On a chilly November afternoon two weeks before Nike Cross Nationals (NXN), Porter Middaugh and Will Brunner marked off a 1-mile loop around the snow-blanketed Eagle-Vail golf course. The agenda for the Battle Mountain runners final ‘man maker’ workout of the year: 5×1-mile repeats with three minutes rest. Fast.
“It was cold,” Middaugh answered. “We just kind of battled each other. Went almost as hard as we could.”
The blood-and-guts “Once a Runner” scene perfectly simulated a wet, windy and cold Dec. 2 morning in Portland, Oregon, where Middaugh once again uncorked the unthinkable.
“I don’t know if it’s sunk in all the way yet,” the future Project Podium triathlete said after finishing sixth out of the top-200 athletes in the U.S. at NXN.
“It’s the best of the best. If you get 200th in this race, you’re doing pretty awesome,” added head coach Rob Parish, who pointed out that roughly 270,000 high school boys compete in cross-country in the U.S.
“It’s not a niche sport,” he said.
Middaugh and Brunner two weeks ago became the first Eagle County male individuals to qualify out of the hyper-competitive Southwest Region (NXR) — one of eight regions which weeds out the top-5 individuals and top-2 teams from between 2,000-3,500 runners into NXN. Eagle Valley’s Samantha Blair made it in 2019 en route to a 25th-place national finish. When the Huskies girls team placed third nationally in 2017, program legends Naomi Harding (55th) and Liz Constien (58th) also recorded the best individual national finishes in team history. Having witnessed the top-caliber field multiple times — and Brunner and Middaugh’s exhaustive list of feats up close the last three years — Parish said the trio talked about realistically aiming for the top 25.
“They even would maybe whisper higher than that, but it’s hard to say, ‘where do you fit in the country?'” he said. One thing was for sure: the worse the weather, the better.
“We feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations,” the coach stated. “That’s something we preach year-in and year out.”
Seeded as the 37th-best athlete coming into the meet by tullyrunners.com, Middaugh — shoes duck-taped to survive the star-studded stampede and shin-deep, course-width puddles — bolted off the line and into the top group. Crossing the 1-kilometer checkpoint 1.7-seconds off the lead in 14th, he said the initial pace felt comfortable, a surprise considering an inopportune respiratory virus had left him bedridden the Wednesday prior.
“At that point, I was kind of thinking, ‘I’m happy to be here, it’s going to a fun time,'” he said. When his health rebounded Friday, so did his expectations.
Right before 2-kilometers, he rounded a corner into the top-5.
“At that point I was like, ‘alright, here I go,'” he said. Leaning into his trail running background, Middaugh relished the uneven footing and moved up on every hill. He said he tried to “hold on” along the flats, where he hovered between 13th and 15th throughout the next 2 kilometers.
“I just tried to keep focus on the top-10,” he said.
Criss-crossing the venue to cheer, Parish said he needed to be pinched every time he saw his athletes.
“It’s one thing running around Meeker or Columbine or Grand Junction and seeing your guys in the front, but you don’t really expect to see your guys in the front at the biggest race in the country,” he said.
“It’s one of the top things in my coaching career.”
As eventual winner JoJo Jourdon’s surge separated contenders from pretenders over the final kilometer, Middaugh hung onto the back of a 15-person group. Only the most biased observer could have argued the hometown kid had a chance at the top-10 — much less top-6 — when he staggered past the 500-meter to-go mark in 13th. Even Middaugh said he would have been satisfied with 15th at that point. But a deal he’d made with himself regarding those final two 45-degree risers heading into the finishing straight made all the difference.
“No matter how you’re feeling, whether you’re in second or 70th, just hit those hills as hard as you can,” he recalled telling himself before the race. “You know, last high school race.”
With the mud and uneven grass disproportionately stressing every athlete’s aerobic capacity over and against their biomechanics — a clear advantage for the altitude-trained XTERRA prodigy — Middaugh’s drawn-out kick worked wonders.
“People were shedding from that front pack pretty severely,” he said. “I was just able to pick people up and the adrenaline increased with every guy I got.”
He crossed the line in 15 minutes, 25.2 seconds, nine seconds away from Jourdon. Brunner, who won the Colorado state cross-country meet — a race in which Middaugh finished fourth, was 34 seconds back in 60th. It was a valiant effort for the Vail Mountain School student, who, because his NXN qualification was uncertain until the last second, flew out and raced a Footlocker regional meet seven days prior. The extra travel and 5k took a toll.
“He would have liked to have been a little further up there,” Parish said of the future Harvard runner.
For Middaugh, it was the ultimate conclusion to a season in which he ‘progressed’ from third at the Western Slope regional to fourth at state, fifth at NXR and sixth at NXN.
“We all knew that it was there,” Parish said of his athlete, who at this point seems rivaled only by Mikaela Shiffrin in his ability to make your humble correspondent read like a writer who cried wolf. From his sub-9 two-mile to the second-fastest prep 5k ever run on Colorado soil to stunning XTERRA’s finest, Middaugh’s consistently mind-blowing performances make it hard to definitively state, “this was the best thing ever.”
“Look, this is a once-in-a-million thing,” Parish said.
“It could be the best feat ever for a high school athlete out of Eagle County and we just need to celebrate it.”