Heading to nationals
A list of Colorado track and field athletes who have qualified for the NCAA Championships:
John Dressel: 5,000 meters
Joe Klecker: 5,000 meters
Zach Perrin: 5,000 meters
Ben Saarel: 1,500 meters
Madison Boreman: 3,000-meter steeplechase
Erin Clark: 5,000 meters & 10,000 meters
Sage Hurta: 3,000-meter steeplechase
Dani Jones: 1,500 meters
Makena Morley: 10,000 meters
Every race is a mystery.
Great preparation doesn't always translate into great results. A bad breakfast or wrong step could ruin the day. Race strategy may have to be abandoned within the first lap or two.
Colorado's Ben Saarel knows this all too well. Yet, as the junior prepares for his third trip to the NCAA track and field championships, he carries with him a measure of confidence he hasn't had in the past.
On Wednesday in Eugene, Ore., Saarel will compete in the semifinals of the men's 1,500-meter run. He's eyeing a top-12 finish that would send him to Friday's finals for the first time in his career.
"It's always tough to get (to nationals)," said Saarel, who ran in the 1,500 at nationals in 2014 and 2015. "So I'm really happy to be going and try to make the final now. If I could do that, I'd be really happy. That's the main goal, going to the next round."
It has been a long road to that next round for Saarel, who has had a stellar career at CU.
Last fall, Saarel became just the third CU male ever to earn all-American honors four times in cross country. In his four seasons on the cross country team, he never finished lower than 31st at the NCAA championships, and twice finished in the top eight, helping the Buffs win national titles in 2013 and 2014.
Saarel also earned all-American honors in indoor track, placing third at the 2014 NCAA championships in the 3,000 meters and eighth in 1,500 meters this past March.
In his two previous trips to the outdoors finals, in 2014 and 2015, Saarel was 16th and 19th, respectively, in the 1,500, coming up short of the finals. A bout with mononucleosis in the fall of 2015 hampered his training for the 2016 track season, so he redshirted last year.
Now making his third trip to Eugene, he said he feels different this time around.
"This year, I really feel like I have something left in the tank for nationals, which I'm really happy about," he said.
Saarel also feels like he's a better runner than he was during his last trip to nationals, in 2015. Last year, he qualified and ran in the U.S. Olympic Trials and believes his confidence from that experience has carried over to this year.
"The trials were an eye opener, just to see that's where you want to get to eventually in your career," he said. "I got to run some fast times and it gave me some confidence going into future races."
The next race in Saarel's future is one he's had trouble getting past. Yet, with experience and more mental and physical strength than he's had before, he's eager to tackle this challenge.
"I think I'm very confident I can compete with those guys," he said. "I'm not going to worry about the title. My goal is to try to stay relaxed and compete with those guys."
The goal, of course, could change after the gun goes off Wednesday. That's where Saarel's mental game comes into play.
"You don't know until you get out there and you race, but I feel better going into this (year's nationals). I feel less tired and fried than I have in years past.
"Managing the chaos is the hardest thing to do. I just have to be in the right place and trust my instincts."
If he can do that, Saarel could find himself in the finals for the first time.
"I think I'm capable of running really well and competing against anybody out there, but it just depends on the day," he said.
Brian Howell: email@example.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.