Top Gun: Darling has Badgers racing for NCAA podium


ON WISCONSIN
<b>Maverick Darling traded his dream of being a professional snowmobile racer for the opportunity to run, a decision that's paid major dividends.</b>

ON WISCONSIN
Maverick Darling traded his dream of being a professional snowmobile racer for the opportunity to run, a decision that's paid major dividends.
ON WISCONSIN

Nov. 18, 2010

MADISON, Wis. -- Maverick Darling gets it all the time.

There are questions about his hometown of, Ovid, Mich., which is 22 miles from East Lansing. “It’s so small,” he said, “We have more cows than people, that’s for sure.”

There are questions about his childhood dream, which was to be a professional snowmobile racer. “If you’ve watched motocross, we do the same things on snowmobiles in the winter,” he said.

There are questions about the “pack mentality” that has been in place for the UW cross country team. “We run together, we train together, so we race together,” he said.

There are questions about the No. 4-ranked Badgers and where they may finish in Monday’s NCAA championship meet. “We’re kind a team that’s under the radar,” he said.

All good questions.

But more often than not, there are questions about his first name: Maverick.

“My mother was a huge Tom Cruise fan,” he said of the Cruise character Pete “Maverick’’ Mitchell in the movie Top Gun -- which he has seen more times than he can remember.

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Darling can be grateful that his mom (Kimberly) wasn’t a fan of Anthony Edwards (Nick “Goose’’ Bradshaw). “I kind of define myself as a maverick,” he said. “A little bit different, a little bit unique.”

That’s all fine and good. But a professional snowmobile racer?

“My brother (Tyrone) raced professionally for a short period of time,” he said. “I started running in my eighth-grade year because I wanted to get into shape for snowmobiling.”

Darling considered turning pro. At least that was his goal. But during his junior year of high school, he dislocated his shoulder while snowmobiling and his dad (Mark) encouraged him to give it up.

“My dad kind of realized I might go somewhere in running, and he kind of put an end to that (snowmobiling) dream,” he said. “So I focused on my running and it has all worked out for the best.”

The best may be yet to come.

Maybe as soon as Monday.

“It’s really not our race to win,” Darling conceded of the NCAA meet in Terre Haute, Ind. “We’re a team that no one is even talking about the possibility of winning. But, yeah, we can win. Obviously a lot of things would have to go right for us and some other teams would have to make some mistakes.

“Winning is not a long shot, but we’d have to have a really good day.”

A year ago, Darling got his first taste of the national meet. And the results left him with more questions than answers after finishing 144th. The Badgers placed seventh as a team.

“The biggest thing that I took from last year is that it’s a different race,” he said. “And it’s a different feeling and not in terms of pressure or anything. It’s just a different atmosphere.

“I didn’t perform nearly to what I wanted to do. After I looked back on the race, I asked, ‘How am I going to respond to this next year? What am I doing to do differently? How am I going to prepare myself?’ From a year ago, I’m a completely different runner – mentally and physically.”

The mental preparation for Monday is critical, he added.

“It comes down to whether you’re beating yourself up mentally or you’re preparing yourself mentally,” he said. “You can sit here and think about the race and go through a 100 different scenarios in your head. But the real question is, ‘Can you go out there and be mentally tough?’

“Everybody is going to be hurting in this race – it’s 10K (a little over six miles). But can you be that person who’s tougher than everyone else and that person who wants it more?”

The 7K mark can be the crossroads of mental and physical fatigue.

“That’s the point in the race where everyone is either falling off or they’re holding on and moving up,” Darling said. “Where are you going to be? Are you going to be one of those people when one person starts to fall back, you’re going to think, ‘He’s falling back, can I fall back, too?’

“Or are you going to be one of those people who embraces that he’s falling off and ‘I’m going to take advantage of this and keep trying to pass people?’ No one feels good at 7 or 8K. This is where you have to say, ‘I’ve got to hang on, I’ve got to be tough, and make it through. It’s not that much longer.’”

It’s at this point in the competition, Darling suggested, where some teams will have expended so much energy, they will begin falling back. “They can go from fourth place to 10th,” he said.

Conversely, at this point, some teams will make their bid to win the race. “How does your team prepare for the final 2K?” he posed rhetorically.

Enter the pack mentality; the concept of multiple athletes running together.

“We train as a team like that – we do all of our workouts like that,” he said. “We get a feel for each other and a feel for the group. You know when someone is hurting; you can tell by the way they’re running or breathing. The biggest thing is hanging on together as a group.”

That was the case last Saturday when the Badgers won the NCAA Great Lakes Regional title for the eighth straight time. Reed Connor finished in second place overall with a time of 30:28.7.

On his heels (sixth through ninth) were Darling (30:31.61), Elliot Krause (30:31.79), Mohammed Ahmed (30:31.61), and Landon Peacock (30:32.02). Phil Thomas was 23rd and also earned All-Region honors.

How did Connor finish ahead of the pack?

“Reed had never been our No. 1 guy,” Darling said. “So we decided before the race that if we were all together at the end, we’d let him take it. About 300 meters from the finish line, I looked at him and Elliot looked at him and we said ‘go’ and he kind of looked at us funny but he took off.”

That speaks to the selfless nature of this team.

When Darling was asked if getting  a “podium” shot –  the top four teams are recognized at the awards podium following the race – was a reasonable expectation for Monday’s meet, he said, “Higher (than fourth). There’s no reason we can’t be third. But I really see us trying to push for second.”

Oklahoma State is the defending national champion.

“We were a really young team last year,” he said. “The Big Ten wasn’t as strong as it has been in the past and the region was a little weaker, too. We put the cart before the horse and we didn’t understand the difference between those two races and the national meet.”

Such was the learning curve. “We were a year away from where we needed to be,” he said.

 

In this context, there’s the faith that they can all arrive at that destination together this year. It’s time to kick the tires and light the fires, Big Daddy.

Don’t ask. He gets it all the time.

ON WISCONSIN
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