It was a cold, January day, early morning, and the Boulder Creek path was empty. I was running west, up from the Flatirons golf course into steady, dropping snow. A couple of creatures were stirring, as I could see from the tiny tracks crisscrossing the new snow, but not a runner was stirring. The snow was soft and the solitude very pleasant.
Suddenly, the silence was broken by the sound of laughter. Skimming around a corner came the University of Colorado distance runners, chattering away like a flock of birds at meal time. They ran like birds fly, smoothly and seemingly without effort, flowing like the water beneath the frozen creek.
Saturday at the 2015 NCAA Championships in Louisville, Ky., the CU runners spread their wings once again, reaping the benefit of that frozen run, as well as the countless others put in over the years -- up on Magnolia Road, on the roads west of Gold Hill, or out along the Switzerland trail. Their combined finish -- second in both the men's and women's races -- was the best of any program.
It is those runs, building a base of aerobic fitness, that have fueled CU's success since head coach Mark Wetmore came to Boulder in 1992.
"The program is successful because of the training and the type of athlete that is attracted to the CU program," said Kara Goucher, who won her NCAA cross country championship on an even colder Iowa morning. "Heather (Burroughs) and Mark stay with the basics, long runs and steady aerobic development. They never try to rush anyone's progress, they build strength year after year and take a long-term view."
The Wetmore way works, sometimes to the surprise of his runners.
After CU swept the titles at the Pre-National meet last month, on the same course they raced Saturday, I stopped by Balch Fieldhouse. Balch was empty, and the CU runners drifted in after a day of classes, some in pairs, others by themselves. Senior Pierce Murphy came through, walking his bicycle, heading over to the bulletin board next to the track office to look at the day's workout.
"Nice job at Pre-Nationals," I told Murphy. He had finished sixth, running a fast 23 minutes, 23 seconds for 8K that day.
"How did you feel?"
"Really good," Murphy said. Then, looking a bit perplexed, added, "I ran (roughly a minute) faster than last year, and it felt like the same effort."
That is what the Wetmore Way does, the long, patient aerobic development that starts on cold Janaury days along the creek path, or high up on Magnolia. However, it takes a special kind of athlete, a Murphy, or Ammar Moussa, Erin Clark or Kara Goucher, to buy into that long-term view.
Competitor Magazine editor-in-chief Brian Metzler calls it "Wetmore's Old School Formula," a "no-frills" approach.
"Mark has a system and you have to be willing to work hard," Metzler said after we stopped up on campus to chat with the coach. "There is no secret: it is hard work."
The coaching and training is geared to each runner who is willing to work hard, according to ex-Buff star Alan Culpepper.
"It would be natural to simply duplicate the plan from previous year's but Mark and Heather know that each class of athletes is different and each year presents a new set of circumstances that must be adjusted for. The culture is as such that everyone is expected to work very hard and no one rests on their previous accolades.
"They have done a wonderful job of keeping athletes humble and hungry while still appreciated their successes along the way."
Added Goucher, "The athletes that are attracted to the CU program tend to be focused and hard-working. They aren't impressed by fancy uniforms or facilities. They want to work hard and be a part of the legacy."
And on Saturday, that legacy continued.