A race against time and expectations
Chase Oehmichen is distinctly aware of time. Seconds, minutes, hours, all of these numbers weigh heavily on the gifted runner from Colby High.
How can they not? It was only two seconds that separated Chase from qualifying for the WIAA state meet in the one mile his sophomore season, and only a dozen seconds separated him from doing the same in cross-country meet in 2019.
In a different time he might have already competed at state this spring. But COVID-19 took that opportunity away.
He tries not to think about the ‘what ifs’ but Chase trains with all the urgency of someone who understands that the chance to do great things is running out, like grains of sand in an hourglass.
“It’s definitely something I’m aware of,” Chase concedes, as he prepares for his final cross-country season. “I try not to think about those missed races, or how much time I have left, but it’s definitely there, in the back of my mind.”
Chase knows he has one more year to make his mark, one more season in track and cross-country to reach a state meet.
He’s gunning to make the most of it.
“There’s not another chance, but I think that’s a good thing because it gives me more motivation to dig deeper and keep going and fight to break through.”
Oehmichen seems to have the perfect build for a runner. He’s long, tall and lean, and his feet practically gobble up the miles when he runs.
In some ways, running is in his blood. His uncle, Matt Oehmichen, was an excellent runner for Colby, qualifying for the state meet in 2003, and he feels a burden to reproduce that feat.
“You know, there was a little bit of pressure there. Everyone remembers when Matt went to state, so it does feel like there’s an expectation to do the same.”
In some ways the pressure to live up the hype has been born out of his own success. He’s earned All-Cloverbelt honors in cross-country three times, placing twelfth as a freshman, fourth as a sophomore year and third as a junior.
He’s gone from running races in the 18 to 19 minute range to covering a 3.1 mile race in nearly 17 minutes. He’s come close to reaching the state cross-country meet, missing his first ever berth by 14 seconds. This year he wants to carry the banner for Colby at state.
“I’ve been practicing and training a lot more this summer,” Oehmichen says as he prepares for his last tilt at state. “There’s more drive there than the other years. I’m approaching my last season with the mentality of ‘This is it - you gotta get it.’” To hear Oehmichen say those words makes perfect sense, but that wasn’t the case when he started his running career. By his own admission, he struggled to run a few miles - and the idea of competing in a sport where each race was over three miles was less than appealing.
A pep talk with his dad, and solid results in middle school, was all it took to get him hooked.
“When I first started running in sixth grade, I didn’t even know if I was going to do it,” Chase admits. “My dad talked me into it, and I just went out for it and the first race I was able run the whole thing. Then I got it in my head that I had to finish the season, and I just fell in love with it from there.”
The first practices of the 2020 crosscountry season took place last week, but Oehmichen knows a season can fly by almost as fast as he can run a race.
Faster than it seems fair or even possible. In a blink of an eye, his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons have come and gone.
“It’s hard to believe I’m already a senior,” he says with a rueful smile. “I’m sort of like the old man on the team now.”
The years have given him more than just a change in mindset - they’ve given him experience and a better understanding of who he is as a runner.
“I think I was a very inexperienced runner my freshman year. Now I know not to go out so hard in the beginning and to pace myself,” Oehmichen says as he thoughtfully compares his seasons.
That experience will no doubt come in handy. There aren’t many surprises for him and he’s seen all manner of courses and conditions - from mud and snow covered trails to hills and forests.
“Running, like with any sport, the more you do it, the more tools you get in the tool box and tricks up your sleeve to deal with a race. I’ve never had two races be the same. There’s always different kids, or the weather is different or the course is hillier or flatter.”
Running isn’t exactly rocket science, and the strategy to casual observers seems simple - be faster than everyone else. But speed alone isn’t enough, and in a sport like track and cross-country, a runner is often alone. It’s up to them to figure out an opponent or race.
On long stretches of a course, it’s all pulse, speed and breath. Each race is just as much against yourself, Oehmichen says, as it is against the competition.
“It can definitely be a lonely sport sometimes, because it’s just you out there. I mean, it is a team sport, but it’s also just you running your own race.”
Track and cross-country can seem to be the exact same sport, but Chase finds that he enjoys cross-country a bit more. The trails are all different, and he can employ different strategies at each meet. And these days, he knows what works best for him.
“I think there’s definitely an advantage of getting out there, and getting into someone’s head,” Chase says. “But for me, I like sitting back a little bit, kinda wear on those guys mentally, but it’s also all about running my own race.”
The final push
Chase, an apt name for a runner, has been doing his own chasing for some time, and after finishing just seconds from state in two sports, he vows that in his last seasons, things will be different.
“It was frustrating for me, you know, being that close and seeing that I was just a couple steps away from my goals,” Chase says. “I’m trying to turn that feeling around, turn that into motivation.”
The coronavirus hasn’t done him any favors either, but it’s also given him a newfound focus that has him running anywhere from 30-40 miles a week.
He’s also trying to prepare his teammates for their final years, and show them that every day represents a chance to get better.
“I’m going to show them that you only have so many years to do this, and this is an amazing thing to have.”
Time isn’t on Chase’s side, but he’s come to terms with that. It makes this final year all the more special, and while the chance to run at college is there, so is the time to do something special.
“I’m not a freshman or sophomore anymore, but the year’s not over yet,” Chase says as he gets set to run another five miles. “I’ve got a little bit of time. I’m definitely going to make the most of it.”
Chase takes off, his feet pounding on the pavement until he becomes a distant figure on the horizon. Soon, much like time, he’s gone.