Two then-freshmen runners sat next to each other on the bus back to North Campus — legs sore and exhausted. Neither was recruited by the Michigan cross country team, but both found their way onto the team as walk-ons and were feeling the struggles that come with collegiate running. Both had success at small high schools in Michigan, but not enough to draw interest from Michigan.
Three years later, juniors Mark Beams and Morsi Rayyan are still side by side and have become the driving force of the Michigan cross country team.
In 2010, with Michigan temporarily without a head cross country coach, Beams walked into the track coach’s office during summer orientation to talk about the possibility of running in college. Based on his high school performances, Beams got a spot on the roster. Rayyan had a similar story, but he just waited until closer to the season after Michigan had decided on a coach.
“I talked to the new coach, which was Alex Gibby, and I guess he just decided to give me a shot and bring me to camp,” Rayyan said. “I got here not knowing what I was doing as far as running. It was a whole new world with a much higher level of training.”
Now that they had gotten a chance to be on the team, it was up to them to prove that they belonged there. They put in the work during practice every day to keep up with the rest of the team and overcome the looming pressure of getting cut.
“My freshman year, I was definitely not one of the most gifted guys on the team,” Beams said. “It was a struggle every day.”
But every day it was Beams and Rayyan making the trip back to their dorm rooms on North Campus when practice ended. They stuck together because they had similar stories. They became closer because of their isolation from the rest of the recruited teammates in South Quad Residence Hall and West Quad Residence Hall.
This helped them improve as runners and in their first year they each had a breakout performance. For Rayyan, it was a ‘B’ team race in Wisconsin halfway through the season.
“He was the only guy out of the 12 I brought there that was remotely competitive,” said Michigan coach Alex Gibby. “He didn’t do things perfectly, but you could tell he had no fear and he just went out and did his best.”
Beams had to wait a little longer for things to click, but they did near the end of his freshman year, when he ran a 10,000-meter race unattached at Hillsdale College. Running unattached meant that he was not representing Michigan even though he was in a collegiate race — he was running as an independent athlete. He finished as one of the top-20 freshmen in the race.
“That really had an impact on me, and I thought at that point that maybe I could be a helpful and productive collegiate runner and help bring Michigan back to where it should be in running,” Beams said.
Their successes came with help from the newly hired Gibby who was looking to get Michigan’s running program back on track. Over the past three years, he has done just that.
“In any program change, it takes a while for the athletes to trust the coaches but there was a group of guys that committed from day one to turning things around,” Gibby said.
At the forefront of this group was Beams and Rayyan, two freshmen who had no previous experiences with college coaches but immediately bought into Gibby’s system.
“They were both walk-ons and they weren’t particularly talented, so the results didn’t come as quick, but certainly by sophomore year when they started putting together Big Ten and national-level performances, it really encouraged others,” Gibby said.
At this year’s Big Ten Championships last weekend, Beams and Rayyan were side by side once again, except this time it was on stage as they received All-Big Ten honors — Beams finished 14th, while Rayyan finished 13th with only two seconds separating the two.
“Now we are co-captains with three other runners,” Beams said. “It’s kind of cool that we started in a similar place and followed a similar path and landed on the Big Ten stand together.”