In high school, I was pretty good when it came to running. I was one of the top guys in my region, which is coincidentally nicknamed "The Region" — a metropolitan area of Chicago comprised of five counties in Northwest Indiana that border Lake Michigan.
I ran at Crown Point High School, and during 2015, my senior year, our cross-country team was one of the best in our area.
Once our best runner, Ryan Kepshire, went down with an ankle injury that nagged him throughout most of the regular season, I became the default top guy on the team.
Despite his injury, we still thought 2015 was our year to win semistate and make the podium at the state meet as one of the top five teams.
About 70 miles southeast of Crown Point is West Lafayette, Indiana. At West Lafayette Junior/Senior High School was Cooper Williams, a tall, reinforced runner whose strides could cover twice as much ground as mine.
He probably would’ve been the best cross-country runner in the state if it weren’t for a guy even further southeast of West Lafayette named Ben Veatch from Carmel High School.
Every runner in the state was thinking about those two names, Veatch and Williams. During one race, I remember I was through the first mile when I looked ahead of me and saw Veatch’s bleach blonde hair bouncing up and down about 50 meters in front.
Williams wasn’t a part of that meet, but I’ve had similar close encounters with him during races. Both these two were the solely naturally-talented forces I strived my senior year to hang with.
The final results for that first meet were Ben Veatch — first place at 15 minutes and 24 seconds, Dylan Wallace — 12th place at 16:23.
On May 12, Williams won the 800-meter run at the track and field Big Ten Championships in Iowa City, Iowa, with a time of 1:48.69. Two hours later, Veatch won the 5K in 14:35.45. Both their first-place finishes helped IU take second place in the meet and advanced them to the NCAA East Preliminary Round on May 23-25.
At the East Preliminaries, Veatch qualified for the NCAA Championships June 6-8 in Austin, Texas, when he placed seventh place in the 10K. Williams punched his ticket when he placed second in the 800.
Running has been the driving forces in their lives, whether that be high school, college or even beyond.
Although it’d been years since I’ve run competitively, I still wore a 2015 track and field regional T-shirt with a blue Chicago Marathon jacket — my aunt gave to me after she ran the marathon — just to look like a credible source.
Williams told me I looked familiar, and Veatch said he knew of my high school.
They both grew a lot more than I did since getting to college. Williams had long blonde hair and toned muscles, looking like Thor pre-"Ragnarok."
As for Veatch, his hair wasn’t as bleached as before and was clean cut, combed over from left to right. He’s the embodiment of what a typical good runner should look like, and he spoke highly of the team and said all the right things. He’s Captain America.
Williams and Veatch have been racing one another for a long time. Both took running into consideration when they each dominated their elementary school mile competitions.
In middle school, they both competed in USA Track and Field Junior Olympics.
“We tried to get Ben on our team, but he was too good and loyal to Carmel,” Williams said.
“They formed a super team,” Veatch said.
Veatch had to race them all, and at state, he beat them all except Williams. The back-and-forth battle of wins and losses between the two competitors has been too much to keep track of, and for once in their lives, they are on the same team.
“I used to hate this guy,” Veatch joked. “Still do.”
Williams joked he felt the same way. But in reality, Veatch said he doesn’t feel like any runner actually dislikes the other, and that it’s all in the good spirit of competition. Good competitors respect good competition.
Through all the successes both have accomplished — looking merely perfect from an outsider’s perspective with all the victories and wicked-fast times — came struggles.
As a junior in high school, Veatch suffered a femoral stress reaction and was held out of action for about a month.
“Just the loneliness of training and awkward jogging and just not being with your teammates,” Veatch said. “The team is what matters most in the world.”
Veatch’s reoccurring team-talk wasn’t something he learned in the media training. It was genuine.
As for Williams, this past indoor season he said started to get more anxiety than he’s ever had before a race. He thinks back to when he competed in the Iowa State Classic in February.
“I’d get into these big races where my times fit well, but I didn’t think I could compete with these guys,” Williams said. “And that showed. I got last in that race.”
It was from the help of his teammates, specifically senior Daniel Kuhn, that he was able to snap out of that mindset and feel confident he can compete with anyone.
Even for Veatch, as the attention turns from the Big Ten Championships to the NCAA Championships, he said it’s an overwhelming thought knowing he's competing against the best runners in the nation.
“In high school, we were always the most talented in the field by a ton,” Veatch said. “It’s mostly just purely talent-based. When you get to college, everyone is as good as you are. It’s so hard to win a race. It took us a while to finally get to that stage of winning.”
They weren’t the solely naturally-talented enemies I envied. They were the hot commodities coming out of high school, but they didn’t settle. They trained just like they did in high school with countless miles and workouts every day, and now are individual Big Ten champions and NCAA qualifiers.
Today I realized what I hadn’t known in high school — that they weren’t just better than me but also worked harder than me.
I screenshotted the tweets from the IU track and field twitter account that announced the victories of Williams and Veatch and sent it to Kep, my former teammate.
“Those boys are crazy,” he replied.
I told him I was going to be writing a story on them. He followed it up with, “I love Cooper’s hair.”
I asked if he, too, had any memories of them since he raced them just as much as I did.
“Memories wise though, I remember them kicking our asses every time we ran against them,” he said.
It’s a feeling anyone who ran high school cross-country or track and field in Indiana between 2014-2016 can remember. It’s starting to become a feeling runners in the Big Ten are experiencing and, perhaps, runners nationally.
“Olympics,” Veatch said. “Now that’s the main goal.”