Running can be a lonely sport, particularly for high school athletes pursuing an advanced career. Rowland Hall's cross-country and track and field coach Mark Oftedal knows the situation all too well, having watched his son Eli—a 2015 alum and elite runner who now races for Colorado State University—endure many solitary training sessions. So when he met Carson Burian last fall, Mr. Oftedal recognized what the talented young runner was facing. "I told him, 'You're in a difficult situation, at a small school with a small team, training at your level.' I knew he would be off on his own quite frequently."
Indeed, Carson has experienced just that: long miles on the road alone, when he focuses on long-term goals—such as running in college—to stay motivated. This past summer, he logged between 60–65 miles most weeks, often training in Park City to escape the heat and ozone in the valley. The sophomore, who individually placed first at this year's Region Championship and third at the 2A State meet, used to play up to six sports. He didn't take running all that seriously when he joined the Middle School cross-country team, but after winning every race in his eighth-grade division, he realized that the sport might hold a future for him. Now, he trains year-round for races, competes in cross country and track, and supplements his running with weight lifting—and the occasional ski day, like so many Utahns.
Mr. Oftedal described Carson as an intense, determined young athlete who does his research before races and sets realistic goals for himself. While he's competitive, Carson will never bad-mouth his competition—in fact, he wants to race against the best in the field, making a potential victory that much sweeter. "He wants to bring himself to and beyond the level of the people in front of him," Mr. Oftedal said. And since he's racing against juniors and seniors, he oftentimes has to be patient with himself. Carson can be philosophical about his performance, especially if he's not feeling in peak physical or mental condition on race day. "I still try to run the best race I can," he said, "and though I may be disappointed with my time, I'll usually understand why."
For a young runner, Carson has already developed a balanced regimen of nutrition, sleep, hydration, and workouts. He's learned to listen to his body, and knows that adjusting his pace by five seconds will allow him to push through several more miles instead of hitting a wall. Much of his growth stems from intense training and research, both at Rowland Hall and elsewhere—he attended a running camp at Northern Arizona University this summer, which he credited with giving him an extra boost of motivation during the hottest months of the year. But Carson has also been forced to adapt at times due to injury: last December, he strained ligaments in his foot two days before a race, and then batted through ongoing pain at the start of the track season because he hadn't healed properly. Thankfully, he's stayed healthy since, and says he's hoping to shave another 20–25 seconds off his mile next spring.
Carson's talent and mindset are only part of what makes him a special athlete. His individual performances certainly help the team at race time, but his sportsmanship and leadership help everyone persevere through tough practices. He understands the importance of being a good teammate, and said he'll give others encouragement when they might be struggling, sometimes simply by running alongside them. "It's all about trying to create positivity within the group," he said.
That's a strategy Mr. Oftedal and his assistant coaches, Laura Johnson and Giselle Slotboom, often employ during races too. "We try to give runners cues, and so if someone is having a rough time we'll ask their peer to join up with them and give them a boost." In fact, the camaraderie Mr. Oftedal saw in this fall's cross-country team is one of the things that pleased him most: even with varying levels of ability and experience among the group, they were often running together at practice and training together outside of school.
Carson's dedicated approach to conditioning and wellness has rubbed off on his peers, according to Mr. Oftedal. "Anytime you've got kids that are pushing at the top, it's going to positively influence others." He noticed students comparing their patterns and choices to Carson's, and then emulating his habits or characteristics. "They realize it's not just about showing up for practice and putting in the miles. It's a lifestyle decision."
Mr. Oftedal was quick to add, "It's a gain for Carson, too," as he can find inspiration watching his teammates make huge improvements, and they encourage his growth in return.
This year's cross-country team was a young group, led by sophomores and juniors, which Mr. Oftedal and Carson find exciting. Their achievements included Region 17 titles for both the girls and boys teams, and a third-place finish for the boys at the 2A State Championship—only one point behind the second-place team. With no one on the boys varsity team graduating in 2019, Carson believes the top spot in the state will soon be within reach.
Carson's future, as well as the team's future, is undoubtedly bright, but Mr. Oftedal doesn't necessarily measure success in terms of championships. He recently heard from the parents of a 2012 alum that their son is training for a marathon, and that news is just as satisfying to Mr. Oftedal as any state title. "A successful season for me is when I meet these kids years down the line and they're still running—still finding joy in competing, or just running for themselves," he said.
And if they still hear Coach Oftedal's or a teammate's voice encouraging them to push through training sessions, well, that might just make the runner's life a little less lonely after all.