Justin Grunewald's first year at the University of Minnesota won't be one he'll forget anytime soon.
In just his freshman year, Grunewald helped the Gophers men's cross country team win the Midwest Region championship and qualify for the NCAA Division I meet, which was held Monday at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.
Grunewald was the No. 6 runner during the season for the Gophers, who finished the season ranked 15th in the nation.
At the Midwest Region meet at Peoria, Ill., Grunewald finished 45th with a time of 31:45.46 to help the Gophers win the championship with a team score of 48 points. The Gophers beat runner-up Oklahoma State by 31 points.
"I ran all right for a 10k race," Grunewald said of the regional win. "The team did really well and came together at the right time. We were ranked third coming in but we've always brought it together in that race."
The region title qualified the Gophers for their eighth consecutive trip to the NCAA championships. But the Gophers weren't prepared for what they saw upon arrival Monday.
"The conditions of the course were extremely muddy, it was just one big mud bath," said Grunewald. "We could've placed somewhere around 10th but we let the conditions get to us mentally. We didn't know it was going to be like that until we got there the day before. That caught us off guard and we weren't prepared."
The Gophers ended up finishing tied for 18th place with 453 points. Colorado won the team title with 90 points. Grunewald finished in 212th place individually with a time of 33.59.3.
"The times were all slow," Grunewald said. "The winner's time was about two minutes slower than last year. My strategy was to go out as the sixth man and run with one of the seniors. We moved up through the pack but not enough. The conditions made it tough to pass and put moves on."
Grunewald was the only true freshman to run for the Gophers this year. With five seniors and two juniors, it would be easy for Grunewald to be intimidated. But his teammates embraced him and took him under their wings.
"The guys really took me in and we hung out a lot," Grunewald said. "They would talk strategy with me and were always helping me out.
"It was less intimidating but more questioning of where to be. I never really ran my own race because I was busy running off other people. It's different going from being in the front to being in the middle."
One runner Grunewald will miss is senior Andrew Carlson, the Gophers No. 1 runner. Carlson won the Midwest Region individual title and had a shot at a top 10 finish at nationals but came up short. Grunewald pointed out that the experience of running alongside Carlson was invaluable.
"Andrew was an amazing runner," said Grunewald. "He's a perfect example of how much you can improve from high school to your last year in college."
With the loss of those seniors, Grunewald will be one of the top runners next year, probably running in the No. 2 or 3 slot. After this season, he realized that his offseason workouts will have to jump up dramatically.
"A lot of the guys on the team would run 100 to 120 miles a week," said Grunewald. "Last summer I was running between 60 and 70 miles so it was physically impossible to run with them. But next year I'm going to change that."
One of the biggest adjustments Grunewald had to make was juggling his classwork and cross country. Grunewald plans to major in either biology or biochemistry and go into pre-med.
Grunewald will also run track for the Gophers but will redshirt this season. But he doesn't want to forget this fall anytime soon.
"The experience I had this year can never be replaced," Grunewald said. "I was able to learn from some of the best runners in the nation. That can't be coached, you just have to learn it from the other guys. Hopefully I'll be the one leading the pack next year."
TROY GUNDERSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5865.
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