All-time performances connected Nico Young and Cole Sprout across their high school careers, but a national championship would separate them in 2019
In August, Cole Sprout and Nico Young found themselves on the country’s most Instagram-famous track, surrounded by the best high school runners in the country and flanked, stopwatch in hand, by Bowerman Track Club’s Jerry Schumacher, one of the most accomplished American distance coaches of the modern era.
They were just four months removed from arguably the most thrilling 3,200 meter race in high school history, a finish separated by less than a second.
And here they were, training partners.
As the two most accomplished distance recruits in the Class of 2020, one a Colorado resident from Littleton and the other a California native from Camarillo, their arrival at the Nike Elite Camp verified their ascendance in the national ranks. But it also set in motion something else: An arm’s race for the country’s fastest times in cross country.
This would be the starting point for the most historic season since just before the turn of the century, when two of the country’s finest runners -- Dathan Ritzenhein and Alan Webb -- battled for supremacy across the U.S. in 1999.
“The excitement for NXN, it started to build pretty high when they ran 8:40 (at Arcadia),” said Chris Derrick, a Bowerman Track Club athlete who has provided color commentary for the national championship race over the past five seasons. “They had the two best performances for juniors, so it made sense that they would (go after) all the records as seniors.”
It’s true, Young’s and Sprout’s seasons would eventually diverge and snake upward, a series of state and national records and wild duals taking place across state lines.
But in the end, perfection would only serve one athlete.
The season’s conclusion, one determined by the most brash race plan in Nike Cross Nationals history, would only realize one teenager’s dream season.
And the other, left to wonder just what went wrong, would later find purpose following the most difficult race of his career.
The first step, especially in front of someone like Schumacher, was to act like you’d been here before, on this five-lane track in Portland, Oregon, lined beautifully by a series of cedars and pines.
That came easy to the 17-year-old Sprout. Just a year prior, the teen from Valor Christian High School had his introduction to the life of Nike. He was invited to this elite running camp after finishing 21st at NXN as a sophomore — the best underclassman finish of that season.
Ever since, he had been hard-lining it through the national ranks, never quite slowing down. He had run the country’s fastest sophomore 5K in 14:48.60, and then followed it up with the fastest junior 5K in 14:32.90, later scooping up a third-place finish at NXN.
But this was all new to Young. This was his first invitation.
On top of that, the Newbury Park athlete, 17, hadn’t met many of the athletes here, four of which, including Sprout, were all from Colorado.
Deep down, this was his moment of validation after years of turmoil, after growth spurts and injuries led to wasted seasons.
Sure, he had finished fourth at Nike Cross Nationals as a junior, just behind Sprout, and he had beaten him in that 3,200 meter race in April at Arcadia, which had given him the third-fastest effort in history. He had momentum on his side.
But in some ways, he felt, there were still doubters.
Back on the line, Schumacher sized them up. The assignment was a three-by-1-mile cutdown workout at increasingly harder tempo pace: 5:10, 5:05, 4:55.
Sprout didn’t feel pressure. He was focused on the objective.
“I wanted to hit the pace exactly,” he said. “Just to make it look like I knew what I was doing.”
Each boy would take turns leading laps, then they’d finish off with 10-by-300-meter sprints, with aims on hitting 51 seconds exactly, without a watch. The athlete closest to that number on the final rep earned a prize: A Bowerman Track Club jersey.
“We want you to work as a team, rather than against one another,” Schumacher told the boys.
From the first whistle, a leader emerged on the tempos. Sprout. He wanted to show Schumacher just what he was made of.
But then, without missing a beat, Young took over, either lap two or three.
The laps clicked by with precision, the country’s most gifted young runners moving like a hypnotic conveyor belt. By the end, sweat beaded off their arms like tiny diamonds.
And then, one, two, three, the 300s clicked by. Before long, all 10 boys went to the line for the final 300, a hush presiding over the final rep. Schumacher readied, and then set them off.
Sprout once again went to the front, trailed by the rest, including fellow Coloradoan Cruz Culpepper — the son of Olympians Alan and Shayne — and by Young.
But this wasn’t a race. He knew it. The equation they all negotiated was far more complex. Measure it just right.
Sprout trusted his gut. He crossed the line first. Then came Young, Culpepper.
The winner was six-hundredths off, in 50.94 seconds, and he was third overall. Second was just 0.12 away.
Decisions, as they often did, made the difference.
It was Culpepper.
But then came Young, just a hair off. Sprout, learning a lesson about pacing, finished two seconds off, in 49 seconds.
“I think it made me feel pretty good I knew what pace I was going,” Young said. “The 300, which I don’t usually run, I was a little proud that I could pace.”
Little did anyone know, that was just the start of Young’s historic season.
The road to the Woodbridge Cross Country Classic represented a three-hour journey east on the 101 for the Newbury Park boys.
While it was a trip Young had travelled twice before, few had precipitated this kind of ambition. By now, he knew this was the time to make a statement.
By September, the hype had been building for months.
The previous April, there was that 3,200 against Sprout, a race that officially put him on the map. But that wasn’t the only sign. A few months later, he secured his first CIF state championship in a benchmark moment, beating NXN champion Liam Anderson in a time of 8:47.27.
By then, chatter was starting to circulate: Young was legit.
But part of that was also due to his training, which the previous winter had undergone a minor controversy. Young’s head coach, Sean Brosnan, a lively personality with spiked black hair and a Long Island accent, had given him a 4x1-mile workout that had ended up online.
Young had gone 4:16, 4:22, 4:22 and 4:18, but his watch, a Garmin, had slightly exaggerated, indicating he ran one rep as fast as 4:14. Once complete, the workout posted simultaneously to his app.
“Coaches were asking me, ‘How in the world is he averaging under 4:20?’” Brosnan said. “Then I saw this one random guy running and he said ‘Wow, I saw Nico’s workout!’ I immediately went back to Nico and said ‘You need to block your Garmin.’”
Three years into the job at Newbury Park, Brosnan, 42 had started to emerge as one of the country’s leading coaches, helping Newbury Park to a sixth-place performance at NXN in 2018. His own career had seen him run at Adams State under Damon Martin and then post-collegiately elsewhere, with career bests of 3:44.33 for 1,500 meters and 4:02.31 for the mile. Later in life, while living and running in Beaverton, Oregon, he rubbed shoulders with men at the Nike Oregon Project, including Steve Magness and Alberto Salazar -- who in 2019 would be the subject of a 4-year ban by USADA for a history of doping practices.
Coaching high school was the last thing on Brosnan’s mind until his wife, Tanya, found a government job in Thousand Oaks, California. By 2016, he decided to settle down and look for some consistency.
Fantastically, after nine high schools told him they didn’t need a cross country coach, Newbury Park said yes. Then Brosnan met Young on his first day on the job, a golden ticket among a million athletes.
The son of a film industry veteran in Hollywood and an accountant and the oldest of two other brothers, Lex and Leo, Young had first fell in love with running in the fourth grade, simply doing it because he said “there was a certain amount of time where you could be your best.”
All those years later, Young, a miniature freshman with long limbs, met Brosnan. And on that first day, he ran a remarkably-precise tempo run, at the age of 14.
Injuries during Young’s freshman track and sophomore cross country season would wipe away most of those early years, prohibiting him from showing the kind of range that others, like Sprout, Josh Methner, and Matt Strangio were already displaying at young ages. But by the time Young was healthy outdoors as a sophomore, Brosnan had gotten him to 9:05 in the 3,200m. A year later, the junior made another breakthrough, becoming an All-American at NXN and winning a state title.
But on that bus trip toward the Silverlakes Sports Complex in Norco, California -- the site of Woodbridge -- Young wasn’t quite sure what to make of his newfound confidence. Sitting next to his best friend Andrew Hernandez, a part of him still wondered if all this recent success was going to come crashing down.
“Sean saying that I was, ‘In it to win it’ gave me the confidence to do it,” Young said.
Of course, Brosnan was never short on confidence. He actually saw some of himself in Young — back when he was a teenager at Wantagh High School in the ‘90s, Brosnan was willing to do whatever it would take to train, win, to get a college scholarship.
The only evidence he needed in proving it was the work the high schooler was putting in, those three-a-week doubles and 60-plus mile weeks.
The Friday of Woodbridge, Brosnan did one small thing, instructing Young not to run the morning workout. On the bus, he continued to tell him he was ready.
“I knew what he was capable of,” Brosnan said. “He has such an ability to hold that red line. We all knew.”
The bus arrived at the course by 5:30 p.m. and Young’s race was the last of the night, under the lights with a crowd circulating. The course, spread across manicured soccer fields and pavement, was set up for a fast time. Still, a nervous Young sat inside his tent until race time.
Logistically, Brosnan positioned himself in the middle of the course, so he could see his athlete at 200 meters, then at 1,200, and again and again across the looped course.
Soon enough, nerves were erased. Young was dialed in.
“I just remember seeing people’s shadows on the ground in front of me, behind me,” he said.
Then, from the gun, Young settled into a pace, working alongside a front pack. Just seconds later he would take over, pushing through the first mile around 4:35, clear of anyone.
“At the mile and a half, I knew where he was,” Brosnan said. “Jace (Aschbrenner) and him gave me the nod.”
By the two-mile split, Young was flying, hitting the mark in 9:08, well on record pace and faster than most 3,200-meter races over the outdoor track season. He didn’t relent.
With 400 meters left, Young couldn’t see any clocks, which worried him, but by the final straightaway, something had to be going right because all he could hear was the thunder of the crowd.
“I remember making the turn to the finish,” Young said. “And all I could hear is everyone screaming.”
Brosnan positioned himself just off the finish on purpose, so he could manage where his top seven were. He didn’t see Young’s finish, but he eventually heard handfuls of people clamoring about it.
“Some old lady said to me, ‘Some kid just ran 13:38,’” he said. “I said, ‘That was Nico!’”
Young finished in 13:39.70, landing the fastest time ever recorded for 3-miles in high school history and surpassing a mark of 13:50.60, set by Craig Virgin which had stood since 1972. It was so incredible, in fact, that Virgin himself didn’t believe it at first.
“Unfortunately, when you have a record like mine that’s so old, there’s going to be two trains of thought,” Virgin would later tell MileSplit. “There will be a group of people who will want it to last forever because they consider it to be iconic. And then there will be a group of people who want it broken because they hate to see it and they want it destroyed.”
A wild procession of fans rushed toward Young, hoping to snap pictures. Others went live on Instagram. It shocked Brosnan for a second.
“I rushed over to him and said to everyone, ‘Hey, he needs to cool down!’” Brosnan said. “It’s funny, it felt like I was walking a professional boxer out of the ring. He was surrounded. I was pushing people to get him out of there.”
It continued until Young eventually made his way toward the bus ride.
Anonymity was no more. Spectators young and old bashfully asked for selfies. Others screamed his name. Young, projecting a look of disbelief, seemed almost embarrassed by the attention.
It wasn’t long before thousands of people began following him on Instagram.
“I’m so proud of this team,” Young wrote later of his team, which ran the fastest time in Woodbridge history. “We got big things coming this year.”
The post got nearly 5,000 likes.
Word spreads fast. And now here was the Desert Twilight Festival, just a week later, with Sprout scheduled to race ‘all-out’ for the first time that fall.
Because of the way the schedule fell, it almost seemed as if people were expecting a retort. But Sprout, the son of two dentists -- his father, Jeff, was a former competitive mountain biker -- wasn’t trying to clap back on Young’s record race. He was only aiming for an effort he could control.
“I don’t look a ton on what other guys are doing,” Sprout said. “When a big race is coming up, I tend not to look at the articles and compare my times and what people are doing. It can stress me out more than anything.”
Beyond that, few had known there was something deeper happening at Valor Christian in 2019.
In March, a cross country teammate took his own life, devastating the program and the Valor Christian community. It happened one day before a Cherry Creek High School student committed suicide just 20 miles away.
Many around campus were forced to deal with emotions that had not yet surfaced in their lives. Sprout, who was one of two seniors on the team, felt for his teammates, many of whom were closer to the late student-athlete.
“None of us had ever experienced it before,” he said. “Going through that, talking through it and just thinking about what it meant. It was a powerful experience and it definitely affected how we perceived team and life.”
In December, Sprout got his first tattoo, a cross that represented ’God is greater than the highs or lows.’ That tattoo was a reminder of the good in his life, he said.
By September, his training had been going well, too. While he missed a few training weeks in June following a mission trip to Ethiopia — he spent some time in Yaya Village, which is known to host professional runners — his work at the Nike Camp and the weeks to follow set him up nicely.
He opened his season at the Liberty Bell Cross Country Invitational, running the nation’s top 5K in 14:38.40, which was a new course record. Then came weeks of 51- and 45-miles.
Then, on the 24th, just a few days after Young’s 3-miler, Sprout dropped a ridiculous speed workout on the track with teammate Luke Sundberg, six reps at 300 meters. As the distance added up, his watch revealed quite an impressive feat: Sub-4-minute mile pace.
His goals at Desert Twilight were doubly enticing: Go after his own meet record of 14:32.90, set a year earlier, and then try to break Ritzenhein’s national 5K best of 14:10.40 from 2000.
Sprout had never been one to shy away from big plans. He knew the effort would be all physical — especially on his base, a relatively low amount of miles.
But they were his own expectations. No one else’s.
“Cole has always been very vocal about hitting specific times,” Valor Christian coach Greg Coplen said.
And yet, there were some issues with this, as Sprout found out later.
Sometimes, you can’t plan for someone else’s aspirations.
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Since he had been on the Casa Grande Course five separate times previously — at Desert Twilight (2x) and NXR Southwest (3x) — Sprout knew what he wanted to do.
Push the first mile hard. Set yourself up for the end and don’t lose time on the switchbacks.
He did exactly that, going through the first mile in 4:30. But he wasn’t alone. Highlands High’s Leo Daschbach, who was fifth the year before, was on his tail, sitting.
As the race made its way back into the tight turns, Sprout fought off the pain and continued to hold on.
“I went out on a limb and led from the start and established a pace that I wanted to hit throughout,” he said.
But the final stretch at Casa Grande can seem endless. It’s over 400 meters and covers a stretch that bellies down and then back up again.
Coplen was at the culvert about 250 meters from the finish.
“I thought Cole broke him at that point,” he said of Sprout’s final push. “There was a gap that was forming.”
But as his legs started to tighten in the waning moments, feeling the effects of that 4:37 average, Daschbach had extra life. He hunted Sprout down with an extraordinary finish, raising his arms in triumph.
Both athletes finished just outside history, with Daschbach registering the second fastest 5K in high school history in 14:14.26.
Sprout followed in 14:16.01, marking the second time in the last few months that his hard work had left him second -- Ryan Schoppe, a senior in Texas, would later go on to do both one better, recording a time of 14:14.02 in November.
“When you’re putting yourself out there, guys can obviously sit and out kick you in the end,” Sprout would later say. “Sometimes you can’t respond. It was one of those times.
“I pushed hard the whole race and got outkicked. It happens. But I ran the race I wanted to. I ran the time I wanted to. It obviously didn’t feel good. But I accomplished what I wanted to do.”
On the flight back to Colorado, Sprout went to Instagram.
“Glorified rabbit,” he wrote.
Rewind to June. As most high school athletes continued to race at events like New Balance Nationals Outdoor and Brooks PR, Brosnan and his Newbury Park squad leaned on a new tradition.
They were focusing on building a foundation for the upcoming fall. In 2018, Brosnan had set in motion a new plan.
Having spent time at Big Bear Lake, a small town known for its ski resort and mountains at 6,700 elevation -- not to mention, it was also the place where Ryan Hall, the US record holder in the half marathon and a high school cross country star in 2000, spent his formative years -- Brosnan was familiar with its benefits. He and his wife began an LLC, a running camp, and pooled together resources from parents to put on a month-long training program at altitude. Just a few months later, Newbury Park’s boys would go on to win state, qualify for NXN, and almost reach the podium.
But Brosnan, ever the dreamer, wasn’t content. He set his sights on a national title in 2019. And so that Big Bear trip alchemized into an important moment on the season.
And yet, when an anonymous critic emailed the CIF offices to explain that Newbury Park was breaking state rules by training his athletes at Big Bear, there was controversy.
Fortunately, Brosnan was prepared. He responded by providing receipts and explanations -- it was an official off-season in California, his LLC was a licensed organization, and parents had chipped in to pay for expenses, he said.
Still, the whole episode was stressful. And to make matters worse, his health wasn’t perfect, either. Brosnan suffered a small heart attack in the lead-up to the camp in 2019 -- it was bad enough to where he visited the hospital and received numerous tests. And so during that month at altitude, there wasn’t much he could do. He was slightly immobile.
But not go? He didn’t even consider it. Because his athletes were having the time of their lives. All Brosnan ever wanted was his team to buy-in, and here they were, owning it. It was as if they were living the dream of a professional runner.
Parents rented houses in Big Bear, athletes ran daily, and trips to the lake became a weekly affair. It was during this month where Brosnan believed real psychological advantages took place.
“I have some guys on my team that want to be on the top 7 so bad, but they’ll probably never crack the top 10, and that’s on the best day of their lives,” he said. “It’s just not in the cards. We’re the No. 1 team in the country. It’s one of the hardest teams to make, but our seventh man is running 14:34 for three miles at Woodbridge.”
Young posted on Instagram during that stretch, “Altitude training. Big Bear was sick!”
The effect it had on the season was significant. The team just looked … unbeatable by August. First was that performance at Woodbridge, which was jaw-dropping. Newbury Park jumped out to a commanding start as the No. 1 team in the country.
But it was a tease. Brosnan only planned on his team going “all-in” in two more races: Clovis and Nike Cross Nationals.
And so in October, just three weeks after Woodbridge, the team arrived at Woodward Park, the site of the CIF State Cross Country Championships, for the Clovis Invitational.
It was here where Brosnan wanted Young to go after German Fernandez’s course and state record of 14:24.00.
But Young would be faced with a challenge this time.
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Ever since Sprout had been beaten by Daschbach, the Arizona teen had set his sights next on Young — in fact, he’d been on a little bit of a warpath of his own.
He hadn’t been invited to the Nike Elite Camp.
But Young was ready.
Woodbridge had taught him he could hold a physical and demanding pace for 14 minutes or more. If he fought enough for it, his body could withstand it. And against Daschbach, he didn’t want to leave any doubt.
“I knew I had to make sure I got out fast,” Young said. “I knew if it came down to the last 800 meters, it would be a little more iffy. So I went out in 4:29.”
Once again, Daschbach held on, waiting. Only this time, small surges by Young created sizable separation.
“I pushed the second mile a lot,” he said. “I made sure the whole race was fast.”
With the end closing in, Young sprinted for the finish, those arms wailing with purpose. Turns out, it came just at the right time.
While Daschbach responded with another last-ditch kick, it was too late.
Young finished in 14:28, just four seconds off the record. Daschbach crossed two seconds later in a time of 14:30.90.
Young knew he missed one objective, but he was able to secure the other: Keeping his perfect season alive.
“My main goal was to win the race,” Young said. “If that came, that would be awesome.”
It would be Dashbach’s only loss of the season. “He definitely held on for longer than I thought,” he later said.
But there would be no rematch. By November, with a leg injury limiting his form, Daschbach decided his season was done after state. Later, while watching the NXR Southwest Championship in Arizona, he remarked to a MileSplit reporter how impressed he was by Young’s fitness at Clovis.
Meanwhile, left to review the events at Clovis, Brosnan knew something most people didn’t. Young accomplished that feat on some heavy legs.
“Of my four years here, traditionally that is a very hard week for us because it’s one of our hardest training blocks,” he said. “The way we set up our season. We don’t hold back. He went in on that, he should have been on tired legs. And he went for it.”
If he needed any more proof, Brosnan was 100-percent convinced by then. He didn’t think anyone would be able to touch Young for 5K.
“His workouts were just elevating and elevating,” he said.
Then, the lightbulb went off. It was right around this time when Brosnan and Young concocted the most ridiculous race conceit.
An all-out solo effort at NXN.
Weeks had gone by, and Sprout felt refreshed. His mileage illustrated a smoothness to his fitness, and he hit weeks of 46-, 49- and 41-miles as he made his way toward state on October 26.
Coplen’s design over the season — over these last few years, in fact — hadn’t been focused on miles, anyway.
He handed assignments based on minutes. The objective was to moderate intensity levels while managing rest. Long runs were no longer than 60 minutes, and Sprout reached as high as 11 on these sessions.
At his peak, Sprout showed just how confident, and how much fun, he was having.
At his Jefferson County race on October 11, matched up against Dakota Ridge’s Connor Ohlson — a good friend — the pair held a conversation for roughly a mile, as if they were out for a weekend stroll. Sprout would go on to win in 15:13, Ohlson following in 15:30.
“I like to have fun a little bit,” Sprout said. “It doesn’t have to be super serious.”
That continued into regions, where Coplen believed Sprout was his most sharp. “He looked fantastic,” he said.
Heading into the final state championship race, Sprout said he felt good. He was aiming to break the record he had set on the Pennrose Events Center course a year prior. And on the road that day, a few hours from his destination, he sat in the back of the bus, a relaxation forming over his face.
By race time, he was zoned in. When the gun went off, Sprout saw Ohlson out of the corner of his eye and, hey, what’s new, they fist-bumped again. Then Sprout sped off.
“The second mile was the hardest, and then I closed,” Sprout said. “I zoned in and executed.”
He would go on to lower his state record, posting a meet record of 15:12.70 at 6,000 feet of elevation, not an easy feat to do.
And then began a four-week wait until the Nike Cross Nationals Southwest Region.
While Sprout continued on, his mileage tapered down considerably. The first week after the state championships he hit 49-miles, 43-, 32- and then 29- entering NXR.
Unlike Young, Sprout was an open book. He logged all of his workouts on Strava.
“It is nice to see what other guys are doing and compare it with your own training and see where you can improve on things,” he said. “But for the most part, I focus on what I’m doing now and what the team is doing and leave it at that.”
Perhaps it was that transparency which often endeared him to others. Sprout had been in the spotlight since his sophomore year, but it hadn’t made him any different, standoffish. His Instagram count, much like Young, had been growing and growing. He would hit 10K by December.
Before NXR, a fan from a Colorado High School, Green Mountain in Lakewood, emblazoned a t-shirt with the slogan, ‘Stop Cole,’ which was an ode to a classic shirt once worn by Steve Prefontaine. He gave it to Cole.
The meaning was tongue-in-cheek, an idea -- good-luck-trying -- meant to highlight Sprout’s success over the years.
But while he would go on to win Southwest, it didn’t come easy. Sprout would have to fend off Stansbury’s Carson Belnap in the final meters, winning by less than a second in 14:41.38.
“The longer I’ve been coaching, the less I think I know about peaking,” Coplen jokingly said in December. “Sometimes it hits perfectly and other times it doesn’t.”
With two weeks remaining until NXN, Sprout regrouped.
His intensity was higher as the team hit speed workouts, but his mileage remained in the 30s in those final weeks.
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Young, meanwhile, continued to cruise.
While California can be hard on its runners, with multiple qualifying stages, Brosnan kept his senior sharp, going with measured efforts at the Southern Section Prelims and Finals.
Slightly worried that someone would take the SS Prelims out hard, he instructed Young to do enough to win.
“I said to him, ‘Do you want an undefeated season? You’re going to be tempoing this,’” Brosnan said. “I hoped nobody would push him. But I said, ‘If someone pushes you …it’s not worth it.’
“He went out and got 14:58.”
Later, during the SS Finals, Young once again impressed Brosnan with a meet record.
“I thought he’d run low 14s,” Brosnan said. “Then he ran 13:54. He recovered extremely well from it.”
But with NXN just a few short weeks away, Brosnan was continually stressing the objective for Young and his team.
“The state meet was about winning it and getting one point for us as easy as possible,” he said.
Young didn’t disappoint.
In his final state championship race, in Division 2, he took the race out hard, much like he did at Clovis, and then found a rhythm. But this time, it almost felt …easier.
He won in an identical time to his effort Clovis, going 14:28.50, which was 25 seconds faster than his teammate, Jace Aschbrenner, the runner-up. A realization struck him at the meet.
“I was fitter and stronger,” he said. “That 14:28 was significantly easier than it was at Clovis.”
The only mission left, he figured, was a national championship.
The Thursday before his team’s final race in Portland, Oregon, Brosnan had Newbury Park on a tight leash.
Many others floated by at Nike HQ, wandering, soaking up the sights, sharing conversations.
Not these Panthers. After picking up their gear at Nike headquarters, the team zipped around the campus file-and-rank. It was almost as if, yet again, Brosnan was showing off his prized boxers.
The sky was brilliant and blue, the day clear, the grass dry. It was sort of odd. This wasn’t Portland, a historically wet town.
No surprise, that wouldn’t last. A day later, also no surprise, Brosnan was stressing.
Secretly, he was wondering whether he would meet the promise he had set for his team all those months previously, in front of administrators and their families. Would he keep the promise of a national championship?
“I want them to do well so bad,” he said. “I felt like it would have been my fault if we didn’t do well. No one has ever been like, ‘Coach, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ They have all trusted me and their parents have trusted me. I think they were expecting us to win. But I was like, ‘It’s not that simple.’”
As if on cue, the sky opened up, dropping buckets of precipitation on Portland.
Then, the morning of race day, Brosnan panicked. Young and Aschbrenner were nowhere to be found in the team hotel. “They needed to be eating breakfast!” Brosnan said to himself.
He rushed to the ninth floor and knocked on their doors.
“I freaked out,” Brosnan said. “I was thinking I want those two guys to eat and digest it and go to the bathroom.’ But I also didn’t want them to freak out like I was freaked out.
“Inside I’m going crazy, I’m nervous,” he remembered, “and then I see them and they’re calm.”
Both runners made their way downstairs. Soon enough, the team hopped on the bus and was on its way to Glendoveer.
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An hour before the race, Sprout was preparing in the athlete village at Glendoveer. He felt the chill of the morning on his cheeks.
“More than anything, you can feel the nervous energy,” he said. “Everyone is trying to focus and get in the right mindset.”
But this time around, there wasn’t a laissez faire mentality. He knew it wasn’t the time or place.
First up was his warm-up, a small 10-minute jog around the grounds. Form drills followed. Five minutes later, another run. Faster.
The championship was fast approaching. He could hear the PA blaring. More strides. Bathroom. Uniform.
The Southwest athletes were called for introductions. Just 10 minutes away.
The rain seemed to pour even harder.
“It’s definitely more tense, because we all know there’s about to be a race and there’s only one winner,” he said.
To the line he went. As the cameras panned across the field just seconds before the race, Sprout looked …nervous. His face was flat.
The gun went up.
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Seventy-five seconds in, after a hard first 400 meters by the entire field, Young did something surprising.
He kept surging.
A one second gap formed.
Another minute went by. He was still surging.
A two second gap.
Sixty more seconds. He was still surging.
The lead was ridiculous now, three seconds!
“I think I knew for a few weeks that was something I needed to do,” Young said of his incredible start. “But I also knew however the race went out, I had to adapt to that.”
By the first mile, Young had built a 3-second lead on second-place Josh Methner.
This was unseen in NXN history.
Four seconds back, Sprout, the top returner, was in seventh.
“This is way more strung out then we’ve ever seen the boys race in the beginning,” said Derrick, the commentator who was in the broadcast booth.
Young looked hungry. Meanwhile, Brosnan, who had watched every single NXN race since 2014 and knew no one would have the guts to go out that hard, was losing his mind. The plan was working!
“I say this to my guys all the time,” Brosnan said. “Put your head down and repeat, ‘I can, I can, I will.’ I know it’s corny, I know it’s cheesy, but I tell these guys they can, I tell them they will, and I tell them bring home a national title.”
Just past the 2K mark, Young’s form -- though not the look on his face -- looked pristine, like a metronome. He allowed himself to peak behind him.
“At this point, this is Nico Young’s race to lose,” Derrick said. “He has to have misjudged this a little bit for either of those two guys to have a chance to come back and get it.”
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Coplen was slightly concerned. As he made his way across Glendoveer, he tried to get a sense of where Sprout was. At just past the 2K marker, he wasn’t sure whether Sprout was measuring the distance, or whether he was just having a bad race.
“He just doesn’t look right,” he said to himself.
On the course, Sprout looked ahead of him. The gap continued to widen.
The plan going in was a conscious one. Let others take it out and have enough patience to close. Leave enough for the finish.
But a regret was beginning to linger inside his brain. Did I miss a chance?
“I had the opportunity in the first half mile to go with him,” he later said of Young. “I figured I’d sit back and maybe he’d slow down and maybe I’d catch him. I think I psyched myself out of the entire race completely.”
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Young hit the 2-mile mark at 9:29.7, a clear eight seconds ahead of Methner. Brosnan said he saw Nico give him a nod, which was all he needed.
Sprout was 12 seconds behind.
“I think when I hit 3K, I got a lot more confident there,” Young said. “My coach was telling me how far back they were. That time was increasing each time I would pass him. So I’m thinking, ‘OK, I’m still gaining on them.’
Finally, with 1K left, Sprout finally began to make a move.
After a tight turn which saw a runner slip, Sprout moved into the chase pack, just behind Young and Methner and Caleb Brown.
Then another move. He was side-by-side with Evan Holland in fourth-place. The gears started moving.
But by then, it was too late. Young was already up the final hills. He was on his way to the finish. He stroked his arms and rushed toward the line, a meet record in hand.
“He was obviously the favorite,” Derrick said of Young that day, “but to do it in this fashion is incredible.”
Young, who later said he was just focusing on giving the camera a good picture, barely seemed gassed.
Sprout, meanwhile, was scrambling toward the finish.
He was fourth at the top of the hill, but the sprint to the line caught him off guard.
There were five athletes across now. Brown and Holland and Matt Strangio, even his friend, Ohlson, they were all there. Sprinting.
Olson was in 11th less than 600 meters from the finish. Now he was passing Sprout. He landed in fifth.
Sprout managed seventh, then immediately dropped to the ground in a heap. Officials grabbed his arms and dragged him backward.
A day later, in his thoughts, he went to Instagram.
“Can’t have hills without the valleys.”
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The finish line was chaos. Body heat hovered mid-air. Runners fell, hugged, screamed.
Sprout picked himself up and made his way to the fence. He found his mother, Bev, and his father, Jeff. He hugged them both. He saw his coach, Coplen, and hugged him. There was his future coach at Stanford, Ricardo Santos. Another hug.
Mom reassured him, same with coach, same with Santos.
“They kept saying, there are bigger things ahead,” Sprout remembered. “It wasn’t the end of the world. It was good to have those people there.”
He didn’t stay long, though. A trip back to the athlete village awaited.
Meanwhile, Young had bigger things on his mind. While he earned the validation he coveted, there were now more important things to worry about: Where had Newbury Park finished in the team standings?
The anticipation sat in the air, the rain still sprinkling down.
Standing on the podium alongside them was Great Oak, Newbury Park’s biggest nemesis over the 2019 season -- and a program which had beaten them at Clovis.
The PA made the first announcement. Corner Canyon earned third.
Brosnan was on the stage by now. Inside his head: “This is going to be a terrible walk off if we lose.”
‘And the winners of Nike Cross Nationals …with 128 points.’
“There is not a better way or time than today to end my last High School XC season,” Young wrote on Instagram a day later, receiving nearly 12,000 likes. “I am so proud of this team and all the hard work we put in this season to reach the goals we set, and thankful to have such an amazing coach!”
A full reboot had always been Sprout’s response to a lengthy season, whether he won or lost, if only because the weeks had been long, the miles hard.
So in the afternoon, on the second Thursday following NXN, he was high atop a mountain in Breckenridge looking to chase powder. Skis, as had been tradition, had replaced trainers on this day.
Not far off were his family and friends, his mom and father, his sister and his teammates Sundberg and Ashley Jones.
They had been his rock, through good times and bad, cheering for him in the pouring rain at NXN. His best friend and sister had even carried a blow-up portrait of his face in Portland, waving it throughout the course.
Loyalty. It meant everything to Sprout. As he continued to learn more about himself, he viewed tattoos as a way to express that feeling. Just a few weeks after the race, he got his latest art, a small sketch of a sprout leaf on his forearm — his family did the same, deciding to get their first ink.
The day went by fast — almost too fast. Sprout ripped down the mountain, smiled, held that speed for as long as he could.
Looking back, he didn’t spend much time stewing over the last race. In the hours afterward, he showered, dressed and spent the rest of the night in Portland with his Southwest teammates: Culpepper, Ohlson, Dylan Schubert and Carson Belnap. There was a banquet, a dance. It was back to being a (recent) 18-year-old. And then it was back home.
Of course, he thought about it. How it didn’t go right. He had an entire flight to measure those thoughts. But sometimes, he eventually realized, races just don’t go the way you planned. There’s a bigger purpose.
“It’s almost refreshing to not have a good performance for once,” he said later. “I knew there are bigger and better things ahead, at least that’s what I’m telling myself. There’s more in store.”
A few days later, he walked into Coplen’s office at Valor Christian and tried to make sense of it again.
“Even in the first mile, I just felt, almost out of control,” he told his coach. “It didn’t feel as smooth as it normally does. Looking back, it was kind of odd. Maybe it was training or mindset. I might not have been mentally engaged.
“I think that was part of it,” he added. “I didn’t feel quite comfortable in the pace.”
The feeling was profound, he said, because it was the first time where he felt out of a race — at least, one he was unable to win. Previous records had been about times. This had been about the win.
Not even those second-place efforts, as agonizing as they were, felt like that. For the past three seasons, whether it was in cross country or track and field, he’d always been in the race.
Coplen, a campus chaplain at Valor Christian, knew that, too.
That’s why, as a coach, he took it hard. A part of him felt like he let Sprout down.
“Maybe, as a high school coach, I failed you in this way of doing this,” he thought. “It was at that moment when you recognize, as a coach, did I screw this up for him? Did I prepare him? I think I’m stuck in the middle of that.”
On and off, Coplen kept coming back to that day in December.
“You want that moment for him,” he said. “We knew his goal was to win.”
But those thoughts would eventually have to be stored away, lessons learned. Sprout had spoken enough about it.
He went skiing again on Sunday, the final day of his two-week hiatus. The following day, he ran again.
“If it’s all about being first place and running crazy fast time, is that the most important thing? Or is there more to it?” Sprout would later think. “To me, there’s more to it. I do it more than just to win and to run fast. Kind of with my tattoos, that’s why I do it.”
A Stanford graduate and Cardinal legend would eventually agree with that notion.
“Ultimately, the respect of other people is very fickle,” Derrick said. “It gets transferred to competitors very easily. Hopefully he learns that. It’s great to be admired, it’s great to be respected, but for long term happiness and success, you have to do it for you and your own self satisfaction.”
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If nothing else, the end to Sprout’s high school cross country career has left him more motivated than ever.
“I don’t want to peak my senior year of high school,” he said. “I want to keep running and progressing when it matters.”
In less than a year, he’ll enroll at Stanford University, where he’s set to become an important piece of the Cardinal’s plans, both in cross country and track and field.
Over the past year, the program saw long-time coach Chris Miltenberg exit and former Iona coach Ricardo Santos enter the picture.
He recruited Sprout hard.
“To get a talent like Cole is huge,” Santos said. “Stanford has attracted a lot of great names over the years, but we didn’t want to rest on our name. We worked hard to get Cole to sign. We’re ecstatic he chose to be with us.”
Sprout doesn’t want to let Stanford down, either. His sights remain heavily on the future. Only 10 high school boys have ever broken 4 minutes in the mile. The second-fastest returner at the distance (4:04) has plans on going after the mark in 2020.
In January, in his first indoor race of 2020 — racing for the National Scholastic Athletic Foundation in Iceland — Sprout let loose on a banked 200m banked track, posting a time of 3:54 in the 1,500, which was a new US No. 1 time. He did it on just five weeks of track and field training.
“A lot of people over the years have been big talents in high school but haven’t seen that next level,” Santos. “I’ve always found that, when you get to college, it’s those guys who want to get down and dirty, and work hard -- those are the guys who will make it on and propel their career.”
Sprout may have gotten beaten in the last cross country race of his career, but he knows there are more races. And he knows there might be at least one more time he might face Young again. He says a return to Arcadia is in store.
“I want to run sub-8:30,” he said. “I want to run faster for sure.”
On the second day after NXN, Young was running again, an easy five miles. Three days later, he was on the track, lacing up his flats.
So was Brosnan. Wearing sunglasses and a long-sleeve, he corralled his varsity squad and instructed them on the latest speed workout.
400 meter repeats at 62 seconds a pop.
And here’s where it should be said. Brosnan doesn’t believe in taking too much time off. He doesn’t believe in tapering much, either.
The week of NXN, for example, he had his squad do a workout of three miles of volume. Young ran a 4:25 average for those miles.
That week, Brosnan lengthened the rest and cut out his team’s morning runs, but mostly everything else stayed the same. Almost everyone on the team was still running over 50 miles a week, with Young and Aschbrenner on the high-end, their younger teammates on the lower end.
He believes in the formula. For athletes heading to college, he thinks preparing them for a higher load might lead to quicker success. He says Young’s workload won’t be much higher as a freshman at NAU.
It’s hard to argue with Brosnan now, of course, with two national championship trophies, both an individual and team win in 2019, not to mention more state hardware in California.
“The week we went to NXN, everyone was feeling amazing in the workouts, running fast and it was a good vibe,” Brosnan said. “We knew we would be hard to beat.”
But for his part, Young doesn’t mind it, either. There’s a ying and a yang to this partnership. Young doesn’t say much. Brosnan says a lot.
There’s an understanding which, in some ways, is beyond words. Brosnan says he can tell when Young “isn’t feeling it,” when that pace is ever-so-slightly off.
Young says he can read Brosnan, too.
“I think it made all the difference,” Young said of Brosnan’s coaching. “I wouldn’t be nearly as passionate about it. I wouldn’t care as much about it. I wouldn’t be as good as I am today without that. So I think he’s super knowledgeable.”
Brosnan, who’s close with Northern Arizona head coach Mike Smith, believed all along Young would pick NAU, the NCAA runner-up in cross country after three previous wins.
Young, whose class rank is 10 at Newbury Park, did precisely that, deciding the Lumberjacks over Virginia and UNC, over legendary coaches Vin Lananna and Chris Miltenberg.
Smith, much like Brosnan, has not only proven to be a “athlete’s coach” in recent years, but he’s had championship results to show for it, too -- this past season, in fact, freshman Drew Bosley was NAU’s first finisher and an All-American at the NCAA Championships.
Brosnan doesn’t think Young is finished, either. He believes the senior will do things this indoor and outdoor season that will earn him the right as one of the best high school distance athletes ever.
“Nico has this curiosity of wanting to be the best,” Brosnan said. “How could he be the best? How good can he be? I think there’s a huge ceiling. Nothing seems to rattle him.”
On Saturday, February 8, Young will begin the first of what could be a few major record attempts. He’s eyeing the American Junior Record in the indoor 3,000 meter run, a time of 7:56.31 by Derrick -- who accomplished that time as an 18-year-old with Stanford.
And an ever-growing audience continues to follow Young’s exploits. A year ago, he had less than 2,000 followers. But now, just a few days into February, he’s over 18 thousand. What once was an Instagram account that featured pictures of specialty almond biscotti’s whipped up from scratch in the kitchen has largely stayed true to the new brand since: Running-related content.
And don’t even ask him to answer your DMs. It’s impossible now. While he used to answer every message that came into his account, there are so many now that Young doesn’t even have the time. He stays focused on his training and schoolwork.
Brosnan isn’t surprised by that. This is the same kid who, when injured just a few years ago, used to get pool workouts in while wearing a wetsuit in an unheated pool. His mother, Lynne, begged for him to wrap it up. But Nico never did until he was finished.
“I don’t shy away from it,” Brosnan said. “If I had to guess, I would say after track Nico will have a season we won’t see for 20-or-something years.”
Young, for what it’s worth, has always put the work in, too.
He will likely go after Galen Rupp’s 5,000 meter high school outdoor record and has hopes of breaking the national record of 8:29.46 in the 3,200m, a mark set by Lukas Verzbicas in 2011.
Need any other examples? Two weeks after the biggest race of his career, and after a full day of classes, Young was on the track again.
Brosnan put him through the paces, a volume of 3-miles at 5-minutes per mile.
For 12 full laps, Young wasn’t but a second off.
Story Illustration: Mallory Heyer