Note: This is the first installment of what I hope to be a lengthy series of visits with some prominent names in the history of Colorado track and field/cross country. Please feel free to suggest names for this series (and it's doubly helpful if you can supply contact information).
For most of the current crop of distance runners in Colorado, Bret Schoolmeester is only a name in the record books. Very few ever watched him run.
For those of us who did see him run, however, the memories are difficult to shake. Schoolmeester dominated distance running in Colorado as probably no other small school runner ever has. He won individual state cross country titles in 2000 and 2001, finishing with an all-classification best time in 2001. He won numerous state track titles, the most memorable of which was an all-by-himself 4:12.69 1600 in 2002. I vividly recall watching that race slack-jawed as Schoolmeester nailed down four consecutive 63-second laps on the Dutch Clark track.
Fast forward a few years and Bret Schoolmeester is now in the enviable position of working for Nike to organize and put on the Nike Cross Nationals events. We caught up with Schoolmeester and asked him to share a few thoughts about his work and about running in high school and college:
MileSplit: What's your best memory of high school track and/or cross country?
Schoolmeester: Honestly I had so much fun running in high school it’s hard to pick one memory that stands out as the best. I would probably have to say the 2000 State cross country championships were a high point. The Denver Christian men’s and women’s teams won their respective titles, which was really cool because we all trained together and my dad coached both teams, so to see all of our hard work pay off on one day, and to be able to attribute that to my dad was really special. And personally, I had finished somewhere in the 20’s my sophomore year at the state meet, so it meant a lot to come back a year later and win – it just shows how big of a role a good attention span plays in high school running.
MileSplit: You were part of the high water mark for Denver Christian. Have you kept in touch with your teammates over the years? Are any of the others still running? Is there anything about your experience at DC you wish you had the opportunity to try over again?
Schoolmeester: I have kept in touch with a few of my teammates. A few of us went on to run in college and some went on to pursue other interests. Jason Baker ran at Baylor, Scott Borger ran for Covenant, Ryan Borger ran at Westmont, and Todd Schuster ran for Calvin College and is still running at Grand Valley State while he finishes up his grad school.
I had such a great experience running at DC, with my dad being the coach and having such a great group of guys to run with I can’t think of much I would re-do. I guess one thing I always think about is the State track meet my senior year; we had been 3rd as a team my sophomore year, 2nd my junior year and we had a great shot to win the team title going into my senior year. We fell just short, losing by 1 point and had several very small things go wrong for us that could’ve meant that title – if we would have been able to take home that trophy I think I would’ve considered my high school career a little more complete.
MileSplit: What brought you to CU? Did you seriously consider running for other schools besides Colorado?
Schoolmeester: There were a lot of factors that brought me to Colorado. The first and probably most important was Coach Wetmore. I really felt that he was the guy that was going to help me get to the next level. I had run quite a bit in high school, and was secretly paranoid that I had already reached my potential. So when I looked at Dathan [Ritzenhein], who had run way harder than I was, and saw him getting better by leaps and bounds in his first year of college, I had no doubt that I would be able to go to Colorado and flourish under Mark. Another big reason I chose Colorado was the team atmosphere, I came from a high school program that valued team synergy and that was one thing Mark always emphasized.
MileSplit: What was the most difficult part of the transition from high school running to college running?
Schoolmeester: I think the most difficult transition was just the level of competition, on my own team and within the college ranks. Every day at practice somebody was going to be feeling good, whether it was an easy day or a hard run, and I had to learn when to take it easy and when to use my training partners as tools to help me dig deep. It took me a long time to learn that and I’m not sure I ever mastered it. Then on the competition side it was just a whole new ball game. I thought I had run some good times in high school, but when I looked at the qualifying standards for the indoor nationals my freshman year, I realized I would have to break the high school national record just to get into the meet! That definitely humbled me and made me think on a whole new level.
MileSplit: What would you describe as the highlight of your college career?
Schoolmeester: The highlight of my college career is very similar to the highlight of my high school career. My junior year both the men’s and women’s teams from CU won their respective NCAA cross country titles. What made it extra special was the group of guys who won the title; our top 2 guys from the year before weren’t on the team and none of us had ever finished in the top 100 at the NCAA meet, and 5 of the 7 of us were Colorado natives. I was lucky enough to be voted captain of that team, and that was a huge honor for me.
MileSplit: What was the most difficult part of the transition from college to professional running?
Schoolmeester: I think the most difficult part of professional running was the lack of a team. When we would travel to a national meet in college I always felt very secure because my teammates were there to go through it with me; I never understood how the individual qualifiers could do it. When I was running as a post-collegiate I was able to run with a really fun group of people but it never felt quite as pure and fun as it did in high school and college. The collegiate cross country season is one of the most fun things in the world, if I could’ve taken 10 years of eligibility I would have exhausted every one, my best friends are still from those teams and I’m pretty sure when I’m old and gray I’ll remember those times as some of the most fun I’ve ever had.
MileSplit: Describe what you're doing now, both in terms of training/competing and your responsibilities with Nike.
Schoolmeester: My running has definitely taken on a different role in my life. It used to kind of consume me and now it’s something else that I do to relieve stress and keep my sanity. I used to dread hard runs and now I look forward to getting out and shaking out the cobwebs. I compete kind of sporadically but mostly mid-range distances, I don’t have the time to get in a ton of speed work to run shorter stuff nor the time to get in a ton of miles to run marathons yet. So other than running I spend a lot of time on my new job, working for Nike Running on the marketing team. It’s been a fantastic place to work, and a lot of fun stuff to work on – we put in a lot of hours but fortunately not that much of it feels like work.
MileSplit: How did you end up getting connected with the NXN program? Will you be in attendance at any of the regional meets in November?
Schoolmeester: One of the big projects our team oversees is the Nike Cross Nationals and Regionals. It’s a great team because we have a lot of people who are experienced in putting on events but also who are extremely passionate about cross country. I’ll definitely be at the Regional meets this fall, probably a different one every weekend. It’s our busiest time of year but it’s also the most fun – watching this latest batch of great high school runners has really been awesome for me, it honestly fires me up so much that I end up increasing my mileage throughout the fall despite working more hours and sleeping less. My friend Brett Holts and I were up at 4 in the morning the Wednesday before the National meet last year doing fartleks on the grass because I think we just wanted to be where the kids were.
MileSplit: What running-related goals are driving your training these days? Who do you train with mostly?
Schoolmeester: I generally pick one long range goal to shoot for and then a few races in between to help keep me motivated. For this next year I’m really aiming for the US Cross Champs in Maryland, I would really love to make the team that gets to go to Jordan. Because of my crazy schedule I’m forced to run alone a lot, but I have some coworkers that I run with in the morning, Mike Donnelly drags me around sometimes in the morning as well as Brett Holts. Once in a while I’ll meet Adam Goucher on the weekends for a hard run, he’s even woken up early a couple times to meet up for a run.
MileSplit: Are you able to keep up with the high school running scene (either Colorado or nationally) any longer? If so, is there anything or anyone in particular that has caught your attention? Or, is there anything to which you want to say, "I wish that had taken place while I was in high school?"
Schoolmeester: I kind of missed a generation of high school runners but now that I’m involved with the Nike Nationals series I keep better tabs on kids. The class that just graduated was incredible! I watched the NON 2 mile and obviously Fernandez deserves all the credit in the world, but what caught my attention was how deep the race was. The guy in 8th place would’ve won the national title in a normal year.
I’m obviously a little biased but I definitely wish there was a NXN when I was in high school. I always loved that cross country was a team AND an individual sport. You are able to pursue your own goals and by achieving them you’re contributing to the greater good of your team. Having run at almost every level of cross country championships, I’m glad that there’s finally a high school championship that has a team and individual component – just like the NCAA and World champs.
MileSplit: Who do you think are the best shots at medals in middle distance and distance events for the USA in Beijing?
Schoolmeester: I think we’ve got some great medal hopes for this year. I don’t think there’s ever been a better championship 5k runner than Bernard Lagat – I think he’ll be fun to watch as always. On top of that we have a great crop of marathoners that might be able to outsmart some of their competitors. Shannon Rowbury has come on like gangbusters this year and she’s definitely a medal contender. And I definitely can’t leave off my sister-in-law Kara Goucher; she did it a year ago and I’ve seen some of her workouts since and she’s as fit as ever – watch for her and Shalane to tear it up in the 10k.