For 21 years Sanchez has been a fixture in Laramie, a high-altitude expert with a talent for mining excellence out of athletes the glamour running schools pass over. Next year, he'd figured, was the earliest he could hope to compete again for a Mountain West Conference (MWC) title. However, during that mountain run on Sept. 15, Sanchez began to wonder. For the first time in memory, each runner was healthy. Many responded to the 10,000-foot altitude with personal bests. At the finish, at Lake Owen, Sanchez sensed something good in the air. He says, "You could feel they felt it: We've got a team now."
"This is the best I've ever felt," Josh Jones, a 22-year-old senior who was adding cross-country to his specialty, the 800 meters, said after the run. Jones, who was from Yoder, Wyo., spent August in Oregon with his mother, Nancy Vasa, and there he divided his day not by meals but by runs-three of them, six-plus miles apiece. He could play guitar and uncork irreverent Jimmy Buffett songs, but he had little time for nonsense or complaining. "Running was everything to him," Vasa says. "Josh would come home to see family but mostly to train. When he got off the plane, he'd say, 'How far can I run at sea level?' and 'How quickly can I recover?' "
On every visit to Oregon, Josh made a point of running at the Prefontaine Track in Eugene, to feel like his hero, Steve Prefontaine. He'd visit the spot called Pre's Rock, where the track legend died in a car crash in 1975. In August, Josh and Nancy had one of those abstract conversations about death, the kind you have when you feel as if you can run forever. Cremate me, Josh said, and sprinkle me over Pre's Rock. Two months later she followed his instructions to the letter.
David Salvers on feared the road. He didn't want his first-born son, Kevin, driving after dark on any highway, especially 287 "I told him horror stories," David says. There was the time David was driving south on 287 and came upon a jack-knifed tractor-trailer sprawled across a patch of black ice. And the time he was driving north from Fort Collins, and a car passing in the opposite direction ran him off the road, faces in the car's windows laughing as he swerved. "I told Kevin often, 'You stay off that road,' " he says.
On the afternoon of Sept. 15, however, Kevin and his teammates, still abuzz from that morning's run, were talking about a road trip down to Fort Collins. Those in the group who thought about Highway 287's dangers figured what everyone figures: not me.
The 60-mile stretch between Fort Collins and Laramie attracts lead-footed truckers, overaggressive students and anyone willing to brave its two-(and occasionally three-) lane liabilities for the sake of a shortcut. The road is deceptive. It's easily driven in daylight and dry weather, but night and Wyoming's mercurial climate alter the equation. Since 1990, 28 people have died just on the 21-mile stretch from the Colorado border to Laramie. "It's a death trap," Laramie mayor Joe Shumway says of 287. "There's something wrong there."
Too often the wrong finds its way to the Wyoming athletic department. In the last 17 years crashes on 287 have killed a Cowboys football player and a former golfer, left another former football player paralyzed, caused permanent brain injuries to a volleyball coach and left a former female basketball player unable to walk without two canes. In 1992 Debra Shaw, the wife of Gordon Shaw, a Cowboys assistant football coach at the time, was driving her minivan on 287 with two of their three young daughters when the van was hit and thrown into a ditch. All survived, but Debra was hospitalized for five weeks, and nine years later Aubrey Shaw, who was six months old at the time of the accident, still has only limited use of her right hand.
"I don't drive it," university president Philip Dubois says of 287. " Fort Collins is one of the amenities we point to: a pretty nice-sized city within a short drive. Unfortunately, the drive is extremely dangerous."
Still, it wasn't in Kevin Salverson, a jocular 19-year-old sophomore, to tell anyone to stay off a particular road. He'd say, "Go with the flow," and though he had enough competitive fire to go more than a year in high school without losing an 800-meter heat, his dad was always startled to see how Kevin could shut down the fire. He wasn't one to worry or fear. Not, especially, on a night when the flow felt so good.