Oct. 2, 2010
By Larry Watts
Things have certainly changed in the University of Michigan men's cross country program since Craig Forys arrived as a freshman in 2007. Not only is there a new head coach with Alex Gibby replacing 36-year veteran Ron Warhurst this past summer, but as a 21-year-old redshirt junior, Forys now finds himself as the elder statesman of a team bottom-loaded with 12 freshmen.
"I started coming to grasp with the fact I would be the senior member of the team when I was named a tri-captain in track last spring," the Howell, N.J. native says. "Being the definitive leader, it's a good role to have. I learned a lot last spring working with fifth-year seniors and how to deal with some difficult challenges.
"I was the only freshman on the (cross country) team when I came here, so I was immediately best friends with all the older guys and able to bond pretty quickly. Now I'm the old guy and I have all these kids, so it's taking a little while to get to know all the new faces. There is so much potential for great friendships as well as them being great runners, so it's just going to take a little time to foster close relationships with all of them."
But don't think for a minute Forys is about to allow this young Wolverine squad to let the Big Ten world pass it by this season. He doesn't want to hear the term "rebuilding year."
"For sure, we have to develop our talent as a team and there's an adjustment process to a new program," he says. "But for me, this is a get-it-done year. At this point in my career, four years at this school, I've built as much as I can and I need to get it done."
Since taking seventh as a freshman in the Big Ten Championships, earning first-team all-conference honors, a series of leg injuries have kept Forys from flashing his potential on a consistent basis. The injury bug cost him the indoor track campaign during his freshman season and then really started to bite him hard during the outdoor track campaign in his sophomore year.
"I started having calf problems in my sophomore year and then during summer workouts I developed tendinitis in both knees," he says. "Because I wasn't able to get the training in to be successful in cross country, I then had to take a red-shirt last fall.
"I've been plagued with unfortunate injuries since coming here, which have made a dent in my consistency. Once I start getting consistent, my performances will get a lot better."
After talking things over with Forys and his high school coach, Warhurst had originally planned to red-shirt him during his freshman season.
"We had a strong squad so the feeling was I wasn't ready to help and it would be better for my future if I ran unattached," he says.
But two weeks before the Big Ten meet, Forys clocked an outstanding 10K time. Six days before the conference meet, Warhurst took away the redshirt and Forys was one of the nine Wolverine entries.
"Coach Warhurst gave me the option and I was all for it," he says. "I was overjoyed and I wanted to prove myself."
Not only did Forys run, but he also found himself near the head of the pack. When Michigan lead runner Michael Woods went down with a broken foot, he found himself as the Wolverines' lead runner, entering the chute in seventh place.
"I know my finish wasn't expected by a lot of people," says Forys, who is a former prep national indoor record holder for 3,200 meters. "In my opinion, I thought Michael (Woods) was on his way to winning the race, but while crossing a bridge, I guess his spikes went up into his foot and he went down.
"I was overjoyed with my first college race going so well, but then I turned around and didn't see many Wolverine jerseys close to me. After not being able to help the team at the beginning of the season, I was a little bit in awe."
Michigan, which finished fifth in the conference meet, rebounded to share first with Wisconsin at the NCAA Regional. Forys ran 11th at the regional and gained all-regional honors. He followed that up with a 96th place showing at the NCAA Championships.
"I wasn't happy with the way our season ended," he says. "The NCAA meet was pretty much a bad race for me and many of my teammates. I was pretty intense with my workouts during the year and I guess it took its toll on me for the indoor season."
As a sophomore, Forys came back to take 12th at the Big Ten cross country meet and earn second-team all-conference honors. He was 10th at the regional and placed 137th at the NCAA Championships even though his time was nearly 10 seconds faster than the previous year.
The highlight of his sophomore year came on the indoor track, where he specialized in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters. At the Big Ten Championships, he placed fourth in the 5,000 (14:09.33) and seventh in the 3,000 (8:11.25). His time of 13:54.48 in the 5,000 at the Husky Invitational two weeks earlier ranked him 15th in the nation, but only the top 14 runners were invited to the NCAA Championships.
"My strength was there from the cross country season and it carried over to indoor track," he says. "Being so close to qualifying for the NCAA meet was tough, but it was also satisfying to know I was 15th in the nation."
But the effect of the injuries he had developed during outdoor track and summer workouts not only cost him his junior season of cross country but also wiped out half of his indoor track season. By the time he was finally hitting full stride, he switched over to the 3,000-meter steeplechase for the outdoor season.
"After talking to coach Warhurst, we decided the steeple would be my best option, so we focused on that," he says. "It was a cool event and I was learning it on the fly. Being injury-prone, I didn't get a chance to practice it much and I relied on my racing to carry me through. It did get pretty brutal at times because this was a whole new world with having to jump over barriers and stay upright on a long distance."
Forys made his debut in the steeple at the Michigan-Ohio State dual and won the event. He eventually took fourth at the Big Ten Championships, taking 12 seconds off his best time with a finish of 8:48.18.
According to Forys, although he would like to return to the steeplechase, where he will run on the oval next spring has yet to be determined.
"I think it will be mostly decided by how my cross country and indoor track go," he says. "I'm going to come back for that 3,000-5,000 double indoors and I need to make improvements."
With a new cross country coach and so many new faces on the roster, the early part of the schedule has been a trial period for the Wolverines. Forys has only been entered in one of the first three meets. In that one meet, the Cowboy Jamboree in Stillwater, Okla., he finished 11th while leading the Wolverines to second place.
"These early meets have basically been ice-breakers for us," he says. "Coach Gibby has different cycles in his preparation and the main focus has been getting back to training and saving it for later in the season.
"The biggest difference I've seen between coach Gibby and coach Warhurst is we're being held more accountable for our actions. Before, if some guys weren't having a great day, they would find ways of getting out of doing intervals or dropping out of a workout. Coach Gibby is very good about making us know what his thoughts are and he makes us pay attention to our actions and attitude toward the team and sport."
A physical education major with a minor in health, Forys also had to make an adjustment on the academic side as well. This semester, he finds himself taking night classes Monday through Wednesday.
"Most of the athletes try to get their classes out of the way between 9 a.m. and noon, but it just didn't fall that way for me this semester," he says. "I go straight from practice to class, so the biggest issue is making sure I get food in my system after a workout. Now my mornings have become my nights and that's when I get my homework done."
Before he heads back home to New Jersey to find a teaching job in two years, Forys says there are still a few things he wants to accomplish if he can stay away from injuries.
"I want to graduate knowing I was able to succeed in something that has been such a huge part of my life," he says. "I found great success in high school and I have been in and out of success here. My competitive nature is I want to know I did well, so that means doing well on the national scale. I want to become an All-American so I know my time here wasn't wasted."