As redshirt junior Nick Renberg ran the 8,000-meter course, he felt himself pulling ahead of his competitors. But instead of focusing on the gap, he decided to “Roll with it, and see what I could do.”
It turns out that even against 77 other runners, he could win the unofficial open race for the No. 5 Michigan men’s cross country team while maintaining a four-second distance between him and his closest challenger.
This weekend, each team invited to the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational was allowed to have seven athletes compete in the official race, while the rest of the runners were put into an open competition. Michigan brought 18 in total.
Michigan head coach Kevin Sullivan fills the roster with his choice of runners every week. He makes his decisions by evaluating his runners on a holistic basis of their performance during practice and at meets.
“(Sullivan) looks at the potential of the runners,” Renberg said. “I think I definitely motivated myself to go out and give my best to show my coach where I’m at and be in the conversation for Big Ten Championships.”
Renberg started the race with a 4:50 per-mile pace and didn’t stop pushing himself until he crossed the finish line for first place with a time of 24:15.5 — fast enough to have placed 64th if he had competed in the championship race. He would have been Michigan’s fifth scorer of the day, ahead of his teammate, redshirt senior August Pappas, who finished with a time of 24:15.7.
Despite Renberg not competing in the main race of the day, the Wolverines still prevailed and finished third in a field of 244 athletes — the team’s best finish since 2009. Michigan defeated 15 ranked schools, including all four Big Ten opponents in attendance: Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana and Illinois. The Wolverines’ top finisher was fifth-year senior Mason Ferlic, who clinched 13th place with a time of 23:49.0. There was just a 29.2-second difference between Ferlic and senior Tony Smoragiewicz, who finished 74th.
Going into the weekend, Michigan saw No. 4 Wisconsin as one of its biggest competitors, yet the Badgers didn’t even make it into the top 10 teams of the day.
“This was the best performance we’ve seen all year,” Ferlic said. “But talking with the team after the race, most everyone wasn’t satisfied. A lot of athletes made tactical errors and even more thought they could do better, me included. That’s huge. This will give us a lot of confidence going forward into championship season knowing we all have more to give.”
Other Michigan finishers included junior Ben Flanagan in 29th place, his classmate Connor Mora in 52nd, redshirt sophomore Aaron Baumgarten in 63rd, Pappas with a personal-best finish in 64th, Smoragiewicz in 74th and fifth-year senior Nick Posada in 157th.
Ferlic and Flanagan, Michigan’s co-captains, were the top two scorers of the day and led by example.
“I think our team sees the results from (Flanagan) and I, and they see it as an affirmation of our effort at practice,” Ferlic said. “It helps them to see how our hard work pays off and the direct product of how we train. We hope to inspire our team, and hopefully our leadership will benfit others. We want the team to stay intense while racing.”
The biggest piece of advice Ferlic tries to keep in mind is that a runner’s plan must be flexible in order to adapt to the field. He always reminds the team that a predefined race strategy will inevitably change, so he preaches the necessity of adaptability to the Wolverines.
“The race was pretty tightly packed, and I was in a lot of traffic with a lot of elbows all pushing and shoving,” Ferlic said. “I jostled my way to the front so that I could run faster. Our team did a great job of navigating all of this, making it a great experience going to nationals, because this is what that feels like. A lot of bodies. A lot of congestion.”
But as congested as the courses may be, Ferlic and Michigan are creating their own space.