A Long Journey
Nov. 5, 2008
By Larry Watts
With his parents' home less than a mile from the center of campus, Hassan Mead seemed like a perfect fit for the University of Minnesota. But the journey has been a long one for the Golden Gophers' sophomore cross country/track standout.
Mead spent his first 11 years on the farm where he was born in Somalia, East Africa.
"It was a different lifestyle, sometimes a little hard to describe to my teammates," he says. "Our main crop was corn and we raised cows, goats and sheep."
During this time, Mead's father, Yausuf, made the decision to leave his family behind and seek a better future and education for Hassan and his younger sister Hana in the United States. But the eventual move to Minneapolis was a big shock to Hassan.
"We moved here in January and I had a really hard time adjusting to the snow and cold weather," he says. "So my father eventually sent me to California to live with my uncle's family."
Although he enjoyed running, Mead was more attracted to basketball, which he played from seventh grade until his junior year in California and then Seattle, Wash. It was in the middle of his junior year he decided to move back home and also drop basketball as his prime interest.
"I realized if I was going to do anything beyond high school, it was going to be through running," he says.
During his senior year at Minneapolis South High School, he set the state Class AA state cross country record of 15:10.7 on the 5K course and finished fourth in the Foot Locker Cross Country Nationals. On the track, he took third in the state 3,200 meters and sixth in the 1,600.
"When I moved back here and started thinking about college, I didn't think I'd be staying here," Mead says. "But once I came over here to visit with the coach and team, everything just seemed to connect and I knew this would be the place for me."
Losing the 2007 Big Ten men's cross country title by just over three seconds was a tough pill to swallow for Mead. Just as he was within grasp of the brass ring, Wisconsin's Matt Withrow kicked past him and entered the chute first.
"I really didn't know what to expect last year," Mead says. "I just kept tagging along and before I knew it there was only three of us (at the front). Then, all of a sudden I was leading. However, with about 200 meters to go, my body just shut down and I couldn't respond.
"Sometimes you just have to go through those learning experiences. I have really worked on relaxing more during my races and making sure I have enough gas at the end."
Consider the lesson well learned. When it came time to put the pedal to the metal during last Sunday's Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich., Mead was on cruise control. The sophomore Golden Gopher breezed to over a nine-second win (24:26.4-24:35.9) over Wisconsin's Landon Peacock.
According to head coach Steve Plasencia, each time the 19-year-old Mead takes to the course or steps on the track, he is digging deeper into his potential and adding to his foundation. But Plasencia steers clear of saying "the sky is the limit" when looking into Mead's future.
"I don't want to put that kind of burden on his back," the Golden Gophers coach says. "With normal progress, he'll be very, very good. And he's good already."
Plasencia says Mead has worked diligently in the offseason to build his upper body strength, mainly through pushups and pull-ups. The 6-foot-2 sophomore now weighs in at 142 pounds.
"There's not a lot of body fat there and you may not see him when he stands sideways, but you sure see him when he goes past you," Plasencia says with a laugh. "He is so easy to work with, so our concern is not to give him too much of a workload."
Winning the Big Ten title is just another step along Mead's learning curve, which already includes All-American honors in both cross country and outdoor track as a freshman. The first freshman in Gopher history to earn All-American honors in cross country, the Big Ten's freshman of the year placed 43rd at the NCAA Championships. On the track, he won the Big Ten's 5,000 meter outdoor title and went on to take sixth in the NCAA meet with a school-record time of 13:44.30.
But when the rest of his Golden Gopher teammates went home to rest during the summer, Mead kept working with Plasencia because he had earned an invitation to the Olympic Trials. He placed 12th in his 5,000 heat, which included only two collegians, but it was an experience Mead will not soon forget.
"To be able to spend that extra time working with my coach while everyone else was enjoying their summer was very rewarding," he says. "It was an overwhelming experience to compete in the Olympic Trials. Every time I laced up my shoes last year, I didn't know what to expect, but I just knew I had to go all out."
While Mead has enjoyed more national success at 5,000 meters, the longer races seem to appeal to him more. He recently set the school 8K record (23:31.1) while taking third at the Pre-NCAA Meet in Terre Haute, Ind. The Midwest Region Championships in Stillwater, Okla. Nov. 15 and the NCAA Championships back in Terre Haute Nov. 24 expand to 10K.
"I've been through those races once and I think they are more favorable to me," he says. "When they're used to running 8K, sometimes it's human nature for others to misjudge those extra 2K."
"He simply knows how to put himself in the right place at the right time," Plasencia says. "He understands fully that it's a war of attrition out there."
Although he now has a Big Ten cross country title in his pocket, Mead refuses to think too far into the future, especially about a return to the Olympic Trials in four years.
"The Big Ten title means a lot in building my career," he says. "You have to start somewhere and just keep working and putting in that extra effort from that point. Being able to dominate a conference as strong as ours opens up your career for the next level. Right now the goal is help my team do well at the region meet and get back to the Nationals.
"As far as the future, I'm not taking anything for granted. I've seen how runners can do well one year and have a disappointing season the next time out. I'm just thinking about my present situation."
"The news is getting out about him and his name is coming up more and more when you talk about the NCAA Championships," Plasencia says. "But Hassan is about as humble and team-oriented as you can get. I wish I had two more of him."