Prize Recruit — Nico Young (Northern Arizona)

Although his shot at the national 5000 record came up short, Nico Young did move to No. 4 all-time with his 13:50.55. (KIM SPIR)

WHEN HE RAN A smoothly paced 3000 at the Millrose Games in February, stopping the camera at a national record 7:56.97, Nico Young (Newbury Park, California) was on top of the high school running world.

“I was very happy with that,” Northern Arizona’s prize recruit says of the fastest prep performance ever, indoors or out. “My goal was to run faster than 7:59.33, which was the High School Record held by Drew Hunter. [The pacing] was pretty consistent. It was almost how I wanted it. I think the last few laps on the track, I would have liked if those could have been faster, but other than that, it went really well.”

Young’s time also was faster than the outdoor best of 7:59.83 that Californian German Fernandez had set in ’08. However, one big target remained on the horizon: the national record in the 2M, 8:29.46 (worth c7:52 for the 3000), set by Lukas Verzbicas in ’11.

Young decided that bringing that 8-lap mark down would be the focus of his senior outdoor campaign. “That was my main goal,” he admits. “I wanted to go after that.”

C19 intervened, of course, causing the cancellation of the California season and all of the usual post-season bashes for fast kids. So, says Young, “Once the season was canceled, my coach and I decided to switch to training for the 5K because I’d probably be running longer distances in college anyway.”

Fortunately, Young got a chance to race one more time, a small 5000 at Portland’s Franklin High on June 23. He made it no secret that he wanted to break Galen Rupp’s HSR of 13:37.91. Rupp even showed up to offer his support.

A hot early pace (3000 in 8:09.99) created some speed bumps for Young later and he finished in 13:50.55. That mark in itself is notable, putting him at No. 4 on the all-time list behind a pantheon of giants: Rupp, Gerry Lindgren and Dathan Ritzenhein, Olympians all. At the time of the race, Young was still only 17—his 18th birthday came on July 27.

“I felt good and bad about it,” he says. “It was definitely a great experience for sure. It was my first-ever track 5K. The conditions weren’t ideal. I think in better conditions I would have run faster. But I’m definitely happy with the results and it’s a good building place for my college career.”

The highlight of the night, says Young, was talking to Rupp: “He said I looked pretty tough in the race and if I had been paced for longer, he thought I could have run faster. It means a lot coming from someone like that.”

After that race—the conclusion of his 2-meet season—Young packed his bags and got ready for the move to Flagstaff, where he joined up with the Northern Arizona team. He’ll also be sharing a coach—Michael Smith—with Rupp.

The Lumberjacks, who won NCAA titles in cross country for three years straight (2016–18) under Smith, are looking to Young as a key cog in their hopes to get back on the podium in the next running of the meet.

Despite the fact that Young has emerged out of a powerhouse California program—last fall Newbury Park under coach Sean Brosnan defended its California Division 2 title with 3 runners in the top 5 before winning the NXN title—his prep mileage was not extreme by any means.

“My freshman and sophomore years I was injured quite a bit and I wasn’t running very much,” says Young. “It wasn’t till after my sophomore year that I was able to get in consistent training. I think I trained pretty hard, but it was definitely controlled so that I would be able to improve and not have any injuries.”

A weekly mileage topping out in the high-60s leaves plenty of room for improvement in the 7000-foot altitude of Flagstaff.

Young was active in age-group track as early as 5 or 6 (“Just because my mom’s friend thought I looked fast running around our backyard, so she put me in youth track”). But as a kid he never really trained much beyond playing soccer, nor did he try cross country until high school.

“In youth track it’s kind of hard to be serious,” he points out. “It’s more just fun, I think.”

Dancing around injuries in his early high school years, Young didn’t attract a lot of attention. In his first State XC meet as a frosh, he placed 103rd. The next year he didn’t even make it to State, but he improved his 5K time to 16:20. On the track, he ran 9:05.17 for 3200.

As a junior, he got on the radar quickly. A 14:01.1 on a 3M course prefaced a 5K in 14:59.2 to win the California title. Then he placed 4th at NXN. On the track, he hit a mile PR of 4:08.82 and then blistered 3200 at Arcadia in 8:40.00, moving to No. 8 all-time. Later he won the California title.

Last fall, he hit 13:39.7 on that 3M course in Woodbridge, won a second State title (14:28.5 PR) and then captured NXN in 14:52.3. That set the stage for his indoor 3000 record, the highlight of the hoped-for big senior campaign that was thwarted by fate.

“I was really disappointed in not being able to have the track season that I wanted, though I was happy with the races I was able to get in,” he says. “It was nice to have just a big training block, but it would have been a lot nicer to have the races that I had planned.”

Now Young is in the thin air of Flagstaff and he says, “The coach and the team are just amazing. It’s definitely an ideal environment to train in. The transition was really good.”

He had to miss the first race of the cross season, one which found the powerful Lumberjacks turning back Oklahoma State and reigning national champion BYU. “I’m just coming off a minor glute strain,” explains last year’s NXN winner. “It lasted a little longer than anticipated, but it wasn’t anything super serious. I’m definitely looking forward to some racing.”

In a strangely extended season for the team, with Nationals now scheduled for mid-March, Young says that Smith’s focus is on improvement. “This is an opportunity for us to just train without having to really think about racing,” he says. “It’s a good spot to be where we can focus on our relationship with training and just getting better as individuals. And then when the racing opportunity arises, we’ll be ready for it.

“I’m excited for this.”