TERRE HAUTE —
A Big Ten champion and a Missouri Valley Conference champion in the same year.
On Saturday, Zach Mayhew and John Mascari will try to make it two All-America NCAA cross country runners in the same season for Terre Haute North alumni.
Mascari will compete as one of 36 individual qualifiers in the country, while Mayhew is a veteran on an Indiana University team that’s back at the NCAA Championships, which will be in Louisville this season before returning to Terre Haute in 2013.
“We don’t really have a rivalry … He’s kind of a level above right now,” Mascari, the Indiana State freshman, said of Mayhew, a senior on the Hoosiers. “He’s definitely a guy to key off of him during the race. I can look out for him and try to hang on as long as I can.”
Mayhew has been a part of IU teams that finished seventh in the NCAA the past two years.
“I was really glad to see how well John did at regionals. He’s obviously very, very talented, I knew that he could be there but didn’t know if he would be. I was surprised and happy and excited for him. It’s cool, I think Terre Haute, we’re making ‘em proud, and I know he’ll continue to improve as the years go on.”
Mascari could view it as a no-pressure situation since he’s got three more years to return to the NCAAs, but he’s more of a seize-the-moment type of guy.
“There’s a little pressure knowing it’s the biggest cross country race in the nation collegiate-wise,” Mascari said. “The goal was just to make it. Now, I just have to have fun with it and just enjoy the experience. All-America would be nice, but if I don’t get that I’m still going to be satisfied. It’s been a memorable season.”
After winning the MVC race, Mascari kept rolling into the regional. He hoped seniors Al Escalera and Dustin Betz would also contend for an individual qualifying spot, but it was Mascari, running his first ever 10,000-meter race, who surged toward the lead pack that included Mayhew.
“It didn’t go out extremely hard. I think Al, Betz and I went out about three minutes for the first [1,000],” Mascari said. “I knew I’d have to be top 10 if I wanted to qualify so I kind of just stuck around the top 20 spot for the first couple Ks. I threw in a couple surges to get up there and hang on to a top-10 spot. For the first 10K of my life, it was a lot harder than I thought. It felt like a huge difference to me. That last 2K you just had to grind out. It was similar to LaVern [Gibson Championship Course]; it was really tough.”
Mascari spent his freshman year at IU as a redshirt and he suffered a stress fracture in his lower leg that kept out four months of the spring. He climbed back into it and was in the best shape of his life by late summer.
“John did all the right things,” McNichols said. “So disciplined through the summer, running many weeks right at 100 miles a week and sustained the training through the season. That’s one of the reason’s he’s stayed healthy. He really has a strong base, and he’s capable of really big things this weekend.”
Mascari’s first 10K race was the fourth best in ISU history, his time of 30 minutes, 56 seconds obviously his personal best. Racing not far behind defending NCAA champions from Wisconsin and individual national champions like Andy Bayer (1,500 meters for IU) is a huge development opportunity for a young runner.
McNichols observed the runners after the race discussing the outcome.
“Here’s all these veterans, guys who’ve been All-Americans saying they’ve never hurt so bad in a race,” McNichols said. “They’re racing and you’re competing, and it’s not a comfortable situation. It takes a lot of focus to keep hammering in a race like that when you’re body’s telling you to go sit down, find a soft chair somewhere.
“The more times [Mascari] goes there, as an athlete, you start to expect that and understand the feeling and you’re able to deal with it each time it comes up,” McNichols said.
Mayhew knows what McNichols is talking about having raced some of the best young distance runners in the world during his four years at IU.
The Big Ten victory and a strong run at regional have put him in good position to have his best NCAA race yet.
“There was about five guys who really went for it [at regionals],” Mayhew said. “My goal was to just get a low number for the team and make sure we got through to nationals without using too much unnecessary energy.”
As for the Big Ten victory a few weeks earlier, Mayhew had his sights on an individual title, knowing he could do it after taking the 10,000 meter title on the track last spring.
“It’s always in the back of your mind. I had won the 10K outdoors at the Big Ten meet so I knew I was capable,” Mayhew said. “At the same time, there were Olympians [like Wisconsin’s Mohammed Ahmed] and NCAA champions in my race. I knew if I made it to the last 5K with the leaders, it was anybody’s race.”
Mayhew was slightly disappointed with his outcome at LaVern Gibson last November, as he placed 72nd. He’d like to be on the award stand after the race.
“I don’t know how much better I am time wise, but confidence wise and experience I’m 10 times better. Top 40 is All-American and 25 of those get a spot on the podium. I’d like to be on that podium,” Mayhew said.
Mascari wouldn’t mind joining him. Mascari ran a school-record 8K at Tom Sawyer State Park for the Pre-Nationals Invitational. That experience at least gives him an understanding of what to expect.
“I have an idea of how it’s going to go out from Pre-Nats. Compared to Wisconsin, it’s going to be a lot faster. It’s a lot flatter,” Mascari said.
Mayhew is racing as an individual, but he’s also trying to lead an IU team to another strong finish.
“Me and Andy [Bayer] we’re our senior leadership, Nobody else had ever run in a big meet,” Mayhew said. “We have a lot of young talent. They’ve stepped up pretty well, and done a great job of keeping the tradition going.”