HE CAME OH-SO-CLOSE to breaking the 4:00 barrier this indoor season, but his near miss isn’t eating Cruz Culpepper (Niwot, Colorado) up.
“I was slightly disappointed,” the prep mile star says of his 4:00.10, which came on Seattle’s oversized oval at the February 15 Husky Classic. “I wanted to break it, but I wasn’t devastated, you know?”
As it was, the 17-year-old’s performance put him at No. 4 all-time among preps indoors on all sizes of tracks (see sidebar). Culpepper placed 5th in the race won by Oregon’s James West in 3:57.43, diving at the line to edge Texas frosh Crayton Carrozza by 0.01.
During the race, he says, he wasn’t fixated on the clock. “I was hurting bad, just running hard,” he explains. “I didn’t know exactly what time I was at. I was just kind of in the race racing.”
Two weeks earlier on the same track, Culpepper had run a PR 4:01.66 in finishing 4th against a field of pros. “It all came together pretty well,” he says. “I ended up not taking a big break after cross country to just keep that fitness going. It came together well for indoors.”
It marked a solid year of improvement for the Niwot High School senior, who clocked 4:04.82 last year. Last fall he led his teammates to the State-4A XC title—it was his fourth individual state crown in XC and track—but he also made it known he was going to skip the school track experience his senior year to chase down some weighty goals. “I was hoping to break 4:00,” he says, “and then, potentially qualify for the Olympic Trials.”
Olympic-sized goals, to be honest, aren’t new to the household. Both of his parents ran in the ’00 and ’04 Olympic Games. Father Alan ran the 10,000 in Sydney and finished 12th in the Athens marathon. Mother Shayne (née Wille) ran the 1500 in Sydney and the 5000 in Athens. In between, she won a bronze in the World Indoor 3000. (Continued below)
Yet the oldest of their four sons spent more time playing tennis than running as a youngster. “I’d run occasional turkey trots and stuff,” he allows. It wasn’t until after his frosh year that he started getting serious about running. As a soph, he churned out a 4:11.75 in the Brooks PR race.
Having parents with top-level running experience can be a plus, he admits. “They were supportive of everything I did, so it was kind of just another sport except they have more advice than I think some other parents would have,” he says with a laugh.
“It’s definitely really helpful. I’ve never had injuries or anything and I’ve learned stuff, basic things that maybe a lot of young runners don’t know. Like how to stretch and roll out properly and hydrate and eat and stuff like that. It’s helped me to stay pretty healthy.”
To attack his goals, he’s been the rare prep with the opportunity to train with a professional training group, being guided by Joe Bosshard, coach of Emma Coburn and many other Boulder-area luminaries.
“I was wanting to get really serious about it,” he explains. “My dad was coaching me at the time and he got a job at a local high school and he was busy with that and also another job. But Joe could give me his full attention and I know he’s an amazing coach. I thought that would be a good setup and it ended up working out really well.”
These days, though, with COVID-19 quarantining most of the world, the training dynamics have changed. “We don’t meet as a group anymore,” he told us at the end of March. “We’re not running as hard of workouts. We’re just kind of training more moderate since we don’t really know what’s to come. I’m disappointed that it’s probably not going to happen outdoors, but I ran super-well indoors and a lot of people didn’t get the chance to do that, so I’m not super-bummed.”
Now he turns his focus to his college career, which he is hoping starts on schedule next fall at Washington, where he will be coached by Andy Powell.
“A lot of it came down to how well he has been coaching milers and my connection with him and the guys on the team,” Culpepper says, adding, “Seattle’s perfect for training and being at sea level is going to be more beneficial for training for the mile than being at altitude, I think. And it’s a great academic school as well.”