* Kole Mathison holds off Rocky Hanse through the dog loop on the second lap
Photo Credit: Raymond Tran/MileSplit
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By Cory Mull - MileSplit
SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- There are three roads in Kole Mathison's life.
One is the path forward next fall, a near straight-line shot west to Boulder, where he'll plot his next steps with the University of Colorado's Buffaloes, one of the country's premier men's distance programs.
The next is the path he's taken, because all success stories need their origins, and for Mathison, remembering each step along the way is part of the process.
And then the third is His path, because in Kole Mathison's life there aren't the first two roads without the third.
"I thank God for being out here, for putting me out here and giving me this opportunity," he said. "It's a huge blessing to toe the line with all these amazing athletes."
All three led the Carmel High School senior toward a life-affirming moment on Saturday, a series of title-winning moves and a national championship victory at the Champs Sports National Cross Country Championships at Balboa Park, a fifth straight for a Midwest athlete and the second in four years for an Indianan.
"I talked to my coach beforehand a little bit," Mathison said after netting the fastest performance on the course since 2015 in 14:56.60.
"He said, 'At some point in the race, take the lead. And after that, just don't relinquish it. And press on to the finish.' I think I did that pretty well."
For Mathison, perhaps he ran with three reminders.
The first, of course, was an internal belief in oneself. He had never entered a race he didn't believe he could win.
"Every time I toe the line, the goal is to win," he said.
While doubt was reasonable, considering Mathison's first losses of his senior campaign came in his last three races -- including finishes of fifth and second at back-to-back regional competitions, along with a fourth-place finish at Team Nationals on Dec. 3 -- those moments only seemed to strengthen him.
Kole Mathison's Final Five XC Races In High School:
Dec. 10 -- Champs Sports Nationals, 1st, 14:56.60
Dec. 3 -- Team Nationals, 4th, 14:55.50
Nov. 26 -- Champs Sports Midwest Regional, 2nd, 15:02.30
Nov. 13 -- Team Midwest Regional, 5th, 14:47.00
Oct. 29 -- IHSAA State Championships, 1st, 15:02.80
He had finished fifth on this course as a junior, earning the top non-senior finish in 2021.
"It was rough in some of those regional races, going out there and not being able to perform to the best of my abilities, in my opinion," he said. "Those are learning experiences. I wasn't ready for that type of competition. It prepared me for today."
And so for 15 minutes, Mathison met every challenge, trailing Hunter Jones early on down the dog loop before meeting him at the 800 meter mark and then at the mile. He made his biggest move just before the first big hill, sensing a hesitation by Jones.
"It's an easy course to make mistakes on," he said. "It's really tough, lots of undulations. Tight corners you have to push. It's kind of a slow course. To have that experience going in and knowing where to push, how to run the race, definitely huge."
Which brings us to Mathison's next reminder.
For all the strategy and intention on race day, never once did the Indiana teenager forget where he came from, either.
Standing like a mountain at 6-feet, 4 inches, it's hard not to wonder how Mathison even came to run in the first place.
He could have just as easily cut his teeth through the water, and, as he grew, it wouldn't be hard to image those loping arms slice through the water.
Perhaps just as much, in a basketball-mad state like Indiana, it may have been the better bet to see him on the court. Or maybe on the ice. Or even, staring down from the mound, throwing any number of change-ups or fastballs.
Carmel High School is the largest high school in the state. With over 5,000 students, the athletics program has tallied hundreds of state championships, including a football championship in 2019 and a basketball title in 2021. The girls swimming team has won 36 straight state competitions, the longest of any high school program in the country.
But perhaps one of the school's top teams? Cross country. Before Mathison even arrived at Carmel in 2019, the program had won 16 state titles. The girls had claimed 18.
Mathison can remember, down to the day and meet, when he first fell in love with the sport. And he has his older sister, Molly, to thank for it.
"She competed in the fourth and fifth grade and ran cross country," he said. "It was really cool to see her compete. To follow in her footsteps, I might not be here without seeing her compete. It's amazing to be out here and come so far."
The second of four siblings, Mathison later chased after that feeling. As he grew and logged mile after mile, he yearned for more. Reaching the state championships as a freshman, he finished 11th, and then third and fourth as a sophomore and junior.
A state title remained elusive, as did Carmel's next team championship. But in 2021, as Mathison sought bigger challenges, he began to breakthrough. He ran the fastest 5K in Indiana cross country history at the Garmin RunningLane XC Championships in 14:23.32, finishing 10th at the national team championships, then followed with his fifth-place nod at Balboa.
It had seemed Mathison had arrived.
"I talked to my coach beforehand a little bit. He said, 'At some point in the race, take the lead. And after that, just don't relinquish it. And press on to the finish.' I think I did that pretty well."
Which brings us to the third reminder.
Across a season that began in August, which saw Mathison win race after race and then endure minor injuries; across a campaign that saw him battle through his first losses, which saw him battle to the line at Team Nationals for top five, which saw him conclude his season and his high school cross country career with a national title?
He couldn't take all of the credit. His family, including his mother and father and sister and brothers, were just feet from him in the interview staging area.
Mathison got emotional. He talked about his beginnings. He thought about where his career had taken him.
He thanked the Man above.
"I'm still in awe of what I've been able to do today and what's God's done for me the past few weeks," he said.
Photo Credit: California MileSplit
Photo Credit: Raymond Tran/MileSplit
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Edit: An earlier version of this story said Carmel was the second-largest school in Indiana. It's the largest public school that operates within the Indiana High School Athletic Association. Indiana Connections Academy, which enrolls over 6,000, is an online public school from Hamilton, Boone and Warrick County.