Zach Plank is a central Illinois boy living in the suburbs of Chicago. That’s where he attends school at North Central College studying actuarial science, and where he continues a successful running career that included a cross country team victory at the National Championships in the fall of 2013.
“That was one of the hardest races I’ve ever done,” he recalls. “I like to get out early in the race, be in the top 30 or so. But everyone goes out hard at nationals, and I wound up being in 100th place in the first mile. It was cold, muddy and icy. And our legs were not as fresh as we’d like because we’d been training since August and early September. We’d tapered and everything but you’re still pretty tired from the season…”
“I could feel cramps come and go. But you go as fast as you can. Two of our guys fell down it was so slippery. I didn’t even know about that until one of them came up behind me and gave me a high-five. You don’t even know where you are in the race at some points. It’s just so intense…”
“But then you see all these differents teams ahead of you. Five guys from this team…five guys from another. You know you have to keep going….”
Zach pauses for a moment to consider the challenge of racing at that level. “But there’s no way you’re gonna give up. You work with your team members all season, and you think about teams from the past, and our tradition at North Central. You think to yourself, ‘I’m not gonna be a team disappointment.”
Tradition of champions
Indeed, North Central College has won more NCAA Division III cross country titles than any other school in the country. The school’s tradition goes way back into the 1960s and 70s with legendary groups of seemingly half-talented athletes in high school that blossomed into major competitive talents in college.
That’s often the work of the school’s equally legendary coach, Al Carius, who for decades has developed young men from callow runners into competition-proven national champions. This past fall he was named Coach of the Year by USATF for leading the Cardinals to their 16th National Cross Country Championship. The NCC website notes of the program: “Having just completed his 49th year as the Cardinals’ head coach, Carius has taken North Central to every one of the 42 Division III National Championships that have been contested since the NCAA split into three divisions in 1973. The Cardinals have placed first or second in the last seven Division III national meets and 31 of 42 overall.”
“North Central also won its 41st consecutive College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) championship and its seventh straight Midwest Region championship in 2014. The Cardinals have won 48 CCIW titles and 27 regional crowns in their history.”
Carius has accomplished all this working with kids that were not necessarily star runners in high school. It’s not uncommon for a 17:20 three-miler from high school to improve by more than a three or four minutes while attending North Central college and competing in track and cross country.
The long way round
Zach Plank was a good runner in high school at Dunlap near Peoria, Illinois. Competing in Class AA, he won most of his meets during his junior and senior. “But when I got to the state series I didn’t know what I was doing,” he confesses. “I was ranked 13th in cross country and finished 113th.”
Obviously there was unfulfilled potential there, and you can still feel the sting of his running past in his voice. Of course now that he is running 14:41 for 5K on the track and racing at 5:00 pace over five miles in cross country, his dreams have taken on a different, more mature form of accomplishment.
That maturity gets plenty of affirmation through the open communication North Central employs with its student athletes. Following every speed workout and meet, the team conducts what it calls a “Bus Talk.” That’s when every member of the team gets an opportunity to express how they felt about the day’s workout of race. “It’s a really great way to talk about how it all went down,” Zach observes. “No one is holding back. During the long bus ride back from Nationals in Cleveland, all the coaches and everyone took turns talking about our efforts. The coaches were crying and swearing. I love it. The communication just brings us closer. It really helps knowing that everyone is in this together.”
It is thus no wonder why runners like Zach are so motivated to achieve, and not disappoint. The commitment to the team is a commitment to oneself as well. The team pulls you along and props you up. But it’s still your responsibility to run your race, and run it hard. That’s called bringing out your best. Because no matter how much talent you have from the start, it ultimately is all about how you carry it through to the finish that counts.
These days Zach is putting in daily runs of 10-15 miles in preparation for the 2015 cross country season starting with mid-August training camps at North Central. All summer he’s worked at Naperville Running Company fitting shoes on dozens of runners coming through the door. Some of his customers take time to ask Zach about his running. His strong yet slight frame is a giveaway that he has some speed. Yet few can probably imagine that in addition to that capacity for speed, there is also a unique quality residing inside the body of this collegiate runner. That quality is tradition, and it is amazing how much that aspect of character drives runners like Zach Plank to success.