Barrier breaker: CSU track standout just getting started

CSU’s Cole Rockhold, center, has the nation’s fifth-fastest time in the mile. (Photo courtesy of Matt Begeman)

As Cole Rockhold made his way into the final stretch of the mile run at the University of Washington’s indoor track, the electronic clock at the finish line caught his eye.

“I turned the corner and I saw 3:49 on the clock and thought, ‘I could do this!” Rockhold said, smiling at the memory of the Feb. 11 race in Seattle.

“This” is reaching one of track and field’s monumental milestone’s: breaking the 4-minute barrier in the mile run. And Rockhold, for the first time, had the goal within his reach in that race.

“It’s all kind of a blur now,” he said. “I could see the clock the whole time, and I started going as hard as I could. When I was about 30 yards out I saw 3:56 and thought, ‘man, this is going to be close!’ ”

Rare feat

When he crossed the finish line he thought he saw 3:59 flash on the timer, but he wouldn’t know for sure until the official results were posted. He knew he wasn’t the winner – the loaded field included several professional runners, including two Olympians and many of the nation’s top collegiate milers. Finally, his name appeared in the 8th slot – accompanied by his time of 3:59.55.

“I had dreamed of running a sub-4 mile since I was in high school but I wasn’t sure if it was attainable,” he said. “I was completely exhausted at the end, and I didn’t really know how to react, but then all of my teammates were freaking out and mobbing me. It was a really cool moment.”

To put that moment into perspective, consider this: Rockhold is just the second student-athlete in CSU’s long and storied track and field history to break 4 minutes in the mile. Bryan Berryhill, a two-time NCAA champion who is considered CSU’s greatest distance runner, was the first to crack the barrier and still holds the school record of 3:56.73, set in 1999.

Great time, bad race

Rockhold, a redshirt sophomore from Independence, Mo., majoring in biology education, was feeling pretty good about himself despite battling an extremely sore throat. That’s when Art Siemers, CSU’s head cross country coach and assistant track coach, joined the post-race celebration.

“I said, ‘First off, congratulations on joining the sub-4 club, but you didn’t compete. You can go big places in this sport but you have to stick your nose out there and take some risks,’ ” Siemers said of his conversation.

Rockhold knew Siemers was right. His race tactics weren’t the best, and he waited too long to make his move toward the leaders.

“I actually had a fairly bad day,” he said. “I raced terrible, but I learned a lot that day – and I still broke 4 minutes.”

‘Air quotes’

Interestingly, Rockhold ran a better race the previous week in Boulder, finishing in 4:03.12. The NCAA adjusts race times for high-altitude competition, so his adjusted time was 3:57.19.

Cole Rockhold

“I raced really well in Boulder, but there’s just something about breaking 4 for real,” he said. “After that race a lot of people were calling me a sub-4 miler, but they were using ‘air quotes.’ Actually seeing 3:59 on the clock (in Seattle) somehow made it feel more real.”

All of which leads to this question: How good can this guy be? Rockhold, who battled injuries during his senior year in high school and first year at CSU, has some thoughts.

“I’d like to snag that school record from Berryhill,” he said. “Obviously, he ran a very fast time, but it’s attainable. And I don’t want to limit myself to the mile. Coach Siemers thinks I might be best at some longer races, like the 3K.”

Aiming for league title

Right now, Rockhold and the Rams are focused on winning the Mountain West Indoor Track and Field Championships title that eluded them last year. The Rams have a powerful team that includes several athletes ranked among the best in the nation. The men’s team currently is ranked 11th nationally.

The 2017 Mountain West championships begin Thursday and run through Saturday in Albuquerque. The CSU women’s team will be looking to defend its 2016 title.

A big part of the track program’s culture is a team-first approach. Athletes compete hard for their team, and they are there for their teammates, win or lose.

“Competing on this team is the greatest thing – I love it,” Rockhold said. “We have a great culture of buying into the team concept, and I have a really close relationship with a lot of the guys on the team.

“The conference meet is the big one that everyone shoots for. Last year we finished third, four points out of first place. This year we’ve got a strong team, plus we’re motivated after what happened to us last year.”

Bright future

As for the future, Rockhold is excited for what lies ahead. With two-plus years remaining in his CSU career, he has no idea how far running could take him. Siemers, though, has a pretty good idea.

The fifth-year head coach learned all about Rockhold’s toughness and focus last year when he watched him lose a shoe halfway through a 5,000-meter outdoor race at a big meet. Rockhold ran the final 400 meters in 58 seconds – sans shoe.

“Cole is very coachable and respectful, and he bleeds Green and Gold,” Siemers said. “If he can stay healthy he can be a special runner.”