Q&A: NCAA XC Champ Conner Mantz on Why He Didn’t Turn Pro, Racing Wesley Kiptoo, & His Toughest Workout Ever
By Jonathan Gault
September 22, 2021
Cross country season is back, and after a COVID-delayed year that saw the 2020 NCAA XC champs take place in March 2021, we’re back to the usual schedule this fall, with the season culminating with the first NCAA XC champs to be held in the state of Florida: Tallahassee’s Apalachee Regional Park will host the Big Dance on November 20.
At that meet, BYU’s Conner Mantz will have the chance to make history as the first man to win two NCAA cross country titles in the same year. He’d also be the first American male to repeat as NCAA xc champion since Steve Prefontaine did it 50 years ago. But history is nothing new for the 24-year-old Mantz, whose dominant 22-second win on a brutal, windswept Oklahoma State course in March saw him become the first American man since Galen Rupp in 2008 to win the NCAA XC individual crown.
Following NCAA XC, Mantz embarked on a stellar track campaign that saw him run personal bests of 13:24.78 in the 5,000 and 27:41.16 in the 10,000 meters, finishing eighth and fifth, respectively, in those events at his first Olympic Trials. Now Mantz is back on grass and opened his title defense with a victory at the BYU Autumn Classic in Provo on September 11.
I caught up with Mantz over the phone last week to discuss his Trials experience, why he chose to return to Provo for one more cross country season, why he loves racing Iowa State’s Wesley Kiptoo, and the hardest workout he’s ever run.
JG: Congrats on a stellar 2021 so far. NCAA cross country champion, NCAA runner-up in the 10k. And then fifth and eight at the Olympic Trials. I’m interested in your Trials experience. What do you think about your results at that meet and what were your biggest takeaways?
CM: So the Trials was definitely tough. Coming back from my LDS mission in 2017, I was like, all right, that’s the goal. That’s the race. I want to make the Olympic team in 2020. And then it became 2021.
I just remember waking up that morning [of the 10k] and being insanely nervous. I kind of looked past most races [last spring]. Even though they were big races, I kind of looked past them because, it’s not the Olympic Trials. We were focused on [the Trials].
I was hopeful that the race was going to be fast enough that we can run the Olympic standard (27:28). I had talked to a few of the athletes, the WCAP guys, beforehand. And a little bit with Robert Brandt, who ended up actually saying he wasn’t going to help lead. At first he was interested, but then as we talked, he’s like no, I don’t really want to put myself out there for somebody else. But he ended up leading probably five or six laps, if not more. Sorry, I’m going long on this. Kind of a big experience.
The race didn’t go as planned. The guys who were supposed to take the lead from me did not when they were supposed to. And so I stopped running on pace for the Olympic standard because I didn’t want to be a pacesetter for the whole 10k and just hope somebody would pass me, which eventually happened when Robert passed me at the end of lap 5. Which was frustrating, because I had been waiting for somebody else to do the job that we had planned out — a different person every other lap to take the lead.
Probably 3k, 4k into it, I felt just exhausted but just hammered. Luckily, I was able to have a good last last lap and move up to fifth but in that race as a whole, I was really hoping to get that opportunity and make the team, but I think that a long season just kind of beat me up.
Heading into the 5k, I just wanted to make the final. That was the goal in the prelims, just make the final. It ended up not being very tough because our heat, we knew if all of us ran under 13:45, everybody was going to make it. So Casey [Clinger], myself, and Morgan Beadlescomb all just had to switch laps off so that we would be quick enough at 13:45, we wouldn’t have to kick very hard.
In the final of the 5k, I was just exhausted. I tried to get myself excited to race, but for the first time in my college career, I was burned out and didn’t really feel super motivated. The 5k, I went in, I was in the pack, and I just didn’t have the drive to be like, yeah, let’s compete. It was just a feeling of like, yeah, I’m just here running. Probably not going to PR today, it feels like 90-95 degrees out here, nobody else wants to push the pace. Then as the pace slowed down, I was like, might as well make it more fun for people who came to watch. Made a move with about 1000 to go, then just kind of let everyone go when I shouldn’t have. I still finished strong enough for eighth, but not as strong as I wanted to even though I was kind of burned out.
Taking everything how it was, I was fine with the results but definitely disappointed not to make the Olympic team. But that’s how most people are when they head into the Trials. The Trials are kind of tough for people who have big goals like that, because you know, there are only three people who are going to make it in each event.
That burnout feeling: how much time did you take off after the Trials? And what was it like getting motivated again to train? Do you feel physically and mentally recovered?
So I didn’t take any time completely off. Personally, it’s nice to have something to do, something to look forward to in a day. So I kept running. I was probably getting one run a day in for a week, then I started two runs a day the next week. But no workouts, just fun runs. I kind of just kind of let myself go and do whatever. I wish I had taken more time off now, because that was probably the best time. But I kind of just looked into it and was like, you know, cross country season’s coming, I feel like I’m ready to run, but I’m not ready to work out. I kind of had that feeling — I’m ready to not worry about time, not worry about anything. If I’m going to run, it’s just to run, if I’m not feeling it, I’ll skip the run.
I did that for a couple of weeks and then I got excited to start training again. I think maybe watching the Olympics also got me excited to train and race again.
Is that typical for you, not to take time off after a season?
Not really. For me personally, it is difficult to take time completely off. Because I feel like my schedule is based around, okay, I wake up, I go for a run and then I start my day. Then I feel like I’ve been a little bit productive and I can just keep going on with my day. But if I don’t run in the morning? I’m like, okay, like, what am I supposed to feel this hour of my time with?
It kind of sounds silly, but do you get what I’m saying?
I do get what you’re saying. Clearly running is a big part of your life. I find it interesting that it’s so embedded in your routine, it would feel weird to go a day without it.
Right, right. It’s just about keeping that routine.
Did you consider, after the Trials, turning professional?
I did. I actually told a lot of people I was going pro at that time that are probably now scratching their heads. Right after the Trials, I think the most frustrating part of that season was that in 36 days, I ran four 10ks, and all of them were pretty tough. One was the Olympic Trials, one was the NCAA champs, one was regionals, which was just hot. And then the fourth was the Sound Running one where I tried to get the Olympic standard. And I was like, you know, if I was professional, I wouldn’t have to run regionals, I wouldn’t have to run NCAAs. There was no point, it seemed, in my mind to stay around.
There are a lot of good races I want to do. Some of the best training partners I’ve had in college and my really good friends are Connor McMillan and Clayton Young. Training with them is fun, but then they go to these races and it’s like, man, I want to be in some of those big races too.
And so right after the Trials, I told Coach [Ed] Eyestone, I’m done. And he was like, well, let’s let’s talk it through first. And so I was like, yeah, I think I’m going to go pro. And eventually I came around. I didn’t do anything to jeopardize my eligibility anyway because I know it’s not like people had contracts there waiting for me. But I kind of wanted to get on to the pro scene, just compete against people who were on that same level.
Another thing that made me want to go pro right then was the fact that I felt like the whole last year or so, if it’s not an NCAA championship, I’m not being pushed to the level I want to be pushed at. But eventually, I changed my mind and decided to come back for another cross country season. But definitely at first, right after the Trials I was like yeah, I’m all-in, I’m gonna go pro now. I’m seeing a lot of guys I ran in high school with all running pro now, and I want to do that. I want to go out and compete. Robert Brandt and John Dressel, that was their last season. I ran with John Dressel all throughout high school, and it’s like, he’s going pro, I should do the same thing now, why not?
So what what caused you to change your mind?
It was honestly a bunch of different things. One was talking to Coach Eyestone. Maybe this isn’t 100% true, but Eyestone was hearing a lot of people say — and Eyestone actually brought this up to me before the Trials because I was even thinking of going pro after [last] cross country season — and as we talk, he’s like, look, it’s an Olympic year, it’s really not a great time to go pro because a lot of these companies sign their bonuses, sign their contracts to people in an Olympic year and their budgets aren’t as big. And talking to Clayton Young, he and Jared Ward explained like, yeah, usually like your contract’s a four-year thing. If you signed for less money in a year like this year when there’s not as much money out there, you’re just stuck with less money than you’re worth for four years. But if you wait until the new year, there’s probably gonna be a lot more money out there that you can sign for a four-year contract.
That was a little frustrating to hear, because I feel like I just keep waiting to try and go pro. But these guys have been there — Jared’s been there for a while, Coach Eyestone had a really long professional career.
There were a few other things. I really like the team [at BYU] and I feel like the team built me up to be a really good athlete. And I would hate to leave the team after we had our worst finished at nationals (7th) since 2016.
And I kind of just wanted to do another cross country season. Cross country doesn’t seem as big in the pro world, let’s be honest about that. And I love cross country, and I think it’s a really fun event.
And then just some personal prayer and trying to figure out the most I could about the situation before I made any decision.
So is the plan right now that you’ll professional after the cross country season?
Yeah, that’s the plan right now. And I don’t think there’s anything that’ll change that. You never know, but I would prefer to go pro after the cross country season.
How does it feel going into this season as the defending champion? Do you feel that target on your back?
Yeah, absolutely. I do feel like there is that pressure and that target. But it’s also exciting, because there’s so many good guys in the NCAA who are also really good, and were up-and-coming during track season. So it kind of adds the variables of, well maybe I won nationals, and I might have been the best cross country runner there was last year but then there were a lot of guys who were doubling back from indoor track or there were the Oregon guys who didn’t even run cross country. It’s kind of a bummer that Cole Hocker signed a professional contract — I would have love to go against him in a cross country race. I don’t feel like I’m an outright favorite right now, but I feel like I’m one of the guys who can compete for the win.
Who do you view as your biggest rivals for that individual title?
That’s a hard question, because you don’t know where people are at. We all know Kiptoo is really good on a cross country course, he likes to keep races fast. Cooper Teare did win nationals in the 5k. I wouldn’t be surprised if the NAU guys, specifically Abdihamid Nur and Nico Young, came up and got the win, either. Morgan Beadlescomb is good.
There’s always going to be a good Kenyan athlete who you’re not expecting, who could always come out and win the whole thing, because there’s so many good athletes from there. You never know who could be the next Ed Ches or Sammy Chelanga.
Yeah, actually, speaking of that, Alabama, they just got two guys who have run in the 13:20s. Victor Kiprop, he’s run 13:26 at altitude in Nairobi. So he’s one of the guys I think people have their eye on this season.
Oh sweet. That’ll make it more exciting, right?
I think so, yeah. So you mentioned Kiptoo. I had him as the favorite going into NCAA XC last year. What’s it like racing against him?
It’s fun. Well, maybe that’s not always the best way to describe it. But it’s kind of exhilarating because you know he’s willing to push the pace and he’s willing to dig down and make it a 10,000-meter race. It’s not gonna be, let’s all stay together and sit behind one person and then we go like in 2018, when there was a pack of 12 guys that ran together, and nobody even broke away really until the last 400. With Kiptoo, it’s all-out and it just adds a little bit of excitement to the race.
So I really enjoy it. I think it makes it a lot harder, obviously. He beats you down pretty hard when you’re in a race with him.
You’re the top guy on BYU team, but you arguably have the best front three in the country between you and Brandon Garnica (13:26 5k) and Casey Clinger (13:24 5k). What are those practices like? Do you get competitive with them? Do you ever find yourself duking it out with them on the final rep?
We do get competitive but not that competitive. It varies. There will be a workout that plays to my strengths, like for example, two-mile repeats, or some of the longer tempo stuff and I’ll more be on my own for that or they’ll just sit on me and we’ll just get a good workout in. But if we’re doing 400’s or 800’s, sometimes Casey just kicks mine and Brandon’s butt. Casey can run 400’s at 58’s for days. And Brandon can lead anything out of any of those. So I don’t think we really duke it out with each other too many times. Occasionally on the last mile of a tempo or the last rep of mile repeats, maybe, but not like not like we’re trying to drive each other into the wall or anything.
But I think it makes it a lot more fun, for sure, to have those guys training with me. Brandon has a chip on his shoulder because he’s probably one of the fastest guys in the NCAA who’s never been All-American. He was 42nd in 2019 and in 2020, he passed out in 10th with 500 to go. So he was moving at the time, it’s just sad to see he hasn’t been able to put it together in cross country. And then he didn’t make it to outdoor nationals in track but he’s run 13:26, which is insane. So Brandon has a chip on his shoulder, he’s ready for something big this year. And then Casey is just an animal.
In 2020, you were training originally for the Olympic Marathon Trials. But then you got a stress fracture and you didn’t end up running it. 2022, after cross country, are you planning on running a track season? Will you go straight to the roads? Will you try a marathon? What’s your plan?
I think I’ll probably focus on the track season. I really haven’t made anything too concrete. I’d originally wanted to try to make that World Cross Country Championships team in February, but they postponed it.
I think it depends on who I sign with, where I end up being. I still have to finish school, I have one more semester after this. And then if I end up being coached by somebody other than Coach Eyestone, if I end up moving somewhere, then we’ll see. Although tentatively, in my mind, I would like to do a marathon sometime next fall.
You said you have one more semester. Is that of undergrad or is that a master’s program? What’s your degree?
It’s an undergrad. I wish it was a master’s. I majored in mechanical engineering. I tried to do it in four years, but then I couldn’t finish enough of the prereqs in time. We have a capstone class in our last year that you have to start in the fall. If it wasn’t for just that class, I would have graduated by now.
Ed Eyestone’s BYU school record in the 10,000 meters is 27:41.05. You ran 27:41.16 in May. What did he say to you after the race? Does he still tease you about coming so close but not getting it?
All the time. I think it lasted a day until he started telling jokes. At first, he was like, nice run, you missed it, but it wasn’t what you were going for. Because I was focused on the 27:28 Olympic standard. I definitely think I could have gotten [the record] if I had sped up a little bit in the last lap. I just wanted to make sure I was doing the first rule of running, and that’s just staying on your feet and making sure I didn’t dig myself too deep into the well to miss that 28:00 [Olympic Trials] standard. So I think I could have gotten out had I started pushing a little earlier than 300 to go.
But I think that ended up messing me up at NCAAs because I was feeling good in the race. I was like, if I run a 56 [last lap], I break Coach Eyestone’s record. So I kind of bolted that first 200 of the last lap at NCAAs thinking, I’m feeling so good, there’s no way I’m going to get beat this race. And then with 120, 130 to go, I started tying up and Patrick Dever just blew right on by. I’m like, I’m tying up, I can’t even catch him, I went too hard too early. I was naive. I didn’t realize how much running on pace for a 27:45 was going to take out of me for a fast last lap.
So lots of jokes there. Someone will probably get it eventually. I wouldn’t be surprised if Casey got it in the next year or two, if he ended up running a 10k.
Obviously one of the things that people have pointed to with the fast times is the shoes. Does Ed say, oh, I didn’t have super shoes in my day?
He joked about them a little bit at first before the race. And then maybe the day beforehand, he said, All right, I’ll never complain about super shoes again. If you break the record, you have it, I won’t bring up super shoes.
And he’s kind of stuck to that. But I think it’s because he knows that everybody on the team understands how much more impressive his record [from 1985] is than anything I run because I have super shoes.
All right: hardest workout you’ve ever done?
This was like less than a week after I ran a 10k, and Coach put us through an extended version of the Michigan. We added a tempo mile before and a tempo mile after. That day was pretty tough. I’ve had some workouts that sound more impressive than they were tough. Those are sometimes the ones I tell people, but that variation of the Michigan I did, I ran it with Jared Ward and Clayton Young that day, because I had class during practice. So I couldn’t do the workout the team was doing and I just jumped into whatever Jared was doing and just got worked.
Do you remember the full splits and distances?
I went for 4:59 on my first tempo mile. 4:25 mile on the track. 4:48 on the next tempo. 3:16 on the track [for 1200m]. 4:46 tempo. 2:08 for an 800 on the track. 4:42 tempo. 60 for the 400. And then a 4:45 tempo.
What about hardest race you’ve ever run?
In college, definitely NCAA XC nationals [last year]. Physically, that was definitely the hardest race I’ve ever run. I don’t think I fully recovered from that for two weeks, which is crazy because usually I recover from races pretty quickly. Two or three days after, I’m feeling okay enough that I can work out again. But that, I was working out, but I wasn’t feeling good during any of the workouts.
It’s interesting because that was one of the best races you’ve ever run, you crushed the field by over 20 seconds. And normally, when someone wins by that much, people will say, oh, yeah, I was feeling good. And that one, it doesn’t seem like that was the case. Was it because you had gone to the well? Was it the wind? Was it the course? What do you think took so much out of you?
I think it was both going to the well and the course. The pacing of it, I mean, our first kilometer was 2:31 and I didn’t even know that at the time. That was a lot faster than I would have preferred to start. And then we kind of settled in but we didn’t really. The only split I saw in the race was 8:16 at 3k. And I was like, man, this is better than my 10k pace [on the track]. And then it was windy, it was hilly, and I was just trying to compete.
At the end, it was easier to go to the well because it was like, I can win this, let’s go. I didn’t really want to leave anything up to chance at the end, so I made sure I just kept pushing. But I think it was that first 5k that really beat me up more so than the second 5k.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.