Pete Wareham really began to understand Ben Sathre four years ago, when Sathre was a senior at Chaska High School. Wareham, the cross-country coach at St. Thomas, suggested that Sathre might become an all-conference runner for the Tommies if he worked hard enough.
Sathre had finished 51st in the Class 2A meet, and coaches at the University of Minnesota -- his dream school -- told him he wasn't even good enough to be a walk-on. That did not alter his ambitions. His goal at St. Thomas, he told Wareham, would be to win at least one national championship. Just to show how serious he was, Sathre put that in writing and signed it.
Wareham quickly learned never to sell him short again. On Saturday, Sathre won the NCAA Division III cross-country title, gunning to the lead just after the start of the 8,000-meter race and never yielding. Wareham said he had never seen that happen during his 30 years in the sport, but where Sathre is involved, nothing surprises the coach anymore.
Sathre won all five meets he ran in this year, including the MIAC championship and the NCAA regional. He defeated Division I athletes in two of them. Though he missed significant training time last spring and summer because of injuries, he ran even faster than he did in 2010, when he won five of seven meets and was second at the NCAA championships.
The senior freely admits he has run with a chip on his shoulder since the Gophers snubbed him four years ago. That has continued to push him faster and farther, even as he has come to realize he wound up in the right place after all.
"My whole life, I'd dreamed of going to the U of M," Sathre said. "I was pretty hurt when they told me I would never be good enough to run at the D-I level. But coming to St. Thomas, I was able to develop on my own schedule.
"To win a national championship is just incredible. And to beat Division I guys feels great. A lot of times, they frown on D-III runners. It's fun to prove what you can do."
A latecomer to the sport, Sathre didn't compete in cross-country until his junior year of high school. Because he had little experience or serious training, he hadn't impressed any D-I coaches, but Wareham noted how much he was improving.
At St. Thomas, Sathre worked his way up to running 80 miles per week -- twice as much as he did in high school -- by his sophomore year. He placed 26th at the NCAA meet that season, still fueled by his desire to prove his doubters wrong.
In 2010, Sathre finished only one second behind winner Anders Hulleberg of Haverford College at the NCAA championships. Injuries to his leg and foot kept him from running for more than three months last summer, but he continued vigorous non-impact training to maintain his fitness. He thought with just a little preparation, he could still chase that NCAA title -- and Wareham knew better than to count him out.
"I might have had more confidence in him than he had in himself," said Wareham, who had two top-five NCAA finishes for St. Thomas in the 1990s. "When he came here, he was one hungry bear. I could see in his first race that he wasn't scared of anything, and I knew how motivated he was."
At the NCAA meet, Sathre completed the 8K course in a career-best 23 minutes, 44.27 seconds, despite changing his strategy at the last minute. The original plan was to start slowly and work his way toward the front. When the starting gun fired, Sathre felt so good -- and so excited -- that he bolted to the lead and stayed there.
Late in the race, Lee Berube of SUNY-Geneseo caught up to Sathre and tried his best to put him away. Sathre would not give in, showing a resolve that Wareham has come to expect. He finished only two seconds off the meet record and became the third Minnesota college runner to win a men's NCAA cross-country title, joining Dale Kremer of Carleton (1976 and '77) and St. Thomas' Nic Mancui (1982).
In hindsight, Sathre said, it probably was best he didn't get to run for the Gophers. The pressure of being in a D-I program might have left him injured or burned out, and he might not even be in the sport today.
By taking things slowly, he discovered just how fast he can be -- at least for now.
"I've still got the indoor and outdoor track seasons, where I'll be running the 5K and 10K," Sathre said. "If I stay healthy, I think I could have another breakout season."
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org