Yared Nuguse of Notre Dame was a man on a mission in the preliminary heat of the men’s 1500 meters at the ACC Outdoor Championships last month. All he needed to do was place in the top three of his section in order to secure an automatic spot in the final. But instead of conserving energy for the final round, Nuguse went bold with a completely solo 3:34.68 win to break the collegiate record and secure the Olympic ‘A’ standard needed in order to compete in the Tokyo Olympic Games this summer.
The run was a statement-making effort from the 2019 NCAA champion who did not have the chance to defend his national title last year, as NCAA spring sports were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It gives you a sense of every race could be your last,” Nuguse said of his mindset since returning to the track in 2021. “Just because everything was taken away so quickly, it makes you never want to leave anything out there and just give every race everything you’ve got… Track is in full swing and we are racing several times a week, but I’m still reminded of what happened and it just made me not want to have any regrets.”
This time a year ago, Nuguse was back home in Louisville, Kentucky, grinding through another long summer of cross country training and dreaming of November to stay motivated. In that way, the summer of COVID-19 was pretty similar to any other summer — but without the guarantee of an NCAA Cross Country Championship to contend for.
“Honestly, it happens every summer,” Nuguse says. “I go home and take a break from school life and be with my family a little bit and it makes it harder to continue training. What really drives me through that is, we’re doing all of this for the team, we’re going to come back and do awesome at cross country nationals. But I won’t be able to do that if I don’t go out and run, or do this workout, or do XYZ.”
Summer training is about eschewing tough track workouts in favor of building mileage, and that’s no different for Notre Dame athletes. Nuguse says he tops out around 70 to 80 miles per week, though some of his teammates will run upwards of 100 miles. He made a few trips back to South Bend and ran with a group, but it was mostly solo miles until late August when the team reported back to campus.
“Overall, it was a pretty lonely summer, I’d say, for most people, myself included,” he said.
The Irish were lucky enough to have some semblance of a fall cross country season, with the ACC Championships held in late October like usual. But the big carrot they chased all summer — the NCAA XC Championships — was postponed until March, the same weekend as the NCAA Indoor Track Championships.
Distance programs across the country had to choose which season to prioritize, a potentially tough call for a program like Notre Dame that boasts both a strong corps of distance runners capable of making school history at NCAA XC, and an all-time talent like Nuguse, who would be a favorite to win national titles in both the distance medley relay and the mile at NCAA Indoors.
But if there is one thing to glean from Nuguse, it’s that he is all-in for his teammates.
“I’m not quite as talented at cross country as I am in track, that’s for sure, but it’s still very close to my heart,” he said. “That real fun team vibe that we have together, just going out and basically dying for your teammates every time you go and run a 10k. There is an excitement in track for me, and it always gets me excited to go out there and run fast. But cross country is still probably closer to my heart.”
Historic Team Finish at NCAA XC
After leading Notre Dame to the top of the podium at the ACC XC Championships with his individual win, Nuguse says the Irish took a few down weeks before ramping back up for the unique “winter” cross country season. Typically, the end of the year marks the transition from 10k races to mile races, but he says the training was not too much different from normal.
“[Notre Dame], honestly, is a very strength-based program, overall,” he said. “We do faster things to get me ready for the 1500m but there’s not a huge difference.”
While Nuguse declined to share specific workouts, citing his coach’s preference, he did say that cross country staples include long tempo runs ranging from six to eight miles.
“Getting used to running hard,” he says of tempos. “You just kind of go at it and try to make it as comfortable as possible so when you get to race day, it’s a comfortable pace.”
The choice to go for an extra-long cross country season was worth it as the Irish were the surprise runners-up in the team standings behind Northern Arizona. The second-place finish was the program’s highest finish since 1957, when the Irish won their first and only national title. The podium placement also capped a steady improvement from Nuguse’s freshman year, when the men’s team placed ninth at regionals and failed to qualify for the national championship. Nuguse himself was the team’s fifth scorer in 23rd place, improving on his 2019 NCAA XC placement of 46th place to earn All-American honors in cross country for the first time.
“I chose cross country over indoor,” he said. “I knew we had the chance to do something big and I really, really wanted to be a part of that.”
How much cross country means to Nuguse is further illustrated by the fact that he turned down offers to sign a professional contract in order to chase the NCAA cross country team title next year. Notre Dame’s entire top six return, which is not something most top teams can boast — including reigning champions NAU. He plans to use his extra season of eligibility to enroll as a graduate student in a one-year business program.
“I really want to not leave any stone unturned at Notre Dame,” he said. “When I go run professionally after that, I’ll feel a lot better about my time here and all the stuff I got to do.”
Transition to the Track
After the historic season, Notre Dame coach Sean Carlson had Nuguse use his cross country fitness to race a 5K on the track for the first time. They traveled to Raleigh Relays immediately following the March championships, and Nuguse won in 13:40.62 — an impressive debut.
They then took a brief down period before going all-in on speed training to bring his legs back around for his specialty event, the 1500m, in the highly anticipated return of the outdoor track season.
“We’d been training for cross country for close to a year when we got to nationals and I felt like all that strength was definitely going to pay off on the track,” Nuguse said. “A big part of the 1500m is getting through prelims and still having enough strength at the end of your final.
“Doing that well at cross country nationals was really amazing for me and for our team and definitely got me pretty pumped for seeing what I could do and seeing that strength continue on into the track season.”
In his only other race ahead of the championship season, Nuguse nipped Oregon’s star duo of Cooper Teare and Cole Hocker — who, together, won three NCAA titles indoors — with a 3:35.96 1500m at the Oregon Twilight.
A week later, Nuguse set the NCAA record — at the time, the fastest time by an American this year. The fact that he ran his time in a largely solo effort, compared to racing against an elite professional field, indicates he probably has a few more seconds in the tank.
At the NCAA East Prelims, he stayed conservative as rival Eliud Kipsang of Alabama deployed a Nuguse-like tactic to essentially time trial 3:35.49 — the sixth-fastest time in NCAA history. This weekend, the two will race for what is likely to be a historically fast NCAA Championship title.
“I think, for sure, with [Eliud] and Cole and all the other guys, it’s going to be a very competitive race,” he says, “and seeing how things have gone so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of us went out and broke [the record] again.”
The U.S. Olympic Trials, to be held later this month in Eugene, are also on his mind.
“Last year… I didn’t really think I had an actual chance of running fast enough to be in a position to go do the Trials,” he said. “And then the season rolled around and a lot apparently had changed since last year.
“I’ve definitely been thinking about the Trials… I know it’s not going to be very easy at all and you know, it’s just more exciting to even get the chance to go and try for something like that. And if it happens, it happens. And I think I definitely have a shot. I’m not going to count myself out. I know it’s going to take a lot of work to get there, and I’m ready to put in that work. And hopefully it turns out the way I want it.”