In 2019, Gabriel Sanchez was one of the best high school runners in the state at Lowell High School. As a senior, he was the state champion, the Gatorade Indiana Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year and a highly regarded recruit.
While Sanchez was one of the highest-ranked freshman recruits joining the Indiana cross country team in 2020, Mariah Wehrle said she was one of the lowest. She was a talented runner at Cardinal Ritter High School in Indianapolis, head coach Ron Helmer said, but not at the level to compete for a state championship.
Despite different pedigrees as runners, both came to Indiana for the same reason — they wanted to challenge themselves. Each said they chose Indiana for the opportunity to train with some of the best runners in the country and work their way up to that level themselves.
Once they did arrive on campus, the COVID-19 pandemic shortened their freshman seasons. Wehrle ran the only race between the two, which was a 38th place finish in the 6k on Jan. 30 at the Big Ten Championships.
At the start of this season, Sanchez and Wehrle began their sophomore campaigns in the Indiana Open. Helmer said his plan going into the meet was to allow younger runners to compete and see if any had the potential to move into the top 7 on either team. Sanchez and Wehrle not only led their own teams, but they both finished first overall in their respective races.
"People handle success in different ways," Helmer said. "Some people have success, and it scares them. In their case, they had some success and it motivated them and excited them and really caused them to want more."
Since winning the Indiana Open races, Wehrle has finished as a top 3 Indiana women’s runner in all the team’s meets. Sanchez has finished in the top 4 on Indiana’s men’s team in each of his races.
Even though Wehrle might not rank as the most talented runner on the team, Helmer said her mental toughness allows her to compete and place highly in meets and helps her composure throughout.
Wehrle said she does two things every race to make sure she stays focused: stay relaxed and sing in her head. She tries to stay near her teammates so the races feel more like practice, she said and she sings in her head to distract herself from the pain and motivate herself to run faster, a practice she picked up when she arrived at Indiana. Her go-to is Kanye West’s “Monster.”
“I like to rap Nicki Minaj’s part in that,” Wehrle said. “I fell flat on my face in the 2K, and I was struggling a little after that, but I just had to channel my inner Nicki Minaj and I was good to go.”
Before she could channel her inner Minaj, Wehrle had to prove she deserved the opportunity to race in Indiana’s top 7.
Both runners made great strides in their training last summer to get to that level. Helmer said some runners just do the offseason workouts to check the box, but Sanchez and Wehrle concentrated on getting better and it showed once they returned in the fall.
Sanchez had heard about how some of the best runners on the Indiana men’s team had traveled to train at elevation in Colorado the prior summer. When senior Skylar Stidam invited Sanchez on the 2021 trip, he jumped at the chance to join.
The group spent most of late July and early August training at 9,000 feet of elevation in Crested Butte, Colorado, and made trips to train at Western Colorado University.
“It was just the guys hanging out and training every day,” Sanchez said. “I got my butt kicked every single workout and basically every single run.”
Once he returned to Indiana, Sanchez said it felt like he had flipped a switch and was keeping up with runners who he couldn’t in the past.
Still only sophomores, both runners are usually among the youngest in their races with a lot left to prove. Sanchez said his goal for the rest of this season is a strong finish at the Big Ten Championships and a top 100 finish at the NCAA Championships. Wehrle said she wants to establish herself on the Big Ten stage.
“Definitely in the future when I'm even more developed than I am right now, I hope to be a future All-Big Ten runner and All-American,” Wehrle said. “That's why I'm here."