Cross country markets itself as a team sport, but the only way for a spectator to make it interesting is to view it as an individual competition.
The drama of winning and losing is what sells sports, and in cross country it's not always obvious which team has won until an announcement after the numbers have been compiled.
In advance of Friday's Big 12 cross country championships, Kansas University runners talked about team goals, even though winning the championship isn't realistic.
The far more compelling story involves the individual title. Defending Big 12 champion Colby Wissel, a senior at KU, enters the race an even bigger underdog than he was a year ago. The race was at Rim Rock Farm then. His familiarity allowed him to know just when to make his move. He kicked past the field to score a dramatic victory on a cold and rainy day.
The forecast calls for 71 degrees Friday in Lubbock, Texas, optimum conditions for running, but not for Wissel. The son of a small-town Nebraska football coach, Wissel's a mudder. He's tougher than he is fast. The more hills and mud and tree roots and elbows to battle, the greater his advantage. This year's race, which blasts off at 10 a.m., will be run on the fairways of a golf course. Cross Country Lite.
At the pre-nationals in beautiful Terre Haute, Ind., Wissel finished 25th with a time of 23:50. Teammate Paul Hefferon placed 55th in 24:07.
Colorado's Stephen Pifer and Brent Vaughn, co-favorites to win this year's Big 12 race, placed third and fourth in Terre Haute with times of 23:16.7 and 23:16.8. Pifer, not as familiar with the relentless punching ability of Rim Rock, made his move too early last year and faded. Pifer was coming off of an injury.
"Going into the race, I'm not the favorite," Wissel said. "At the same time, I've never been the favorite. I'm just going to go with the same approach this year. I'll just try to stay in position to do something, and if I have the opportunity to go for it, I'll go for it."
A history major, Wissel took a test in his Great Depression class before departing Wednesday with the team. He seems to attack his education with the same fervor he does his races.
"We read a book on a dust-bowl farmer in western Kansas," he said. "It was kind of encouraging in some ways. This farmer, year after year, kept going back to work when everything else was crumbling."
Wissel said he tries to apply lessons he learns in class, such as that one.
"You're going to get knocked down," he said. "You're going to get knocked down. You're going to get knocked down, but through it all you have to persevere."
Running in pristine conditions such as are expected for Friday morning's race is a knockdown for Wissel. Approaching it with a sound plan is how he perseveres.
"Golf courses are a little faster," he said. "Short grass. Sometimes you hear your splits during the race. Don't be alarmed. Don't be scared. The course is going to be fast."
Regardless of how Wissel makes out Friday, he already has gained immortality in the history books, joining such KU greats as Glenn Cunningham, Bob Karnes, Wes Santee, Billy Mills and others as a cross country conference champion.