With a little more than half a mile to run on a cold, rainy and muddy day at the NCAA Division III cross country championships in Louisville, Ky., Nov. 23, Patrick Watson allowed himself a quick peek over his shoulder.
The next closest runner was more than 50 meters away, and that’s when Watson, a senior runner for Stevenson University, began to really grasp and appreciate what was about to happen.
“It almost didn’t feel real,” he said.
As Watson crossed the finish line in 24 minutes, 13.9 seconds, nearly six seconds faster than anyone else on the 8K course (4.9 miles), he became the first Stevenson athlete to win an individual national championship in any sport.
“Coming down that [final] straightaway, I was just in awe, trying to figure out what was going on,” he said.
While Watson tried to keep an even demeanor after finishing — conveying the very true feeling that he expected to do this — his coach, his family and his longtime friends, some of whom had driven up from Tennessee to watch him run, could not.
They mobbed Watson as part of a joyous celebration of talent, hard work and determination.
“It was almost like relief that it ended the way it did,” Stevenson cross country coach David Berdan said. “I knew how hard he worked for it.”
Watson certainly was not preordained for this moment.
At South River High School in Edgewater, Md., he was not near the front of the pack on the Seahawks’ cross country team.
While the top runners in the state were running 4:20 in the mile and 9:15 in the 2-mile, Watson lagged nearly a minute behind them in both. He struggled to qualify for the state cross country meet.
“I always knew running was important to me,” he said. “But I was nowhere near mature enough to really take this sport seriously.”
That attitude continued during his freshman season at Stevenson, and his times made him nothing more than an average college runner. He ran an 8K time of 28:14.4 at the 2016 Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) meet, more than four minutes slower than his national-championship time for the same distance.
Berdan, a professional runner, a former MAC Runner of the Year for Elizabethtown and a two-time winner of the Baltimore Marathon, used to spend his summers training in the high altitude of Flagstaff, Ariz., and he suggested Watson join a group out there after his freshman season.
“When you are forced to train with teammates every day, it helps create a whole new level of dedication to the sport,” Watson said.
As a sophomore, Watson finished second at the MAC championships in the 8K (25:33.9) and qualified for nationals for the first time. That opened his eyes to his potential.
“If I was able to do all of that when I was still taking the sport half seriously, imagine what I could do if I go all-in,” he said.
As a junior at nationals, Berdan told him that if he played all of his cards right he could finish 15th overall, and that’s exactly what Watson did (24:48.5). But he wanted to do even more as a senior.
“If I am going to do this, I might as well do it right,” Watson said. “I put everything I had into it.”
Instead of going to Flagstaff for one month to train, Watson went for two months during the summer. He followed a strict diet that included a lot of anti-inflammatory foods and eliminated most processed foods.
He focused on recovery to make sure he was squeezing the most out of every workout, and he made sure to stay hydrated and sleep eight to nine hours per night.
“There is no point in doing this if you are not going to go all-in,” Watson said.
The culmination was a senior season during which Watson won a lot of his races by wide margins and pulled away from the pack at the national championship meet.
“Nobody works as hard as Pat, and I am not talking about just in training,” said Berdan, who will bring Watson onto his coaching staff as an assistant after he graduates in the spring.
“From sleep to diet to injury prevention, he took it to the extreme on every level to achieve the goal of winning,” Berdan said. “It was really cool to see how serious he was this season.”
Photo Credits: John Sommers and D3photography