Conversions-Shmershions — Young & Sahlman Showed True Fitness In Boston

Questions about altitude mile times dogged Nico Young (right) and Colin Sahlman for a week. They answered them emphatically in Boston. (KEVIN MORRIS/SEAN AHEARN)

THE RECENT STANDOUT success of Northern Arizona’s Nico Young and Colin Sahlman — spectacularly on display at the John Thomas Terrier Classic — isn’t due to a single, super-special workout or overnight magic. The senior-soph duo, both formerly prep stars and teammates at Newbury Park High in California, say that consistent training in college has allowed them to build up to their latest accomplishments.

Both raced the mile on January 19 at the home meet Lumberjack Team Challenge at a whopping 6896ft (2100m) above sea level in Flagstaff. Their times turned heads. Young’s striking 3:57.33 time per the NCAA’s altitude tables for purposes of Nationals qualifying converted to 3:48.71 at sea level.

Sahlman’s 4:03.21 per the NCAA algorithm was a 3:54-equivalent. Those figures left many skeptical as to whether these seemingly insane conversions reflected what the two Lumberjacks could really run.

While the science, if there is any, behind the NCAA tables remains unsupported, a week later Young and Sahlman proved their fitness to the world at sea level. Now the talk is about the athletes. Leave wonky numbers debates for another day.

At Terrier just a week after their headscratcher altitude miles, Young and Sahlman toed the line in their respective specialties —- Young in the 5000 and Sahlman in the mile and the 3000.

Although in the closing stretch of his 25-lapper Young was outkicked by WC 10K 14th-placer Adrian Wildschutt, he blindsided fans by running to a blazing 12:57.14. His run demolished the 13:03.78 Collegiate Record that Harvard’s NCAA XC champ Graham Blanks set on the same track at BU’s Colyear-Danville Opener in early December.

Along with the CR, Young nabbed the Olympic standard while also becoming the first-ever sub-13 collegian in the 5000. Young placed 2nd in his section of an elite 5K field so deep meet organizers broke it into two evenly-seeded races. He bested pros including 5000 American Record holder/Olympian Woody Kincaid and Budapest finalist Abdihamid Nur. The performance was a huge statement race for Young proving his fitness is at a sparkling new level, whether at altitude or sea level. But Young wasn’t the only NAU collegian to turn heads in Boston.

Sahlman competed later that same evening in a stacked mile against impressive, proven names. Among them were Craig Engels (’19 WC 1500 finalist and 7th-placer at the ’18 World Indoor) and Canadian Olympian Charles Philibert-Thiboutot.

Sahlman won. In a time of 3:53.17, he kicked to the win putting any questions about the intrinsic value of his Flagstaff clocking to rest as he moved to No. 10 all-time among collegians. However, Sahlman did not stop at just the mile. He lined up just over 2 hours later for the 3000 and ran an impressive 7:59.27.

Young, the High School Recordholder in the indoor 3000 (7:56.97 in ’20), and Sahlman, T&FN’s ’22 Boys High School Athlete Of The Year, have featured in the prep and collegiate spotlight for years now, but these performances indicate an entirely new level of fitness — never a guarantee for athletes graduating from powerhouse prep programs.

“It’s consistency and just following the training and I think that’s what helped me build up a lot of confidence going into this race,” says Sahlman, who surely has intentions of showing more this season.

Young follows up with a similar answer: “I think it’s been just like an accumulation of, at this point for me, almost 4 years at NAU and having a lot of consistent training and being able to kind of put the pieces together at the start of this indoor season from all of those years and also being able to work into some faster paces over winter break and then starting the indoor season.”

Both Sahlman and Young say that there was nothing new or groundbreaking in their training leading up to Boston, but rather compiling months upon months and years upon years of hard work and consistent training, with few injuries or illnesses. Along with consistency, Young and Sahlman say their mile in Flagstaff set them up well to run fast at low altitude.

Race-high-then-race-low was a perfect setup, Young assesses: “Yeah, I definitely think so. The plan at least for me was if I didn’t run that mile, I would have done a workout that would have been very similar to racing that mile. So it’s always good to race something shorter than the event that you’re gonna run later or race the same event.”

Although both Sahlman and Young agree it is significantly harder to hit another gear at the end of a race at altitude on top of being more difficult to hold a faster pace for longer, they both agreed the Flagstaff outing helped them turn their legs over and get ready to run even faster at oxygen-rich sea level.

Asked if the sea-level mile felt any different than the altitude mile, Sahlman says, “I did the same race both at altitude and sea level and I just think it just feels way harder earlier at altitude and you really have to trust the hurt and just keep on the grind.”

Regardless, months and months of consistent training is what Sahlman and Young hold accountable for their recent success. However, along with consistency and a quick mile to get their legs turning over, a supportive team, coach, and an outstanding program at NAU (6 NCAA Cross team titles since ’16) also helps contribute to their success.

With Northern Arizona’s women’s squad also breaking out, separated from the XC title by just a single point in November, many wonder what distinguishes coach Mike Smith’s program, what allows them to thrive both as individuals and as a team.

“I think what sets us apart,” says Young, “is that we’ve been able to cultivate an environment where we are extremely supportive of each other and we don’t see each other’s success as something that gets in the way of our own success.”

Setting aside their individual achievements and learning to support each other as teammates enables Young, Sahlman, and their Lumberjack teammates to work together during workouts and realize that training with one another every day helps everyone to improve.

Sahlman goes on to say, “We believe that there’s enough room for all of us to be at the top and be our best” — a mindset they say they adopt during cross country season as a team and then carry with them into indoor and outdoor, ensuring that they can succeed throughout the year both as a team and individually. Yet, aside from hard workouts with the team, hundreds of miles, and hard work in the classroom, Young and Sahlman find time outside of running and school to pursue hobbies and outside enjoyments as well.

Young enjoys spending social time with teammates and friends outside of practice, while Sahlman takes pleasure in his hobbies, photography and playing the piano. Sahlman even manages to combine his two passions of running and photography. “I have a camera,” he says, “and we had a home meet yesterday and I was taking pictures of some of our team so that is something I enjoy doing.”

Nonetheless, Young and Sahlman are incredibly hardworking, both on and off the track, but also make sure to spend time on activities outside of the intense student-athlete lifestyle they are fond of.

It is simple enough to predict that they are looking ahead to a phenomenal indoor track season. Both plan to continue the formula: hard work and stacking up consistent training, the “secret” key to their recent successes.

Seems to be working for the both of them.

The NAU duo will look to contend for titles come March at the NCAA Indoor. The meet is slated for Boston, a city where Young and Sahlman have produced exceptionally fast times already.

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