Nick Heath, the top runner on the men's cross country team, won the Highlander Invitational recently. He talks about his experience at the meet as well as his expectations for the WCC Championships coming up this Friday.
Q: How did you get into running?
A: I wasn't always into running. I actually just joined because some of my friends were joining the cross country team in our freshman year. I had never played a sport before and I'm not an extremely coordinated person so cross country seemed like something I could do. I wasn't very good at first but I liked it so I stuck with it. At first, I was really slow but with time I realized that I could be good at it if I just put in the work. So I did and by my sophomore year, I was the second-fastest guy on the team. Since then, it's been an amazing experience and I'm really glad I joined it.
Q: You have a really impressive record in cross country and track. What have been your proudest achievements?
A: I'd say one of my proudest moments in high school was when my cross country team qualified for the state meet for the first time in my school's history. The next year, we placed fifth and then in my senior year, we placed third. That progression was so satisfying and I was really proud of what my teammates and I did. As for college, at the end of last season, my race at the NCAA West Regional was probably the best race I've ever run.
Q: What has been different for you this year as compared to last year?
A: Personally, I had kind of a rough last track season. I got a serious hip injury and had to take about a month off. Coming back from that has definitely made me look at running differently and be a little more careful with myself. It has also made me value each day I'm here and able to do what I do. So much more than before my injury, and so coming into this season I won't take anything for granted.
As a team, it's been so great to have all the new freshmen who run alongside me every day and push me in our workouts and seeing them in races. I think they've been doing great things for the team.
Q: You won the Highlander Invitational last weekend. Can you talk about your experience at the invitational?
A: It was really fun. My coach showed me the results from last year before we raced and I was looking at some of the guys and I felt I could stick with the front pack because it seemed like a decent race. So I went out and I didn't take the lead immediately. I got off to a fairly normal start and worked my way up during the first mile. Once we got to the first-mile marker, I was up with the front runners and then from there, over the next mile, more and more people started dropping off the pack until eventually it was just me and one other guy, who I think was from Irvine. We ran side by side for the next mile and a half or so and we got to a point where there were about 600 meters left. That's when I broke away and I think he knew he couldn't keep on and so he just dropped off and I won.
Q: How did it feel to win at that meet?
A: It felt awesome. Honestly, it's just such a great feeling when you break away and take the lead. You get such a huge second wind and you just get this burst of inspiration and strength.
Q: Your next race is the WCC Championships. What are you hoping to achieve there and how are you feeling about it?
A: I've been looking forward to the WCCs for a while. We've got some really fast schools in our conference like Portland and BYU. I think last year I was kind of at the back of the pack of those two schools but I'm hoping this year I'll be able to beat some of their better runners and hopefully get into the top 10. And I'm also hoping to make a personal record. It's a new course and I haven't seen it before but it should be fun and I'm looking forward to it. Also, as a team, we've got a lot of new freshmen in and we're going to have a really good opportunity to do a lot better than we did last year. I don't know how it's going to turn out but I'm really hopeful about how we'll do.
Q: What do you do before a meet to reduce pre-race anxiety?
A: For me, it's all about consistency. I like to treat every race as if it's a part of my normal routine. I get to bed early and wake up at my normal time and warm up with my team the way I normally would and finally when I'm at the starting line, I switch into race mode and get my game face on.
Q: What advice would you give to beginning athletes/runners?
A: My advice would be to stay patient and stick with it. Cross country is not something in which you'll see a huge transformation overnight. It's really just putting in the work every day to get better, step by step. As long as you keep focused and stay determined and take care of yourself, the difference between your first race and last race will be so incredibly huge and you will definitely go far.
Q: What have you learned in your years of training?
A: Mainly, I've learned the importance of being patient with myself. I've seen a lot of runners get stressed out and put too much pressure on themselves that they need to perform right here and right now at a race. I'm just grateful to be there and take the opportunity to do what I can and if it goes well then great, and if not, there's nothing I can do about it. I've also learned not to get carried away in training either. You've got to just run within your limits. Keep pushing yourself to expand those limits but remember that one day isn't going to make or break your career and so, just be patient.