Oct. 26, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- 14.
"It means history, tradition,'' said Wisconsin men's cross country coach Mick Byrne. "It means that your program has been on top of the heap for a long time.''
"It means that you better pay attention to details,'' Byrne continued, "because everybody is coming for you, everybody is taking a shot at you, everybody wants to beat you.''
"It means victory, it means tradition, it means a lot,'' said UW senior Mohammed Ahmed. "Like Maverick (Darling) said two years ago, `We never want to be part of that team that ends the streak.'''
That was a pretty big clue as to why "14'' is so meaningful.
The Badgers will be shooting for their 14th-straight Big Ten cross country championship Sunday at Michigan State's Forest Akers East Golf Course in East Lansing, Mich.
With 13 in a row, Wisconsin already owns the longest streak in conference history. Since 1985, the Badgers have won 24 of the last 27 crowns; and 30 of the last 35 since 1977.
"It's passed on from one group to the next, one recruiting class to the next,'' said Byrne, who took over the program in 2008 and won his first national championship last season.
"Our seniors are passing it on to the younger guys. They respect the history. They get excited about it, and they enjoy the challenge.''
Ahmed, Darling and Reed Connor are the principal torchbearers. Ahmed, the defending Big Ten champ, conceded that when he got on campus, "I had no idea we had such a huge history and tradition.''
But it didn't take him to long to figure out "what we were protecting.'' The streak.
"And once you really become a Badger and taste that first win,'' said Ahmed, a member of the 2012 Canadian Olympic team and a native of St. Catharines, Ontario, "you always want to feel that.''
Ahmed didn't medal in London, but he still took away something from the Summer Games.
"He walked away with just a different beat to his stride; just a little bit of swagger that I haven't seen before,'' Byrne said, "and an attention to detail that I haven't seen from him in a long time.
"The growth that I've seen in Mohammed in the last four months is just incredible. He's taking care of a lot of the little details that the good athletes should be taking care of.''
Byrne listed a renewed commitment to the weight room, daily ice baths, nutrition and sleep, among other things. "All of a sudden they've become much more important to him,'' he said.
Ahmed completely agreed.
"I came back from the Olympics with a relentless motivation in the way I approach workouts and pay attention to details,'' he said, comparing the" before and after'' Ahmed.
"It's something that the old Mohammed didn't have.''
Although he brought home a lot of gear from London, he still came away empty-handed.
That emptiness -- from not medaling -- is a driving force, too.
"To be honest, I've tried to make myself forget,'' he said. "Every once in awhile someone will come up to me while I'm walking on campus and say, `Hey, Mohammed, good job in the Olympics.'''
The always gracious Ahmed will acknowledge the compliment. But it's a reminder "I went to London to try and achieve a goal and I really left the race feeling like I didn't accomplish what I wanted.''
Returning to Wisconsin for the fall semester, he was confronted with a big decision.
Should he compete? Or should he take some time off and redshirt?
"The first week of September,'' he said, "I'm thinking that it's going to be a very quick turnaround from the Olympics (July 27 through August 12).
"But once I got into training and I was around the guys, I knew that I wanted to finish off my four years of cross country with the guys that I started with, Maverick and Reed.''
Much went into the decision-making process; especially since Connor was also a candidate to redshirt if Ahmed did. Byrne pointed to the importance of communication in assessing each runner.
"We have a reporting system and we value that reporting system,'' Byrne emphasized. "Every Monday, the kids have to send in their logs.
"I don't think there's a Division I school out there where kids don't have to do that. But we take the log very seriously and the kids take it seriously.
"It made sense to hold off on the decision until we got more information, and that information -- both responded real well over the last three weeks -- was basically a no-brainer in the end.
"Hey, they're healthy right now, they feel very fit. Who knows what it will be like this time next year? Both Mo and Reed have had injuries. So it all made sense: Feel strong, feel fit, let's do it.''
That meant the Big 3 -- Ahmed, Connor and Darling -- would be kept intact to work on keeping the streak alive. What is the common thread that runs through all three?
"They have an instinct, I call it race savvy,'' Byrne said. "They have an understanding of each other and how to win the race; how to expand their energy and not freak out if it hurts a little bit.
"Ultimately, they understand the heartbeat of the race.''
Ahmed viewed "race savvy'' as "the ability to read the race'' and "stay in control.''
He noted a recent running workout with Wisconsin student assistant Elliot Krause, who ran alongside of Ahmed and Connor and Darling as a member of the 2011 NCAA championship team.
"I was getting too excited so I'm picking up the pace,'' Ahmed said, "and Elliot looks at me and say, `Mo, stay controlled. Think and stay controlled.' That to me is race savvy.''
As hardened racers, they mesh. Off the course, it's an interesting mix of personalities and backgrounds. Connor is from Houston, Texas. Darling is from Ovid, Michigan. Ahmed is from Canada.
"All three of those guys bring something different to the table,'' Byrne said. "Mo is kind of the light-hearted one. Maverick is the much more serious one. Reed is the balance between the two.
"He's the guy who brings everybody back to reality and square one.''
That means only one thing to Ahmed.
"We're all going for the same goal,'' he said. "And it makes us all the same.''