No one who knows a distance runner can be surprised: Although the crash crippled the Wyoming cross-country team, leaving it with only three members—four shy of the official minimum for competition—there was little thought of suspending the season. Everyone knew the team had to go on, not for rah-rah reasons but because to those who endure the miles, running is no pastime or hobby or, God knows, a path to making money as a pro athlete. Running is who they are. Running is how they talk to and about themselves. After the first ugly hours of that Sunday morning, after the who and the how many had finally been confirmed, Greg Schabron and his former teammate Chris Jons, the Cowboys' captain, drove to the Happy Jack trails above Laramie and raced in silence through the paths of the forest.
"Runners run," Jons says. "It's how we deal with stress. It's where we talk with God. Whenever something goes wrong, runners run."
Distance runners run: Nine hundred, 1,000, sometimes even 1,200 miles a summer, the equivalent of nearly four marathons a week. Runners tinker: with stride, with training methods, with footwear. It's no coincidence that at Wyoming most of the cross-country runners study engineering or the sciences—and last year's team GPA was 3.78. They're computer geeks at heart, and the machine they're most interested in is the human body. They want to make it as efficient as possible under the most trying conditions, and on the trail they need one another to monitor the thing they can't see: themselves. Because training takes so much time, the runners usually live and study together.
At schools like Wyoming, there's the chance for a runner to boil his life to the essence and live in a world of common obsession. At 20, Kyle Johnson had achieved the runner's nirvana. School came so easily to him—a straight-A junior civil-engineering major, he got the first B of his life last semester in a microbiology course—that he could pour all his energy into the sport. Clothes, looks, all the things that obsess so many of his peers, held no value for Kyle. His hair flopped over his head like a demolished bird's nest. He radiated a sincerity that leaves friends crying at the mention of his name.
In August, Johnson had his picture taken with his grandfather who'd run track at Wyoming two generations earlier, and by then the grandson had arranged his days exactly the way he wanted them. He ran furiously over the summer, working long hours in a lab and then logging more than 900 miles in nightly runs across his hometown of Riverton, Wyo. He'd had a couple dates with a girl, and, as his father says, "This was a big accomplishment." Before long, though, the girl was gone, and when his parents asked why, Kyle cheerily summed it up. "This is my life," he said. "I work, I run and I sit on my ass."
On the wall of his bedroom Johnson had pinned an essay by Brutus Hamilton, the renowned track coach at Cal from 1933 to '65, that said, in part, "When you see 20 or 30 young men line up for a distance race in some meet, don't pity them.... These are the days of their youth, when they can run without weariness; these are their buoyant, golden days; and they are running because they love it."
The race is over before it begins. The Cowboys show up in Boulder, Colo., on this crystalline Saturday morning, Oct. 6, to compete for the first time since the crash, and that is a victory. They are decimated. The three surviving runners—Delaney, Jons and freshman Arte Huhn—are here, as well as two activated redshirts and three middle-distance runners who are in no shape to run against powerhouse Colorado or much of the rest of the field at the Rocky Mountain Shootout. Four sprinters from the Wyoming women's track team have come to run the women's race in support. "I guess I can't label them candy-asses anymore," Sanchez says.
He smiles. This is after the 8K race, and Sanchez is groping for something, anything, good to latch on to. All morning it has been a scene of unrelieved sorrow. Some of his runners wear stickers commemorating the dead; some have fresh tattoos on their legs or backs. On the backs of his training shoes Huhn has scrawled I WILL NEVER FORGET YOU GUYS. Delaney, nursing a sprained ankle, crosses the line first for the Cowboys, finishing eighth in the Division I standings with a 27:10. The others straggle in one by one, the team finishing third out of four Division I squads. Afterward a stream of runners from all over the West stops by to comfort with a pat or a word. "I see the kids, I feel for them, I cry," Sanchez says, and then he begins to do just that.