When the starter's gun went high into the air and echoed out, it was all Cole Sprout.
Rumor around the track was that this would be a record-attempt. And what made the rumor all the more enticing to follow up on was the fact that Sprout's 9:01 3,200 from a year ago was the record. Anything faster would likely mean the first Sub-9 clocking on Colorado soil.
For a state rich with distance-runner history, this run was bound to be historic. Historic in those ways that people talk about it for years to come, and watch over and over and over again in amazement.
Yes indeed. This race, on this day, on this track, would be historic. And the irony was that it would be for a variety of reasons.
But let's stick to the record attempt, for now...
The Valor Christian junior attacked the opening strides of the 3,200 at the Dakota Ridge Invitational at JeffCo Stadium in a way that said it all: This Will Be No Stroll.
Just as he always has, and always does, Sprout quickly dove into the haze of red-lining for as long as possible. On this day his main competition was the clock, additionally, he had fellow cross country All-American Austin Vancil hot on his heels.
Within 150 meters it was clear this would be a two-man race, though Sprout would be dictating the pace throughout the entirety of the 3,200 meters.
After an opening 63+ second quarter Sprout settled into his pace with Vancil hovering just over his shoulder. The two ran on like a metronome, stride for stride, working their way through the early laps of what they both anticipated would be a big day for Colorado.
It was the same story, only with a few more laps in their legs as Sprout and Vancil cruised through the mile right on nine-minute pace - 4:30 on the dot. Sprout threw in a miniature surge after seeing the clock out of the left side of his eyes.
While being "on pace" is better than being "off pace," it also doesn't allow any room for error.
Sprout's smooth stride seemed nearly effortless despite the fact that he was running a pace only the top two dozen milers in Colorado could handle for four laps. Adding to the storyline was the fact that Vancil was holding on and running well into new territory.
And speaking of territory, Sprout and Vancil were running within a world of their own nearly 100 meters ahead of the chase pack, which was undoubtedly running a solid pace of their own.
While all eyes were on the two up front, the chase pack was making for one of the deepest 3,200 fields in the state this season, so far.
Lap Five was the proving ground for Sprout who gradually began to telescope away from Vancil. Despite the tiny string of momentum that tethered them together loosening, Vancil clawed at the track in attempt to stay awake and within Sprout's shadow.
While Sprout was chasing the Colorado state record of 9:01 of which he owns, Vancil was chasing a record of his own - the Dakota Ridge decade-old school record of 9:07.82 held by Evan Appel.
Sprout continued to pour on the pace as he cruised by the finish line with two laps to go. 6:47 blinked onwards to 6:48 as he made his way into the turn. Behind him Vancil refused to throw in the white towel, as it become clear that both were leaving this storyline to be written in the final strides.
While the two were running freely up front and into Lap Seven, Sprout began to lap runners who encouraged him onwards to the record. He tip-toed between moments of gently leaning back in fatigue, and battling back to consciousness and into the moment he was in. He pumped his arms in that classic prize-fighter style he's known for and opened his powerful track-eating stride in the moment he'd needed the most: The final 600 meters.
Sprout rounded the turn and into the straight with 500 meters to go and his typically stoic face was engine-red from the effort. If there was any question of his mortality, it was clear now that The Cole Sprout does feel pain too.
Despite the ever-increasing burn that resonated through his body from the effort, Sprout refused to relinquish the pace to Doubt. His stride never altered, though the fire in his eyes said it all.
The bright red numerals on the clock ticked from 7:54 to 7:55 as he powered by the finish line one more time to the echo of the Last Lap Bell. The crow rose to its feet in encouragement as everyone knew we were seeing something special.
Several seconds back Vancil fought a battle of his own, still in it, but no longer on Sprout's shoulder. While the string that once tethered them together was now broken, he raged on, knowing that the clock was still ticking onwards.
Down the backstretch for the final time Sprout rose to his toes and pumped his arms all the more. He was in full flight as he sprinted by 200 meters to go. His blonde curls drifted back from the top of his head in the wake on his speed. The clock was tick-tick-ticking away and his shot of running the first-ever Sub-9 on Colorado soil was ticking with it.
The crowd roared to life as Sprout entered the straightaway for the final time. His face now tight from red-lining for 3,100 meters, and a slight sway of his arms that accompanied the rare moments where he clearly was on the edge of his comfort zone. Now he only had 100 meters to go.
He emptied out what was remaining in his unrivaled tank, and ran his way into history, again.
When Sprout crossed the finish line the crowed erupted as the red numerals on the clock ticked from 8:56 to 8:57 to 8:58.
Colorado finally had its first Sub-9 performance, and it belonged to Cole Sprout.
He waved to the crowd after slowing to a jog before falling to the track. The agony was over, for now at least.
(Sprout rallied a few hours later to run a 1:53 in the 800...)
Vancil cruised across the line nearly 10 seconds later in 9:08.12, just a second shy of rewriting the Dakota Ridge school record books.
Vancil's 9:08 is the sixth-fastest time in Colorado over the past 16 years, and No. 3 behind Sprout and Tanner Norman spanning the past two years.
In the wake of the jaw-dropping performances of Sprout and Vancil, the pack behind them tallied some of the best performances in the 3,200 to date.
David Cardenas ran 9:30 to finish third (he'd later have his time in the sun, but more on that later...), and Seth Bruxvoort ran 9:31 to finish fourth. Nine ran 9:40 or faster, and the top 18 broke 10 minutes.
As incredible as Sprout's run was, it almost - almost - was wiped off as a having never happened. In other words: A controversial disqualification nearly un-wrote was what already written...
(Editor's Note: A recap of the Dakota Ridge Invitational is coming)
Next Page: Controversy On The Track...