Cross country competition aids Henkels more than he planned

by Adam Fink

The thought kept reoccurring in Minnesota men’s cross country runner Toby Henkels’ mind as he lay in his hospital bed on a fateful day in 2000.

The Worthington, Minn., native had just competed in his first cross country meet since making the transition from track when he passed out from heat stroke at the race’s end.

As Henkels regained consciousness, his career in cross country was on the verge of ending before it even really started.

“I never want to do this again,” Henkels said he recalls thinking, while a slight smile breaks across his face. “I was miserable. But by the time I left the hospital, I was very motivated to go out and run again.”

Entering his fifth and final year of eligibility, Henkels is happy he added cross country to his resume two years ago. A track runner all his life, the 23-year-old originally joined the cross country team as merely a way to stay fit for track season.

“My goal has always been to get into the best shape for track,” Henkels said. “Cross country is preparation for track.”

But after a career year in cross country last season, Henkels is expected to contribute heavily to the Gophers’ success.

Not only did Henkels compete in a career best six cross country meets last season, he was the Gophers second-highest finisher at both the Pre-NCAA and the NCAA meets.

The cross country experience also paid off on the track. At the Maine Distance Festival last year, Henkels set the school record for the 800-meter run with a time of one minute and 47 seconds at the track meet. He also finished second in the 800-meter run at the Big Ten champions.

In addition to his improved running, Henkels has earned the respect of teammates and coaches with a fiery race-day attitude and a tireless work ethic.

“Cross country has been secondary to him but he has contributed at both ends,” cross country coach Steve Plasencia said. “He is a role model for this team and a good athlete.”

Henkels’ success with endurance runs fits his profile for keeping a goal in sight.

A three-sport star at Worthington High School, Henkels was offered scholarships by Augsburg, Sioux Falls and Minnesota State, Mankato.

But those Division II schools couldn’t offer Henkels the opportunity he wanted: to compete at the Division I level.

“I knew I could succeed (at the Division II level),” Henkels said. “But I wanted a challenge and a chance to prove myself.”

After his redshirt freshman track season, Henkels wanted to lower his times. The best way to do it was run throughout the year, like most track runners.

“I called Plasencia up and asked if I could join the cross country team,” Henkels said. “I needed something to keep me going.”

Henkels has taken two years to develop his cross country skills at this level. Even with the lack of experience, he’s been a fixture in the Gophers’ seven-man lineup since last season.

Henkels eligibility will expire after competing for the Gophers during the indoor track season, which begins in January.

While he still considers himself a track man at heart, Henkels has established himself as a valuable member of the Gophers and a consistently high finisher on the team.

“It has been a slow, slow process to get to where I am now,” Henkels said. “I am enjoying cross country running more than I have before.”