On Thursday morning, Collin Buck showed up at Flathead High School at 7:30 for a summer cross country practice. The 25-year-old assistant coach set off with some of the high school athletes for an easy run along the Kalispell Bypass trail, as he usually does. However, this morning, after just a mile, Buck regretted his decision to run.
“I was just barely hanging on with the group of guys,” Buck said. “It’s more than just muscle soreness, my whole body aches.”
Buck’s condition is a result of a weekend warrior feat that all but a handful of athletes in Montana can relate to — he qualified for the Olympic Trials in the marathon after running 2:17:09 at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., on June 17.
It was just the second marathon for the Great Falls native, who’s had a steady rise up through the world of running elites since he began running competitively a decade ago.
After graduating from Charles M. Russell High School, Buck matriculated to Montana State University hoping to run for the Bobcats. He wasn’t fast enough coming out of high school to get a scholarship, or even join the team, but he earned a spot as a sophomore.
By the time he graduated, Buck had run the second fastest time ever by a Bobcat in the 5,000-meter — 13:57.90 — while also qualifying for the NCAA Regional Championships in the 10,000-meter run. He also ran the program’s second fastest time in that event, breaking 29 minutes.
“I always liked the longer distance stuff and definitely felt like I always had better success in the 10k as opposed to the mile or the 5k,” Buck said. A volunteer assistant coach with MSU at the time, former Flathead High School standout Zach Perrin trained with Buck and told him once that the 10k was too short of a race to really showcase his abilities.
“I think that’s when I figured I’d give the marathon a couple of shots,” Buck said.
After accepting a teaching job at Flathead High and moving to Kalispell, Buck began coaching track and cross country as well as continuing his own training. Coaching himself, he targeted the California International Marathon (CIM) in Sacramento last December as a debut race. While finishing a marathon is an ambitious goal for most people, Buck had loftier ambitions — the 2:18:00 qualifying time to earn a spot on the starting line at the Trials.
Before the race began, Buck ran into some problems. A delayed flight meant he didn’t arrive in Sacramento until late in the evening before the race. As a member of the elite field, he was allowed to have special water bottles placed on the course throughout the race, but he’d missed the window to drop them off.
Despite the struggles getting to the starting line, the first half of CIM went according to plan, then the travel, lack of calories and fluids throughout the race and the overall toll of racing 26.2 miles came to a head. He finished in 2:19:27, slowing significantly in the race’s final two miles.
“I just didn’t have the experience,” Buck said. “Coming into my second marathon, knowing how to pace properly was huge and knowing how to properly fuel, really dialing it in, was a big focus as I was training.”
With an early summer race on the calendar, Buck bookended his spring days teaching and coaching with training. His first run, usually seven to 10 miles, was finished by 6:15 a.m. To ensure he got enough miles under his belt, he’d usually double with the high school kids during track practice.
Coaching provides a two-way motivational street, he said. Watching the Braves and Bravettes giving their best during practices and meets was inspiring, while on the flipside, Buck can “practice what he preaches” to the young runners.
“I really enjoy being able to show the students that this is a lifelong sport,” he said. “You can’t do football or soccer as easily for the rest of your life, but you can keep running.”
In Duluth, Buck was a member of the elite field, and this time flew in several days early to avoid any additional stress.
At 7:40 a.m., the gun fired, and 16,000 runners took off along the shore of Lake Superior. A large group of runners all aiming for the Olympic Trials mark quickly coalesced and Buck found himself running among good company for a majority of the race.
At the first aid station, where the professional and elite field had their own bottles, someone in his group missed grabbing their bottle, Buck said. Recalling his own similar situation from California, he offered the runner half of his and from that point on the group worked together to ensure everyone had enough fluids, fuel, and ice-water-filled sponges to stay cool with.
“It really just set a great tone for the race,” Buck said. “I got lucky with that group I was running with — we really just used teamwork to get to our group goal.”
In the final miles through the streets of Duluth, Buck ran solo, the previous group having splintered over the intervening miles, but he picked up enough energy from the growing crowds that he never felt like he was out on the roads alone.
He crossed the finish line in 2:17:09, well under the time needed to qualify for the Trials.
February is a long way away, however, and Buck hopes to get in one more marathon this year, in addition to some shorter races to work on a different aspect of his fitness.
As for the Olympic Trials, with more than 150 men already qualified for the race, and a top seed time nine minutes faster than he just ran, Buck isn’t sure what he wants to aim for.
He doesn’t want to chase a goal so lofty it’s out of the realm of achievability, but at the same time, “there’s no point in having a goal you have a 100% chance to make.”
Only two other Montana residents have qualified for the Trials. Buck’s former MSU teammate, Adam Wollant,ran 2:18:00 earlier this year, while Bigfork High School graduate Makena Morley, now a professional runner for Asics, will be vying for a top finish in the women’s Olympic Trials field after she qualified during her marathon debut last fall.
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