BIG PINEY – Big Piney senior Colby Jenks describes cross-country as a “huge mental game” – a lonely battle of willpower out on the 5-kilometer course.
“Your body can probably go faster, it can probably go longer,” Jenks explained. “But your brain tells you to stop. Throughout the (cross-country) season, I’ve really struggled with the second and third mile to push myself to the point where, after the race, I know I pushed my hardest.”
Jenks stepped onto the starting line at the State Cross-Country Championships in Ethete on Saturday, Oct. 22. To deal with nerves, Jenks talked with teammates, then said a prayer.
The starting gun fired and the harriers attacked the opening mile, all uphill. Jenks angled for the leading pack.
“We knew there was going to be a front group of 10 kids or so competing for the top spots,” he said. “Since I don’t have the distance legs all the kids up there have, I would have to stick behind them, because I’m more known for my leg speed at the end of races.”
Jenks “held on for dear life” for the uphill portion of the race. During the second mile, Jenks found himself falling behind.
Doubts slipped into Jenks’ mind – concerns over missing a race earlier in the season due to an injury and his performance at Regionals.
Approaching the third mile, Jenks shoved the negative thoughts aside and made a “mental gear change.”
“My brain just clicked,” he said. “This was my last State race. I said to myself, ‘I gotta push now.’ So I set my mind to speeding up and slowly picked off kids one by one. I distracted myself from the pain of the race and focused on getting to that next spot.”
Brain, heart, lungs and legs working in tandem and Jenks closed in on the top five runners.
Jenks hit the finish line in fourth place, capturing 4A All-State honors in the process. Clocking in at 16 minutes, 23.24 seconds, Jenks set a blistering pace of 5:17 per mile.
Utterly spent, Jenks struggled to stay on his feet. For the first time this season, Jenks reached the limit of his endurance and he knew he gave it his all out on the course.
“I had exhausted myself and ultimately played the race very well according to my strengths,” he said. “It was awesome to get in the top five. The three kids that beat me are crazy good. I’m happy with that.”
The path to All-State
Few athletes choose to grit through the grind of long-distance running. Harriers are used to non-distance runners asking why they stick with the sport.
“The fact that I can use my two feet to move pretty fast,” Jenks joked. “Even though it may be in circles sometimes.”
In reality, “no definite answer exists,” Jenks said.
Part of the attraction to putting in the extra mile is “a sense of accomplishment, the sense of being free, of being able to push myself,” Jenks explained.
Community also plays a role and camaraderie runs deep among cross-country athletes.
“We all understand each other,” Jenks said. “We’re all crazy. We’re all running miles for fun. We push each other as a group.”
And then there are genetics. Jenks’ father ran cross-country in college.
The road to becoming a cross-country runner was more roundabout for Jenks, though. He started his athletic career playing football as a freshman. Due to small numbers at his previous school, Jenks was frequently thrown into the game against older, larger varsity players.
“I’d get beat up all over the field,” he said.
Jenks also went out for basketball, and although hoops were a better fit, a new opportunity arose his sophomore year. His former middle school track coach formed a small cross-country team and Jenks decided to sign on.
“I didn’t know the cross-country community was so big,” Jenks said.
He gradually evolved from a mid-distance runner into a harrier capable of tallying up dozens of miles each week.
“It’s definitely something I’ve learned to enjoy,” he said. “Sometimes, I tell people I hate running. In truth, I love it. It’s how I get rid of stress – how I clear my mind. It’s how I prove myself I’m good enough to do something – that I have purpose almost.”
A memorable season
Jenks competes for the Jackson Hole High School (JHHS) team and joined the varsity squad as a junior.
The first year was difficult. Jenks moved with his family to Big Piney. Adapting to a new school and then traveling more than 100 miles to run with athletes from another school proved challenging.
This summer, Jenks decided to participate in the JHHS cross-country team camp at Bear Lake.
“That’s where I really got to know all the kids,” he said. “It’s where we started to bond together as a team. (JHHS Head) Coach Jeff Brazil does an amazing job putting the camp together. It really connects us.”
Jenks stepped into a new leadership role this year. Brazil named Jenks and another senior, Bohdan Barnett, team captains over a relatively young team.
Jenks traveled twice to Jackson each week to participate in team practices, leading workouts and warmups with Barnett. He sets an example through hard work and performing well at meets. He also believed in fostering a sense of connection.
“I made sure as a captain to communicate and make all the freshmen and sophomores, those who were new to the team, feel included and important,” Jenks said. “My ultimate goal was to bring the team together.”
Coach Brazil enters his team in invitationals across Wyoming, Utah and Idaho. Traveling long distances to run with athletes from across the region can be daunting, but Jenks rose to the occasion.
On Sept. 10, Jenks captured first place in a field of 125 athletes in his division at the Liberty Bell Invitational in Littleton, Colo., and posted a personal record of 16:10.60.
“Ultimately with more competition comes more improvement,” he said.
The regular cross-country season is over, although Jenks continues to practice with the team in preparation for the Nike Cross (NXR) Northwest Regional Qualifiers in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 12.
Jenks plans to go out for indoor and outdoor track. The indoor season begins in January.
“I’m ready for track,” he said. “I get to start running in circles again.”
Jenks plans to compete in track and cross-country at the collegiate level. He is considering a career in computer engineering or computer science, although he possesses a passion for creative writing. The avid reader excels in English class and dreams of writing a book someday.
When he isn’t busy with school and “running in circles,” Jenks enjoys improvising his own music on the piano.
“The piano is my second outlet to running,” he said. “Every time I get home from school or practice, you can find me banging on the keys, or sometimes playing a little softer – it depends on how I feel.”
Jenks thanked Coach Brazil and JHHS assistant cross-country coach Matt Chorney “for helping me a ton this year.”
“They’re so supportive,” he said. “They took in an outsider and let me run for them.”
Jenks also expressed gratitude to his teammates.
“The team is awesome. I’m definitely going to be sad after NXR that I’m not going to be running with them anymore.”
The senior gave a shoutout to competitors and friends from other teams.
“They’ve pushed me farther than I ever thought I would get.”
Jenks also credited his track coaches at Big Piney for showing up at cross-country meets to cheer him on.
He saved his biggest thanks for his parents and family – “they were all super supportive.”