In a scenario that has occurred numerous times over the last four-plus years, Nico Young will be among the favorites when he toes the starting line for Northern Arizona University in the men’s race of the NCAA cross-country championships in Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday morning.
But contrary to his prep days at Newbury Park High, when he laid the groundwork for the historically great program that has emerged during the last two years, Young will be more appreciative of the moment and taking things in as they occur.
“That’s definitely something I’ve gotten a lot better at,” said Young, who wishes he had better relished his experience at Newbury Park in real time. “It can be hard to enjoy the process out of fear of losing my edge or being too content with what’s happening now. But I learned that you can have both. You can really enjoy the process, and enjoy the moment, and still want to be better.”
Wanting to be better has never been an issue for Young, who will lead No. 2-ranked Northern Arizona into the NCAA meet as the two-time defending champions and winners of five of the last six men’s titles.
His high school coach, who is now an assistant at UCLA, said in a March story about the Newbury Park program that Young had a burning desire to be the best at what he did and that his drive and determination rubbed off on his teammates.
“He set the precedent and showed the kids what was possible because he was so dedicated,” said Sean Brosnan. “Now our kids come in and expect to run fast like him.”
Two of the runners who have followed in Young’s footsteps are his brothers, Leo and Lex, senior twins at Newbury Park who have both run under 4 minutes, 2 seconds for the mile and under 8:40 for 3,200 meters, and are regarded by many as the top two boys’ cross-country runners in the nation.
Nico says Leo and Lex are the “two most important people in the world” to him, and he has learned much from the pair, despite being 2½ years older.
“Some of it is running-related,” Nico said of his brothers, who will continue their athletic careers at Stanford. “But I would say the majority of it is how they live their lives. They’re very non-judgmental people, and they live in a very free way that is really admirable. I try to be like them in that regard.”
Cross-country and track are two sports that quickly embraced the internet, perhaps because it provided coverage often lacking in newspapers and other media outlets in the U.S. But as their mother, Lynne, cautions, people can be nasty online.
“They’re your best friend when you’re running well,” she added. “But they can be cruel when things don’t go well.”
Nico is as aware of this as any of the Youngs, for his performances have been scrutinized on various running sites since his sophomore track season at Newbury Park. That was when he first caught many people’s attention by running 9:05.17 in the 3,200 after entering high school as a 5-foot, 100-pound runner with a good — but not great — best of 5:02 in the 1,600.
That breakout track season was followed by a junior cross-country campaign in which he won the state Division II title while leading Newbury Park to the team championship. Then came a track season in which he won the state title in the 3,200 meters after moving to eighth on the all-time U.S. high school performer list with a winning time of 8:40.00 in the Arcadia Invitational.
“He was always very focused internally on what he was doing,” Lex said. “When it came to the message boards, he always said a lot of that stuff was noise and a lot of it wasn’t valid, and you shouldn’t take it seriously.”
Nico credits Brosnan for much of his success in high school, which included a course-record performance in leading Newbury Park to the team title in the 2019 Nike Cross Nationals meet in Portland and a national high school indoor record of 7:56.97 in the 3,000 meters before the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of most of the 2020 outdoor track and field season.
He feels very fortunate to be at Northern Arizona, where the combination of an outstanding coach, Mike Smith, a championship-caliber group of runners, an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet in Flagstaff, and an abundance of dirt trails gives NAU what Young calls the best training environment in the country for college distance runners.
Smith, who has guided the Lumberjacks to four first-place finishes and one runner-up performance in the NCAA cross-country championships since taking over the program, did not want to conduct any interviews in the two weeks before the NCAA meet so he and his runners could focus on the championships. But in previous interviews on the FLOTRACK site, he had referred to Young as a “special talent” and a “very rare athlete” with whom he was going to take a “long-term vision.”
That long-range view might be why Young has yet to run a 10,000-meter race on the track in college. At 6 feet and 140 pounds, Young has the build and stride that would appear to be tailor-made for the 10,000, but the 5,000 has been his primary track event since he came to NAU.
Not that he hasn’t excelled in that race. He lowered his personal best to 13:11.30 this past season to move to third on the all-time college list, and placed third in the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships before finishing eighth in the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships, all before he turned 20 in July.
In addition, he lowered his personal bests to 3:37.75 in the 1,500 meters and to 3:56.00 in the mile.
He was most proud of his 13:11.30 clocking in the 5,000 and his third-place finish in the NCAA outdoor meet. But he also took a lot of pride in his performance at the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships as it came against the best runners in the nation, most of whom were post-college competitors.
“That was the second-fastest 5K I’d ever run,” he said of his 13:19.15 effort. “I may have held my peak too long [following the college season] and maybe didn’t have it in my legs to finish that race as hard as I wanted to, but I’m really proud of it. I think that was just another stepping stone forward for me so I can get to a place where I can have the fitness to run these fast times, but be strong enough and have enough years of training under my belt that I can close well off those faster races.”
Young was NAU’s No. 2 runner when he placed 11th in the NCAA cross-country championships in Tallahassee, Fla., last November. He was the Lumberjacks’ top finisher in March of last year when he placed fourth in the 2020 championships that had been postponed for four months because of the pandemic.
That meet was contested on the Greiner Family OSU Cross-Country Course, the same course that will host Saturday’s festivities, and Young is looking forward to racing against the top college runners on a 10,000-meter layout that has a lot more hills than the one in Tallahassee.
“The course in Stillwater has so many hills that break it up; it’s a race that is harder a lot earlier,” Young said. “There are a lot more points during the race where you kind of have to talk your way through it because … you run up a hill and you’re extremely tired, but you have to trust that when you go down the next hill you’re going to feel better. … Because of that, I feel like it’s a slower race, but a tougher race.”
Young expects that to play to the advantage of him and his teammates because training at altitude has made them very strong on the aerobic side of things. It also helps his confidence to know he ran so well on the same course in his first NCAA title meet.
John Ortega is a former Los Angeles Times sportswriter who has launched a digital publication called Track & Field Informed with Johnny O (trackandfield.substack.com). This was an excerpt from a longform feature on Nico Young.