That night the closest thing to a stranger sat in the back of the Jeep. Justin Lambert-B�langer, a 20-year-old sophomore, knew nothing about Wyoming's culture of drinking and driving or the notoriously dangerous stretch of highway he was traveling. He barely knew the teammates beside him. He'd transferred to Wyoming only three weeks before, and only one thing had become clear to him and his teammates: Lambert-B�langer was the best runner of them all.
In the Cowboys' first two races (a four-miler at home and an 8K in Fort Collins), Lambert-B�langer had finished first for Wyoming even though he was still adjusting to the altitude. He'd grown up in Timmins, Ont., won Canada's junior steeplechase in 2000, spent a year at tiny Campbell University in North Carolina. Word got around that he'd turned down scholarship offers from Memphis, Houston and Illinois. He had the calm of someone with nothing to prove. "It was real cool, the clarity he had," says fellow Cowboys runner Jason Delaney.
On Sept. 11, in fact, Lambert-B�langer had shaken off the day's tumult long enough to focus on Delaney's stride. "He noticed that my foot was striking four or five inches behind my hips," Delaney says. "It made a huge difference. He studied the sport. He always had a reason for what he did."
What clinched Lambert-B�langer's decision to come to Wyoming was the prospect of pushing himself against altitude, the idea of months spent coursing through silent hills. Wyoming was desolate; it felt like home. After one practice run up in the Happy Jack trails, Justin had implored his father, Richard, who was visiting, to check out the trails' spectacular scenery. "Dad, it's incredible," he said. "You've got to see it."
His mother, Lucie, had written him an e-mail a week before the accident, asking if he was content. "Yes," he replied. That's the reason his parents aren't consumed by the cruel fact that they sent their child away to a new school only to have him die. It's why they won't second-guess the choice he made. When they flew to Laramie to attend the university's memorial service for the runners, the Lambert-B�langers and their three remaining children immediately drove to the trails above town, and later up to the rare air of the Snowy Mountains. They imagined their son running the dirt road.
"We needed the peace," Lucie says. "That's where he was happy."
More victims of Osama Bin Laden: That's how some people in Wyoming see the deaths at Tie Siding. When news of the accident broke, it created only a small stir outside the insular world of college track and field. What normally would have been considered a singular tragedy registered like a pinch following a punch in the face. Who could muster energy for eight, after a week in which thousands died in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania?
Yet, some say, the terrorist attacks were the routine-shattering act that led those boys to Highway 287. They have a point: Without Sept. 11, no one would have been nearly as receptive to the transforming power of the team's annual 12-mile mountain run the morning before the accident. The university canceled all sporting events for 10 days following the terrorist attacks, and a combination of the week's uncertainty and the Snowy Mountains' remote beauty fused the team as nothing ever had. No one wanted to let that new camaraderie slip away.
"Usually when we get back, they scatter," coach Jim Sanchez says. "That day, they felt so good, they wanted to hang around together. The accident was just a carryover."