Cole Sprout had one primary goal in mind heading into outdoor track season. The Valor Christian senior from Highlands Ranch, Colorado had already accumulated a pile of state titles and records almost as high as the surrounding mountains, a near-perfect GPA and a scholarship to Stanford University.
But one coveted mark had eluded him and a string of other suitors for 39 improbable years: Rich Martinez’ Colorado 1,600-meter record of 4:10.98.
Then, in a twist even more unlikely than the duration of Martinez’ 1981 mark, Sprout’s—and everyone else’s—track season was canceled. Running and tracks were as available as ever; sanctioned records were not.
“My goals for outdoors were a sub-4:10 1,600 (in Colorado, where official state records must be set) and a sub-four mile at sea level, hopefully at the Music City Carnival in Nashville where I went 4:04 last year,” says Sprout of his pre-coronavirus mindset. “But…”
The “but” does a lot of work here, given the enormity of the loss. But Sprout, even for someone at his level, seems encoded to avoid needless mental detours. If there were ever a young runner constituted to handle the unforeseen without losing focus, it’s this one, who turned 18 in December.
“Cole embraces the process as much as anything: Sleep, nutrition, strength training, hip mobility, saying no to other things,” says Greg Coplen, Sprout’s coach for all four years at VCHS. “Along with that, his entire life and identity are not wrapped up in running. I’ve never come across a high school kid who is able to balance friends, hobbies and other things so well.” That balance has included school community-service trips to Denver to serve meals to the city’s transient population, and mutually encouraging friendships with top runners across the state.
Sprout raced sparingly but satisfactorily through last winter and watched his rivals turn in some startling marks – including Colorado’s own Cruz Culpepper’s two close misses at a sub-four mile. He had planned to race the mile at the New Balance National Indoors in March before returning to Arcadia in mid-April for a rematch with Nico Young, the California runner who narrowly bested him in that 3,200-meter contest a year ago—Sprout posted an 8:40.73 PR there.
Hitting the Marks Anyway
But with at least the early part of the season erased, Sprout and Coplen, rather than play a hopeful waiting game, devised a set of time trials that would allow Sprout to run under Martinez’ 1600m mark as well as his own unofficial in-state 3,200-meter best of 8:57.15 from last spring. Sprout’s official record is 9:01.53, which he ran as a sophomore at his league meet; the sub-nine was discounted owing to officiating error that altered the outcome by fractions of a second.
On April 18, Sprout headed to Niwot High School, elev. 5,160’, to take aim at 4:10 for four laps. Abetted by a pair of University of Tulsa runners and mindful of social distancing, Sprout banged through four laps in 61-point seconds each to record an unofficial 4:07.2. Not only was Sprout substantially under Martinez’ 4:10.98 record, his achievement is incrementally more impressive owing to Martinez’s mark having being set at the lower altitude of Pueblo (elev. ~4,700’) back at the ’81 State Meet.
Ten days later, Sprout enlisted the same support crew and track for a crack at a sub-8:50 3,200 meters in Colorado. The pace went out more conservatively than intended, with six laps in 67-low, but Sprout punctuated it with a seventh in 66 and a closing circuit of 59—resulting in a hand-timed 8:49.02. In effect, he’d averaged just over 66 seconds a lap while running only one or two individual laps that fast, suggesting an unlikely amount of reserve.
Sprout performance translates to about 8:35.0 at sea level and close to 8:00-flat for 3,000 meters. Given that Young covered the distance indoors in February in 7:56.97, perhaps Sprout splitting 4:29/4:19 is not so startling after all.
Incrementally Better Each Season
Sprout has methodically eased his peak workload into the 55- to 60-mile-per-week territory over his four years of high school. “The goal with Cole was always to prepare him for the next level of running with as little wear and tear on his body as possible,” says Coplen. “Could he have been an even better high school runner if we’d have hit the mileage and the workouts harder? Yes – it’s very, very possible I held him back too much. But he’s healthy, and he’s experienced a significant jump each season and a big jump between senior year of cross-country and track, even though we didn’t have a season. He’s a better runner now than he was six months ago.”
Sprout has been very good since his freshman track season, when he ran 9:28 for the 3,200 to claim second at the 4A State Meet (Valor Christian has since moved to 5A, the state’s largest classification). That time demonstrated sea-level ability in the 9:12 range—past “precocious” and into rare statistical territory.
But over the years, Sprout hasn’t lost sight of the factors that have consistently helped set him apart from the few others of arguably similar talent, most of all patience. He’s got an eye on the future while keeping both legs churning in the present.
As he looks to next year, Sprout notes that some of his previous rivals have made the jump to collegiate running in style, including Kashon Harrison and Austin Vancil, now University of Colorado athletes whom Sprout will face in Pac-12 Conference competition. And yeah, he follows the pros. “I like how competitively Craig Engels races,” he says of the colorful U.S. 1,500-meter ace. “And I admire [Eliud] Kipchoge’s absolute commitment to his goals.” That Sprout notes Kipchoge’s focus without referencing any of his specific times or records seems telling it itself: Again, it’s all about the process.
The Big Picture
When asked what he’d want for every high-school runner, Sprout doesn’t hesitate: “Having a coach who cares about you as a person over you as an athlete,” he says. “Coach Coplen is always checking in on me and the entire team, making sure everyone is doing all right with school, running, and life in general.” Sprout also cites Coplen’s eagerness to individualize runners’ training in accordance with their natural abilities, goals, body type and other factors.
At the moment, Sprout intends to meet an as-yet-uncrystallized contingent of elite high-schoolers for a mile race at sea level on May 23, circumstances permitting. But if he doesn’t?
“Cole understands the bigger picture, that his running is far more than just about him,” says Coplen. “That may be the most special thing about Cole. I truly believe he sees his running as a way to honor those that love him, that cheer for him. To me at least, it’s a very similar mindset to what Pre had in regards to his fans. Cole represented his school, his family, his friends, his faith very, very well. What a gift he is.”