By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Aaron Nelson’s path to becoming the first back-to-back race winner in a Washington men’s cross country season since the 1980s had two, decisive and hard turns.
The first was a battle with mononucleosis as a UW freshman. That knocked the former high-school wrestler – in the 103- and 112-pound classes -- out for four months. It frustrated – and exhausted -- him to no end.
A year later, about seven months ago, he faced an even bigger challenge: Being called out by his coach.
Veteran Husky track and cross country head man Greg Metcalf had been excited and impressed with Nelson since he first saw the Walla Walla, Wash., native bull through the final 400 meters of an elite cross-country race to challenge, as Metcalf remembers, “four national high-school superstars.” That was at the 2010 Nike Pre-Nationals meet in Portland, Ore. Though Nelson finished fourth that day, and through he never captured state titles or set the high school world on fire, he thoroughly impressed Metcalf with how tough he raced.
After the race, Metcalf saw Nelson inside the medical tent and noticed “he had run himself into the ground.”
Right there, from the Portland Meadows race track that was the Nike Pre-Nationals course, Metcalf called his associate head coach Jason Drake and said, “J.D., we have to have this kid on our team! He’s tough as nails.’
“We needed tough young men,” Metcalf says now. “And Aaron is that.”
Yet last indoor track season, Metcalf wasn’t seeing that toughness. He wasn’t seeing speed. He wasn’t seeing Nelson competing the way he believed his sophomore could. The coach wasn’t seeing, well, anything.
He shut down Nelson from competing after a wholly unsatisfying performance at an indoor meet. The coach told him he was done until the outdoor season, admitting now that he was “kind of fired up at him.”
“Right now, you are a nonfactor,” Metcalf bluntly told Nelson. “But I believe you can be a pretty good distance runner.
“But you’ve got to be better.”
Metcalf asked for more commitment.
For Nelson, that meant committing to everything. More training. More sleep. More attention to the small aches every runner has, by seeking a trainer’s help immediately if necessary.
And no more soda and pizza. Nelson changed his diet, dedicating himself more to the UW athletes’ training table at Conibear Shellhouse, where he could get daily servings of vegetables and fruits. So long evening runs for food out on The Ave.
The results followed almost immediately. In his first official outdoor season at UW, Nelson ran the steeplechase for the first time in his life -- and finished seventh in the Pac-12 finals at USC. He qualified for NCAA West Preliminaries in the steeple and finished 39th overall in Austin, Texas. He was third in the steeplechase at the Pepsi Team Invite at Oregon with personal-record time of 8:52.03. He also ran the 5,000-meters at the Pac-12s, his only outdoor 5k of the year, and finished 13th in that, in 14:30.12.
“I kind of thought maybe after the Sundodger , ‘That was great. Maybe I can do it.’ And then after the last one, I was like, ‘Whoa! I did it again!
This fall, Nelson got his first collegiate cross country win with a time of 23:50 at UW’s season-opening Sundodger Invitational at Lincoln Park in West Seattle. He followed that up by winning again, Oct. 5 at the Bill Dellinger Invitational in Springfield, Ore., covering the 8,000 meters in 23:55 and beating 114 competitors. The win was the first for any Husky male outside the Sundodger since former All-Pac-10 First Teamer Mark Mandi won the Willamette Invitational in 2005.
“Coach Metcalf, he set me straight,” Nelson said Wednesday, before he set off from Husky Track on a 12-mile training run through northeast Seattle. “It was pretty much, ‘You want to be mediocre? Or do you want to be great?’”
Good thing for the Huskies – and himself – he chose the latter.
Nelson left with his UW cross country teammates Thursday morning for Saturday’s packed, top-caliber Wisconsin Invitational in Madison appearing to be a legitimate contender to become UW’s first male conference top-10 finisher since Kelly Spady in 2009.
The former high-school wrestler who liked pizza and sodas used to stay in the middle of packs during races. Wednesday he explained his plan for staying near the lead and “running smart” early in Saturday’s Wisconsin race, which has more than 300 entrants. He then hopes to make his move to see if he indeed belongs among the nation’s best distance runners on grass and dirt.
“In the past couple years I haven’t been in the position where I was supposed to be in the top 20 or even the top 50, or anything like that. I was 150th place last year, 190th or 180th the year before,” Nelson said, his thick, brownish-blonde hair blowing in the chilly wind next to the track. “This year I can’t just be in the middle. I have to be up front if I want to finish there. That’s going to change how I race and require me to get out a little bit faster than I am used to.”
Getting Nelson out of his previous comfort zone is exactly what Metcalf was seeking when he gave his underperformer what-for in March.
“There comes a point in every college career when you have to make a decision,” Metcalf said. “With Aaron it was, what are you going to do with it? And Aaron responded really well to it.
“And now we are seeing the positive effects of very dedicated training from a very talented young man.”
Nelson took to the steeplechase in his first full outdoor track season last year, running a PR of 8:52.03 here at Hayward Field.
Nelson has a younger sister Rachel, who just began running for Montana State as a freshman. He says he and his sis get their drive from their parents.
His father Rob is a paramedic on a Life Flight helicopter transport crew and is also a paramedic and firefighter for the City of Walla Walla. His son still remembers dad working 24-hour shifts. His mother, Juliet, is the director of human resources at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla.
Aaron is particularly proud of mom for going to college full time and getting a degree while she was working and raising two children.
“That’s a great motivation for me, to see what she did,” her son said, proudly.
Now he’s putting that motivation to use on the course. It took a stern sit-down with his coach, and an even tougher deal of dealing with a whopping illness, but Aaron Nelson is now suddenly UW cross country’s lead Dawg.
He sees Saturday’s task in Wisconsin as a good test for the NCAA West Regional in Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 15 and the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., Nov. 23. The Wisconsin field is similar in size and in quality up front to an NCAA finals field.
“I’ve had some eye-openers. I want to be an All-American at NCAAs, which is top 40,” Nelson said, knowing that hasn’t happened for a Husky since 1998 when Christian Belz was 17th at nationals. “Metcalf had told me earlier in the season that I looked great and he thought it was possible.
“I kind of thought maybe after the Sundodger , ‘That was great. Maybe I can do it.’ And then after the last one, I was like, ‘Whoa! I did it again! I could possibly be well in there.’
“This weekend at Wisconsin, I’m not going to be afraid to be in the top pack and see where I finish.”