Wisconsin runner Alex Brill was struggling with one lap to go as Michigan’s Mason Ferlic closed in. Feeling energized by his teammates’ cheers from the backtracks, Ferlic found himself in contention to win the 2013 Big Ten Outdoor Championships in just his second-career steeplechase.
Ferlic had jumped over his 27th barrier of the race, with just the water pit and one more hurdle to go. Ferlic was in awe that he was moments away from winning his first championship title. But with 300 meters left, Brill slid out over the water pit, taking Ferlic down.
Ferlic lost his balance and with it, the chance at victory.
“All I remember is hitting the ground,” Ferlic said. “It was a great ‘What if?’ If I hadn’t fallen, I could have won. It bothered me in the fact that it was a missed opportunity to possibly win a championship and obviously score points for the team.”
Ferlic recovered from his fall and finished the race in fourth place. He was just a redshirt freshman, but he had already come so far.
Even today, Ferlic has trouble comprehending how quickly he has progressed. Before he even knew the ins and outs of the steeplechase, he was thrust onto the national level.
The fall into the water pit wasn’t a setback, but rather another step along the journey for Ferlic, who continues to fight even when he gets knocked down.
For Ferlic, running has always been about taking one step at a time — setting goals to overcome the current hurdles ahead of him.
Most runners begin their career at a younger age, but Ferlic played soccer as a child and didn’t start running until high school. After some friends convinced Ferlic to go out for the track team his freshman year, he realized his passion.
His first goal was to simply catch up to the competition and overcome his inexperience.
“I wasn’t particularly fast or a talented runner,” Ferlic said. “You wouldn’t pick me out and say, ‘Oh, that kid is going to be fast at running.’ I guess I wasn’t even a great athlete when I was young because I was a skinny, scrawny rail at that point with no muscle, but I enjoyed it.”
Ferlic fell in love with the sport’s individual competitive nature, and though he started after most runners, he could easily overcome that disadvantage. He controlled his fate each practice and each race, which kept him at ease. It was up to him in a race and during training to get better at a sport that is governed by the stopwatch and nothing more.
He then started setting loftier goals, such as reaching states and then winning both the 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter races once he got there.
“I don’t know if there is one thing that stands out about him when you first look at him,” said Michigan cross country coach Kevin Sullivan. “But I think once you get to know Mason, then you see he has a very strong inner drive and competitiveness that not a lot of athletes have. The way he approaches it mentally sets him apart from a lot of his competition. He is someone that, unless everything is 100 percent perfect, then it’s not satisfying.”
Sophomore Ben Flanagan added: “He is very driven and well aware that success doesn’t come easy. He is willing to put in as much as effort as he needs to achieve his goals, and there is no goal that he doesn’t think he can achieve.”
Ferlic ended up using his inexperience to his advantage. Rather than holding him back, it motivated him to work harder and not be satisfied with catching up to the pack.
Instead, he led it.
Then came Ferlic’s next step: college track. In addition to an academic and social change, the move to Ann Arbor eventually became Ferlic’s first true running challenge.
“Freshman year cross country went probably as poorly as it could possibly go for a freshman season,” Ferlic said. “I had quite a few ups and downs in college, much more than high school. At that point, you are just a high school runner versus guys that are college runners, and there is a huge gap. That was kind of a tough pill to swallow.”
Ferlic was determined not to let that stop him, and as he watched older runners, notably then-senior Craig Forys, he learned how to remain calm yet confident before a race. As he continued to learn from the best, his desire to follow in their footsteps grew even larger.
Then, during his sophomore year, Ferlic broke his foot and was diagnosed with mononucleosis and anemia.
“It was kind of a rough first two years,” Ferlic said. “It was tough, because at that point I had found my ground, training was clicking and things were coming together. To be sidelined again was disappointing.”
Through that hardship, though, he found the steeplechase. After Ferlic put up practice times on the border of reaching the regional meet for the 5K while recovering, former cross country coach Alex Gibby wanted to give him a chance at the steeplechase during the outdoor portion of his redshirt freshman season. Now, he had to run five fewer laps, jump over four hurdles and leap across a water pit.
It was just an idea at first, something for him to try while recovering. But when he ran the steeplechase for the first time in the Toledo Invitational and finished first, he found his newest calling.
“I never considered myself a steeplechaser for the first year,” Ferlic said. “It was kind of that side event that I tried out instead of the 5K, but I have certainly fallen in love with it.”
And after he had taken that stumble going into the last leg of the Big Ten Championships, the success came rushing in. He finished fourth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2013 NCAA East Preliminary Rounds, qualifying for the NCAA Championships but failing to reach the finals. He finished 13th that year, earning All-America second team honors.
As a redshirt sophomore, Ferlic was ready to take the next step and make the 2014 NCAA Outdoor Championships. But one race stood in his way, the one race in which he had taken his first fall on the big stage.
During the 2014 Big Ten Outdoor Championships, it happened again. Ferlic clipped the second barrier and fell. In this race, though, he had time to rebound, remembering the pain he felt the year before. He finished the race in third place, improving on the previous season’s time by more than four seconds.
He then was ready to take on the NCAA Finals, which he had missed by one half-second second the previous year. Not forgetting his mistakes, instead embracing them, Ferlic qualified for the 2014 NCAA Championships and finished fourth to earn his first All-American first team honors in track.
“He has made really good strides in the last three years progressing through the ranks of the NCAA,” Sullivan said. “For him, as long as he stays injury-free over the next year and he is able to consistently train, I don’t see a reason why he can’t take a step up next year.”
It was then that Ferlic took what he had learned on the national stage and carried that success into cross country, improving from 22nd in the NCAA Championship his redshirt sophomore year to 13th place this past fall. Ferlic also led the Wolverines in all six events, carrying Michigan to an 11th-place finish at the NCAA Championships, its highest finish in 12 years.
“The fact that we came out of cross country season with him having his best finish ever is going to build a lot of natural confidence as we go into the indoor and outdoor season,” Sullivan said.
Even with all his success in the steeplechase, Ferlic doesn’t tell people he runs that event, because hardly anyone knows what it is. He understands that as he runs down State Street, people won’t be shouting his name. Most don’t even know who he is, but that doesn’t bother him.
It’s about the personal satisfaction and trying to improve upon his goals and help the team. It’s about improving himself as a runner and showing the young runners that even if you have a beginning like he did, you can still end up at the top.
“Firstly, I look up to him to try to achieve the same results he has, and secondly to be the type of runner he is,” Flanagan said. “It is something I would like to see in myself one day.”
This season Ferlic hopes to carry his cross country success into the track season as he attempts to surpass his fourth place finish a year ago.
He is humble, knowing that he owes where he is to the hard work that he has put in to get over each bump in the road. Each year, he has taken that next step, even with a few falls along the way.
At this point, the worst thing that could happen is falling down. But even if he is face-first in a water pit, it won’t matter.
Mason Ferlic will get back up. He’s done it before.