Kyle Merber

Craig Lutz was unable to finish the National Championship due to a leg injury. The loss hurt the Horns’ chance at the title. Photo courtesy of UT Athletics.

You may not be watching, but they’re there. They’re awake before the sun hits the horizon, running upwards of 85 miles per week, pushing their minds and bodies past standard limitations.

Cross-country doesn’t draw the 100,000 of spectators other sports have, but the hard work and dedication put in is equivalent, if not more. What sets cross-country apart is the grueling mental motivation required. It is one of the few sports in which your biggest competition is yourself. It’s a fight to see how much you can convince yourself you are capable of.

“If you are not mentally tough you can struggle no matter how good of a cross-country runner you are,” senior Rory Tunningley said.

“Running at our level isn’t a natural thing for the body. So while we can prepare it all we want and reach a top physical peak, our minds will always battle our bodies and say that the places we try to take it are unreasonable and dangerous. The greatest runners are the ones who don’t allow their minds to control them,” sophomore Craig Lutz added.

Despite the separate mental focus of each athlete and cross-country’s appearance as an individual sport, the Longhorns assert that they are nothing less than family — and that includes their coach.

Senior Kyle Merber, a transfer student from Columbia, said, “You have got to admire the way [coach John Hayes] runs the program. This is his passion, not just a job for him. I know that he stays up late at night thinking of ways he can make us better, and that enthusiasm carries over into the way the team operates on a daily basis.”

The U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) announced John Hayes as the NCAA South Central Region Coach of the Year for the second consecutive year.

With Hayes’s inspiration, Texas had every expectation to make history. They came into the season with the highest preseason ranking in program history in the USTFCCCA poll at No. 6, finished second in the Big 12 Championship and took first for the second consecutive year at the regionals meet to qualify for the nationals meet.

Finishing 9th at nationals may appear to be a success, but the team with a No. 5 ranking and the drive to place in the top three, perceived it as a loss. The Longhorns were at their mental and physical peaks, but still faced obstacles.

A leg injury to Lutz crippled the Longhorns at nationals, preventing him from completing the race, impairing the overall team score. Initially, Lutz was flooded with feelings of guilt for the team and disappointment in himself. However, one of the most impressive aspect of the men’s cross-country team is how they stand together.

“I would describe the team as a family unit that you can come back to when you’re having your worst of days that will always embrace you no matter how you do, or no matter what happens on any given day. Its just comforting to know that there’s a group of guys that always have my back,” Lutz said.

Within the week after the meet, with the support from his family and the team, Lutz came to accept his misfortune. “I have no regrets from this season. At first I thought I could say my performance at nationals but there wasn’t a lot of control I had in that situation. All I can do is learn from it and build my character to something stronger for next year.”

While Lutz will return, the Longhorns will be losing key members in Merber, Tunningley, Patrick McGregor, Trevor Van Ackeren next season.

“I put personal goals to the side this year; for me the 2012 cross country season was about the team. As a team leader I was centered on not just getting myself to perform at a high level but to also make sure that my teammates were prepared to do the same,” Tunningly said.

The younger members on the team will have some big shoes to fill next season and even higher expectations to face, but with a family behind them, anything is possible.

After dropping from No. 6 to No. 22 in the rankings following the Louisville Classic two weeks ago, the Longhorns were looking for redemption, and they found it at the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational and the Concordia Invitational this past weekend.

Misfortune struck senior Kyle Merber (and a few other Longhorns) in his first race as he fell on the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational course. However, Merber still managed to finish 93rd overall and contribute to Texas’ fourth place finish out of a field of 45 teams.

“Falling down in the first 400m was definitely not part of the game plan,” Merber said. “But it’s cross-country, and sometimes the circumstances change and you have to adjust your goals for the race. While going down in the race hurt our finish as a team, it could have been much worse and we are lucky that no one sustained a more serious injury than bumps, bruises and some cuts.”

In the Concordia Invitational, Texas managed to keep the winning tradition alive for the third consecutive year against Texas State and Texas-Pan American. The Longhorns blew out Texas-Pan American, defeating them by 39 points, and slid past Texas State by a margin of five points.

Sophomore Craig Lutz returned to his familiar role, leading the Longhorns with a 12th place finish at Wisconsin. After leading the team last week, senior Rory Tunningley was the Longhorns’ number-two man this week, coming in 20th place with a personal record time of 23:46.

“We feel we are a better team than our finish indicates,” head coach John Hayes said of the drop in the rankings.