HIS LAST COLLEGIATE RACE was the stuff of dreams, but now Conner Mantz is ready to face new opportunities and challenges as a fledgling pro.
Acknowledging after his second straight NCAA XC triumph that it was “my last race in a BYU singlet,” Mantz is now determining his next steps in joining the professional ranks. To that end, he has signed with agent Ray Flynn.
There are still more big days and decisions ahead for the Smithfield, Utah, native. He’ll turn 25 on December 08. He will decide where he’s going and with whom as a pro runner. He’ll graduate in ’22 with a Mechanical Engineering degree.
It’s a lot on anyone’s plate, but Mantz is counting heavily on the support of his family, friends, teammates and, importantly, BYU head Ed Eyestone. “He’s one of the best there is,” says Mantz of Eyestone, himself a former NCAA cross champion whose single title has now been eclipsed by his protégé.
Whatever Mantz does as a pro, he’ll carry the memories of his 5 years at BYU, where he matriculated after a 2-year mission in Ghana, where he admittedly ran little and put some excess pounds (“the mission 15-20, or more,” he laughs) on his sturdy 5-8 frame.
He took 10th in the NCAA as a frosh and says that race gave him the confidence he needed as he resumed training and racing.
“That was difficult,” he recalls. “No matter what I did in high school, you come back 30 pounds heavier and don’t look like a runner anymore and when you’re running it doesn’t feel natural. Luckily after a year and some months, I knew I was back and better than ever.”
Mantz has no regrets about either the decisions he has made about the mission right after high school or the directions he has taken with his running.
“I think I initially took for granted a lot of the things when I first got to BYU, because I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is all athleticism,’” Mantz says. “But then I didn’t realize how great BYU was.” While BYU has been good to him, he has certainly been good for BYU and its image, humble in his victories and gracious in his defeats. That Mantz is now a 2-time champ and one of 10 men to have 4 top-10 NCAA finishes doesn’t hurt.
“This year was very different,” Mantz says. “Each race has something specific to itself and this one was very different. I know I’m very fit, but I couldn’t get my hopes up and think, ‘Alright, I’ve got it in the bag,’ because you can’t be overconfident about any race.”
Mantz says he has learned to be prepared for anything in the course of a race and offered some insight into the “races within the race” both early on and again in the last kilometer of the NCAA.
The pack went through the mile in 4:22 and the deuce at 8:55, with perhaps the biggest surprise that neither Wesley Kiptoo nor Mantz took off as is their style. But Mantz revealed that “Kiptoo kind of indicated to me that we should run away with it, as in, ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’ But I knew on that course that you can’t run away with it, because it’s flat and downhill except for the four times up that short but steep hill.”
As for that final K when he cemented the win, “I think most people didn’t see, right before 1000m [left], it was me and Kiptoo and Adriaan [Wildschutt] and Adriaan started to back off. Right at about 1000m to go, [Athanas] Kioko comes and he makes a hard surge that we weren’t expecting — that I wasn’t expecting. Kiptoo comes with me and then I do a little bit of a surge right before the hill, and I’m leading it.
“On this last hill, Kioko really made a tough surge and I thought it was Kiptoo at first and I thought, ‘Wow! We’re all-out sprinting already,’ and we don’t have the finish for 500 meters. I just sprinted with him, but I could tell it was a sprint we couldn’t hold, and then he slowed down, and that’s when I passed him.”
Mantz was then surprised when he glanced back while heading to the finish and saw Kiptoo in 2nd rather than Kioko. “It was a hard-fought race,” he concluded. “I was doing everything I could.”
He was quite conscious of the historical elements that came into play for him with returning for this cross country season. “That would be really special,” he thought when making that decision this past summer. Yet his Trials races stick in his craw. “I think this was maybe not the exact storybook ending I wanted since I wanted to make that Olympic team.”
That disappointment aside, Mantz’s 8th in the OT 5K and 5th in the 10K augur well for his chances in ’24.While his career to date may not be the complete storybook he wanted, it does in fact make for a nice chapter, with more to be written.