic is an Aerospace Engineering student scheduled to graduate in December. And as heavily as he is decorated for running, he matches it in his academics. He’s a back-to-back Academic All-Big Ten runner and was a U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Academic All-American as well. The key, according to Ferlic, is accepting that at some points he will be an athlete more than a student, and at other times he will be more of a student than an athlete. 

While traveling for races, he explained, no matter how much down time he thinks there will be for schoolwork, there isn’t. It’s all about the race. But then as soon as he gets back to campus, it’s time to do work. His attention to his academics has allowed him to develop a deeper appreciation for Michigan.

“It’s a reflection on the school and the institution,” Ferlic said. “This is the kind of student-athlete we produce at Michigan: men and women who are fantastic on the field and in the classroom.” 

Ferlic’s dedication to success excelling extended to this summer, when he found time to train even while touring Europe with his brothers. 

To Ferlic, training is only a part of overall success. It’s also about setting goals and forming relationships with his teammates and his coaches. Ferlic says cultivating close relationships with his teammates and new head coach Kevin Sullivan is one of his most rewarding lifelong lessons.

“It’s always hard to identify what makes someone successful,” Ferlic said. “Raw talent, determination, and intelligence is important. But it’s really a combination of knowing yourself and knowing what you can do. Running is a sport you get out what you put in, something I learned early as a freshman. If you can put in the work, you can keep on climbing the ladder.”

Ferlic will be headed into his final year wearing a Michigan uniform and he’s facing a season of lasts and bittersweet moments. He will try to instill in his teammates the need to constantly look for ways to improve. 

“It is a chapter closing,” Ferlic said. “But it’s more of a victory lap.”

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