A white blanket of snow coated the infield and the hill surrounding the Niwot High School track on April 18. Off to the west, the sun was beginning its descent into the clouds and behind the snowcapped mountains, illuminating them like light blue cardboard silhouettes.
Cole Sprout stood quietly on the starting line with that iconic distant gaze, a potential 1,600 state record in sight. Eyes glazed over, tight forehead, no smile or facial expressions to convey anything but an intense focus on the task at hand.
If Sprout was a poker player, he’d be hard to read. But standing on the starting line with four laps ahead of him on this day in April, it was clear he had a royal flush in mind.
Anyone who had watched him race over the past four years knew this much: Every time he stepped on the track, he was in search of that mystical red line -- a feeling every athletes yearns and fears for simultaneously. But for the Valor Christian senior, he knew it better than most.
So there he stood, less than a month away from what was likely to be a virtual graduation before heading off to Stanford University in the fall, eyeing a record-breaking run -- one of many over a career-- that wouldn’t count in CHSAA’s record books.
COVID-19 certainly had changed a lot.
But Sprout still imagined breaking Rich Martinez’s 39 year-old 1,600 state record, or his own 3,200 state record with a few thousand spectators in the stands at JeffCo Stadium in Lakewood. He could hear the crowd erupting as he crossed the line in a new record. He’d raise his arms in celebration and let a fatigued smile paint across his face -- the look of satisfaction, which is hard to come by when you’re the fastest Colorado distance runner to toe the line ever.
Instead his objective changed and landed him here, in one of the most low-key settings of the current era where athletes across the country are hitting the track for time trials, on one of the few un-gated and open tracks within a 60-mile radius of his home, in front of family, and a few friends.
Sprout toed the line and suited up for battle in a Nike “Elite” singlet with “C Sprout’ in bold white lettering down his back.
Record or not, this was for his own satisfaction.
That day he dropped consistent 61-plus, 61-plus, 61-plus, 61-plus laps and crossed the finish line in 4:07.2, easily eclipsing Martinez’s 4:10.98 record.
“This has been a goal of mine for all four years,” he said. “And even to break it unofficially feels incredible.”
With the track just over 5,100 feet of elevation, the NCAA altitude adjustment was right around 5.7 seconds, which translated more or less to a 4:01. In 2019, 10 Colorado boys broke 4:20 in the 1,600 (one was Sprout).
Eleven days later, on April 29, he did it again.
This time he ran a 3,200m, and true to form, it was the fastest ever run in Colorado at the distance. Sprout not only crushed the 9-minute barrier, but he slammed his previous best out of the park, running 8:49. As impressive as the overall time was, he opened in 4:30 and came back in 4:19.
For the distance, the NCAA altitude conversion was right around 14.5 seconds, which would convert that time at sea level down to an astronomical 8:35.
The time trial was unofficially the third-fastest 3,200 in the country ... ever.
He did it shirtless on a mild mid-week night while his parents stood anxiously watching, cheering for their son from the sidelines with their own stopwatches in hand.
Life, as it can be, truly has taken a hard left turn over the past months for Sprout, and for every athlete, coach, parent and spectator across the country.
“I definitely never envisioned it being like this,” Sprout said of the defunct 2020 season after his 3,200m run, which came after Colorado lifted its mask order.
Like many seniors, the season held all the gravity of an epic finale, and for his mother, Beverly Sprout, it was challenging to watch it all wash away for her son before it even really began.
“I knew that as much as any athlete likes to hold various records, Cole wanted a shot at breaking that 39 year-old 1600 record, and the chance to break the 9-minute barrier in the 3,200 (again!),” she said. “Losing the chance to officially do that stung a little.”
Beverly and the Sprouts were quick to find the silver lining, however.
“When we found out that the season was canceled, there was definitely an initial sense of disappointment,” Beverly explained. “But as the weeks passed, the disappointment turned into this sense of freedom.”
Without a season’s worth of racing and expectations, Sprout found a new sense of joy in a sport that could at times feel like all grind, particularly when there was no official test.
“I watched Cole continue to work as hard or harder than ever,” Beverly said. “But he was relaxed and I could see a renewed love for running.”
The renewed love quickly led to that incredible 11-day stretch of a 4:07/8:49 double. And while it came in such low-key fashion, it was one of the more memorable times Beverly watched her son rage around the track in Colorado.
“Seeing the look of pure joy on Cole’s face after his two time trials was more meaningful to me than anything he’s done to date,” she said. “He looked stronger than he’s ever looked and cleared those times with relative ease-his hard work continues to pay off.”
Running free from external expectations allowed Sprout to run onward into new territory, though he admitted that not much had changed in terms of training.
“I didn’t really train much with anyone before,” he said. “So I haven’t had to change a whole lot.”
In some aspects, the life of a distance runner almost fits the current times of seclusion and isolation, though these times can also amplify the desire for camaraderie.
“It really makes me appreciate having the team,” he said. “It can get a little lonely sometimes.”
When fears of COVID-19 and statewide orders wiped out the 2020 outdoor track season, it wiped out any state title defense, and it also wiped out any and all official record chases.
Sprout already owns seven state titles and the state record in the 3,200m, a 9:01.53 clocking from his sophomore year.
But it was hard not to look at the distance records without an asterisk.
Last spring Sprout ran 8:57.15 at the Dakota Ridge Invitational. While the time did break his own state record -- and counted as a state-qualifying time, the CHSAA did not count it in the record books due to an official error. The cones were not placed on the cut-in after 100 meters. With no visual cue on when to cut, Sprout made the break a few meters early when he was already clear of the field.
So, no record.
At the time, Sprout shrugged it off. “I know what I ran,” he said, unfazed by the blunder, even though his result was the first Sub-9 3,200 on Colorado soil.
At the time, the thought was he’ll break it next year.
But with that sub-9 clocking not rewriting the record books, and COVID-19 dashing any chances of doing it officially, there ultimately will be an unfortunate irony to history.
Again, so close.
Then he went on to run 4:04.19 for a full mile victory at the Music City Distance Carnival in Nashville at lower elevation, before packing up his season with a 8:46 2-mile victory at Brooks PR in Seattle.
Little did he know, those two races would be the final official track performances of his high school career.
With the 2020 season washed away, and no titles or records to officially chase, it forced Sprout to re-evaluate his approach.
“Sometimes I do ask myself what’s the point if there’s no season?” he said.
But then he returned to the “Why” and everything fell back into stride.
When the season went down, Sprout said he refused to go down with it. It became more important than ever, he believed, to break them.
“For me personally, more than anything, this is about proving it to myself that I can do it,” he said.
No more state titles, no more record runs, and no record breaking season. But whether his time trials will wash away in time or not, it wasn’t all for naught.
For Sprout, being well-acquainted with that red-line is more than a competitive pursuit.
It’s a quest.
He was determined to go about it with or without a season.
“Running is a way to see how far you can push yourself,” he said. “Even if you’re not racing against anyone.”
Officially, Sprout’s name will only appear once in the CHSAA record book -- that 9:01 3,200 from his sophomore year. And while the record books won’t accurately reflect just how fast he actually was, it’s clear to anyone from Colorado that he’s the fastest distance runner ever to come from the Centennial State.
His spring time trials make him unofficially the fastest 1,600 runner in Colorado history, and he also owns the fastest 5,000 on Colorado soil with his 14:38 from Liberty Bell last fall.
“I know the time trials won’t count officially,” he admitted. “But I know it happened, and that’s good enough for me.”
Less than a week ago after his historic and unofficial 3,200 state record run, Sprout watched the sun hide behind the mountains to the west, pulling its warm rays back along with the light.
Barely out of breath, he hugged his mother, and absorbed the feat.
While COVID-19 drastically changed the setting of which Sprout imagined his record-setting runs, it never changed the goals themselves, because he was determined to push his own limits.
Banner Photo Credit: Blake Mourer