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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Keegan

Keegan: Wissel earns his celebration

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The better the challenge, the more pure the course, the worse cross country is as a spectator sport.

Rim Rock Farm, with its hills and trees and twists and turns, is precisely what a cross country course should be. Normally, the best way to view a race there would be from a helicopter with a telescope. Or from a treetop. As it is, only those in as good a shape as the competitors (read: nobody) can see much of the race.

Friday morning's event wasn't normal. It was memorable. Bearded Kansas University junior Colby Wissel made it so.

On a cold and wet morning in which KU's two-time-defending champion Benson Chesang finished 12th, Wissel kept the Big 12 individual title at KU with a kick to the finish line that called to mind old cap-wearing Olympic middle-distance runner Dave Wottle.

A junior from tiny Elm Creek, Neb., Wissel knows Rim Rock like a KU football crowd knows late-game disappointment. Wissel runs the course often, and not only in practice. He runs it in his leisure time, too, with his dog, Molly, an Irish setter, at his side.

A runner always tries to look ahead, tries to resist the temptation to turn and look over his shoulder at what might be gaining on him. Afterward, Wissel thought he had done a good job of that. In reality, he turned over his left shoulder five times after passing second-place finisher Joe Thorne from the University of Texas and over his right shoulder once while pumping his fist in the air.

As he approached the finish line, Wissel raised both arms in the air as the crowd cheered wildly for him.

He ran a smart race, a gutsy one, a clutch one.

Afterward, teammate, classmate and close friend Paul Hefferon lauded Wissel's wisdom.

"He started out conservatively, wasn't even in the top 15, and he just kept contact," Hefferon said. "I'm not surprised he won at all."

The part of the course known as the Billy Mills ascent is considered by those who know Rim Rock well a key milestone on the 8,000-meter course.

"In any race, the last 2,000 meters is really important," Hefferon said. "Here, it's one of the most well known parts of the course. If you're already hurting when you get to it, it's only going to make it a lot worse. You'll go from just hurting to actually hating life."

Wissel was not hating life.

"All your dreams kind of come true at once," Wissel said, when asked about raising his arms in triumph. "It might be show-boating, I don't know. At the same time, I don't care. I worked hard for it."

Worked hard right through the finish line.

"Usually, if you're rolling up a guy that close to the end of the race, they're going to fight you to the end, and I didn't really feel he had a whole lot left to fight with," Wissel said. "Usually, he's going to give it all he's got, just try to bury you one last time. I didn't really feel the resistance, so I was like, I've got this guy. I've just got to get to the finish line."

He got there and in so doing joined conference cross country champs who had KANSAS spread across their chests: Fred Rodkey, Poco Frazier, Glenn Cunningham, Bob Farnes, Herb Semper, Wes Santee, Al Frame, Jerry McNeal, Tom Skutka, Billy Mills, Bill Dotson, John Lawson and Benson Chesang.

Colby Wissel's a Big 12 champion for the rest of his life.

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