In early August, Bigfork cross country coach Ryan Nollan loaded up the few athletes who had been showing up to summer training into a van and traveled to Libby.
The team ran on the local trails and then headed to the Libby High School track to watch the Montana Distance Festival, a high level track meet organized by Montana State University athlete and Olympic Trials qualifier Duncan Hamilton.
The Vikings and Valkyries watched as Bigfork alumnus Makena Morley shattered the women’s Montana soil record in the 5,000-meter, running 15:46.
Flathead High School alumnus Zach Perrin came within seconds of breaking the men’s record and another athlete with Flathead ties, Isaac Updike, ran the fastest mile recorded outdoors in Montana, 4:02.
“I wanted to give the kids a good memory of running, something to hold on to,” Nollan said. “Road trips and adventures, to me, that’s what trail running is about.”
Trail running and cross country are certainly kindred sports with some key differences. Cross country meets are usually held on manicured golf courses (or locally on the specially designed cross country course at Rebecca Farm) while trail races can range from single-track courses on Foys to Blacktail to technical scree-scrambling.
No one is likely to confuse the two on sight, but Nollan believes the kindred nature of the two disciplines is to be embraced.
“Part of cross country, as opposed to track, is it’s essentially trail running,” he said. “It’s outside and it’s adventurous. I want to instill that in our kids — we want to be adventurous.”
Growing running was always around Nollan’s family. His grandpa was a big runner, and the family often ran community 5ks throughout the year.
About six years ago, Nollan discovered a new kind of running that truly piqued his interest: Spartan races. Spartan races are a series of events across the country that are usually run on trails and feature a variety obstacles, including rope climbs, boulder hauls and fires to leap over. The only Montana Spartan Race is held in Bigfork.
Over the years, Nollan has competed in Spartan races around the country and, when each of his two boys turned 14, he took them to a race to run together — a fun, albeit difficult type of family bonding.
“It’s the idea that when you race, you have to be tough,” Nollan said. “It’s not just running, there’s big hills and obstacles. I like the gutsy-ness of it, because sometimes I get a little bored with road racing. You can’t really slow your pace down when you’re hauling a giant boulder around, you just have to get it done.”
Gutsy-ness is what Nollan wants Bigfork runners to embody every day in practice and especially in every meet.
“Our first meet, all the kids ran really gutsy,” he said. “They probably all went out too fast and didn’t know pacing, but we wanted them to do that. We’re going to run hard and maybe overshoot sometimes.”
Another key component to Nollan’s coaching philosophy is his emphasis on the mental aspect of the sport. As the psychologist at Bigfork he says he “can’t turn that off, it’s who I am.”
“I’m constantly hyping kids up, talking about their thought processes, asking how they feel and what’s going on,” he said. “You can work out all you want but if your head’s not in it you’ll have a hard time performing.”
One addition Nollan brought to hone his athletes’ mental preparation is journaling, which he makes each runner do on the way to and from races. He then reviews them, writes comments and uses the journals for more insight on each athlete.
“It really gets them thinking about running and how it fits in their life,” Nollan said.
Bigfork cross country has a storied history with several team and individual state titles. Recently, however, the school has had a small presence in the sport, sometimes unable to field a fully scoring roster of five athletes at meets.
This year, Nollan has five girls on the team, enough to score points, two of who are new to the sport.
“The exciting part is that there’s a bunch of junior high girls on the way up through the pipeline,” he said.
His inaugural boys squad looks even more promising. In the past, Nollan joked that the team had to scrape together athletes by tapping wrestlers who weren’t playing football in the fall.
Bigfork had several athletes run solid track seasons in the spring and Nollan held a meeting with most of the boys after that season ended.
“I asked what they wanted to do next, and they all wanted to do well in the cross country season,” Nollan said. “Of course it makes it easier when two are my own boys.”
The team’s top talent is sophomore Jack Jensen, who led the squad at its first meet in Libby finishing eighth in 17:39.
As a freshman, Jensen finished fifth at the state track meet in the 1600-meter run, and recorded the 14th fastest time, 4:30.68, in the state across all classifications. For perspective, four-time state champion Zach Perrin ran 4:31 as a freshman.
“I’m just really excited to see our workouts and watch how their times drop over the season,” Nollan said.
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