From “the fat boy at the back of the line” to a fast guy in front of that same line, it's been quite a transformation for Indiana University cross country runner Robby Nierman. This Saturday at the NCAA Championships in Louisville, he plans not to stop and take it all in, but to continue pressing, pushing and charging.
After all, it's what got Nierman to the championships, so why stop the momentum?
Indiana is ranked No. 24 nationally and running in the finals for the third straight year. In each of the last two years the Hoosiers have placed seventh and been led by Andy Bayer. The all-American from Leo was injured in last week's NCAA Regionals and will be unable to compete Saturday in Louisville.
Nierman, a three-time all-state runner from Carroll under the last name of Kleber, transferred to Indiana after his freshman year (2009-2010) at Miami of Ohio. He says he knew “right away” that Miami wasn't the place for him, and by the time he landed in Bloomington in the fall of 2010, he was in terrible shape.
“I was about 17 pounds over what I weighed when I raced at Carroll,” Nierman said. “I knew the workouts at Miami weren't that great, but I had no idea I was so out of shape.”
When Nierman began his IU career, he was 15th man on the roster and could barely survive workouts, let alone the season. And races were a disaster.
“Coach tells everyone that it takes 12-18 months before you see the difference in your running,” Nierman said of Indiana track and cross country coach Ron Helmer. “And it took me about 18 months.”
Nierman “survived” his first season at Indiana (fall of 2010) and then had a little bit of success in track. But even last fall (2011), the improvement just wasn't as great as he had hoped.
“I ran 26:00 for 8K (roughly 5 miles) but my legs were so tired and it was a struggle,” Nierman said. “Finally in track I got my legs back in track and made the Big 10 finals in the 1,500.”
Nierman followed up last spring's track season with six straight 100-mile weeks over the summer. Just when his legs couldn't handle it anymore, he throttled back to 90-mile weeks and felt refreshed. The result was a 24:15 8K in his first cross country meet this fall.
“That was a shock to me because I really wasn't expecting to be that fast,” Nierman said. “Since then, I've been in the top seven.”
Nierman kept his varsity spot all season, finishing 30th at the Big Ten Championships and then 32nd at NCAA Regionals and IU's third man. Making the Hoosiers varsity lineup (top seven) is even a surprise to Helmer, according to Nierman.
“Coach was telling us all at practice (recently) that if you keep working hard, you might even surprise him,” Nierman said. “He told us that two years ago he didn't think the fat boy at the back of the line would ever make the lineup. But now that fat boy has moved to the front of that same line.”
Don't think for a moment that Nierman is satisfied. He's come too far to stop now. He barely missed all-Big Ten and all-regional recognition. But before he sets his sights on the future, he is focusing on Saturday and the NCAA Championships. It's a race he wasn't sure he'd ever run three years ago.
“It's great to be running in it, sure. But our pack needs to be around 100th place,” Nierman said. “We have a pack of five or six that need to stick together and finish around 100th. With Zach (Mayhew) up front, that should give us around 400 points and top 15, maybe even top 10.”