Milers anchor U’s track efforts

Monica Wright

It usually seems in track and field that there is one standout athlete in each event — one awesome hurdler, one impressive pole vaulter, and one distance demon.
But in one of the most strenuous events, the mile, the Gophers are thrice blessed with their own dream team: sophomore Andrew McKessock, junior Jason Owen and senior Nate Clay.
Each has run a mile under 4:06 this season, something that hasn’t happened in recent history at Minnesota.
“We are definitely deep in that event and we’re looking for them to have a big outdoor season,” assistant coach Steve Plasencia said. “This is the best group we’ve had in this event since I’ve been here.”
Combined with another runner in a 4 x mile relay team, Plasencia feels they could dominate the event, which is usually run only at specific meets like the Penn Relays and the upcoming Drake Relays.
The feat is not lost on the mile men, who run 70 miles a week together in addition to some harder track sessions, weightlifting, and body conditioning.
All the training has forged a strong bond between the runners.
“We’re really a tight group, everyone brings different stuff to workouts,” McKessock said. “Nate’s the authority figure because he’s been around and knows a lot, Owen has extreme speed and is quick at workouts. And I’m the young guy, I’m keeping it consistent. I trust them more than I trust myself.”
Off the track, having the same background, goals and outlook gives the runners a common friendship bond that goes beyond competition.
Although they are often set against each other in individual races, Clay says mutual respect and a team mentality helps them leave their egos on the track.
“We compete against each other and sometimes one of us wins and sometimes none of us wins,” Clay said. “We are all friends no matter what happens.”
When not combining efforts on relays, each of the runners has had individual success in track at Minnesota.
McKessock, who was a two-time Canadian junior champion before joining the Gophers, won the Big Ten indoor title in the mile back in February and finished 10th in the event at the NCAA meet.
Clay was part of the distance medley relay team that won the Big Ten indoor title and has been an academic all-Big Ten honoree four years in a row.
While the others have had relatively healthy careers, Owen’s has been plagued with injury, as well as accolades.
His freshman year he was redshirted due to tendonitis, sophomore year it was a pulled hamstring that slowed him down, and last year he pulled his calf muscle minutes before the Big Ten indoor mile race.
Despite the adversity, Owen has gone on to place third in the mile at the 1999 Drake Relays and is one of Minnesota’s all-time best performers in the mile.
Head coach Phil Lundin has said he sees Owen as one of the top 800-and 1,500-meter runners in the United States, and his teammates agree.
“I think he’s basically unlimited in talent as far as what he’s capable of, and he’ll turn some heads,” Clay said. “He was phenomenal in high school, and I think he’s coming together and should perform well this year and next year.”
With Clay graduating this year, the Gophers have only one season to capitalize on their mile talent before they have to move on.
But Owen already has plans for himself and McKessock.
“I’d like to go under four minutes. Andrew and I have both really improved since last year, so I think both of us can get under four minutes,” he said.

Monica Wright covers track and field and welcomes comments at [email protected]