Commentary

Appel running for national crown

Updated: October 30, 2008, 1:54 PM ET
By Christopher Parish | ESPNRISE.com

It had been 30 minutes since Evan Appel crossed the finish line at last year's Foot Locker Midwest Regional cross country meet, and he still didn't know who his coach was.

[+] EnlargeEvan Appel
ESPN RISEEvan Appel won the Colorado 5A state championship and finished 21st at the Foot Locker National Championships.

Appel didn't know much of anything. He was dazed and delirious  mired in a stupor after the intense race. But the Dakota Ridge star harrier hadn't been feeling well since Thanksgiving a few days earlier.

"I felt sick that night," he recalls, "and my condition just deteriorated."

In the days prior to the race, Appel felt hot and developed a fever and a cough. Many athletes would have considered not running, but Appel carried on. He started to feel better on race day, and so he said his usual prayer, toed the line and forgot about his symptoms.

Appel doesn't remember much after that. "I went out a little too fast in the first mile," he says, "and the sickness caught up to me." The second mile was a battle. The third mile was a blur.

"Somebody took my picture," he says, "and there were paramedics everywhere, and that's it." Everything else about that morning has vanished from his memory.

Appel's coach, Mike Callor, didn't have high expectations for the race entering the day because of Appel's illness. "I thought we were in trouble," Callor says. Still, he wouldn't have been surprised if Appel snuck in with a top finish.

Not much about Appel really surprises Callor anymore. He remembers hearing about a stocky kid who wasn't built anything like a runner -- a kid who ran just 10 miles a week but was nonetheless nearly undefeated at the middle school level.

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Pre-Race Song: "Born of a Broken Man"

In the years since then, the 5-foot-10, 148-pound Appel has become one of the nation's best distance runners. Now a senior, he is the defending Class 5A state champion and a two-time national finalist at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships. Appel has been one of the state's best runners since he started at Dakota Ridge, and he has the opportunity to compete for a national title this year.

Despite his early success, it took him a while to figure out how to really run.

"Based on what he had done in the past, he was really untapped," Callor says. "He had won all of those meets just off of his own talent."

By the time Appel reached the high school level, Callor was ready to start tapping into his potential. But the general aches and pains of training weren't really sitting well with the freshman. "He had never felt anything like that before, and he'd freak out a little and think he was injured," Callor says. "I had to tell him that was just part of the training."

Appel quickly developed a "pain threshold," an ability to deal with the pain of running hard for long periods of time. "He finally started learning how to race," Callor says. By his sophomore year, Appel was running with the state's best distance runners, finishing third at the Class 5A cross country state meet. As he entered the 2006 Midwest Regional, Callor wasn't expecting anything great.

"That's the only meet that has really surprised me in his whole career," Callor says. "But if he has something that he really wants to do, he'll do it."

Appel's fifth-place finish, in a blistering time of 15:12, made him one of four Colorado runners to qualify for the Foot Locker National Championships. But the national meet was a wake-up call.

"I was definitely overwhelmed," he says. "That race was different. But it helped me to know what to expect (in the future)."

Armed with a newfound knowledge and confidence, Appel trained exclusively to return to nationals in his junior season. He won the Class 5A state meet by 16 seconds over his closest opponent, then toed the line in Kenosha, Wis., for the Midwest Regional -- under the weather but ready to attempt to gain another berth to nationals.

"He ran that race sick," Callor says. "The night before his throat was scratchy and he was sniffling. But he was a lot sicker than we thought. I thought for sure, the way he was feeling, that he just wasn't going to make it."

But he did. Appel stumbled across the line in 10th place, picking up the final Midwest Regional spot at the Foot Locker National Championships. He doesn't remember finishing, or nearly cutting off Dexter (Mich.) senior Bobby Aprill, which set off some controversy.

"Evan kind of veered over," Callor says. "He wasn't trying to cut anyone off. He was completely incoherent when he finished."

Appel finished the race in 15:22 and was immediately taken to an ambulance on site. He couldn't walk on his own. He couldn't hold down water. He didn't recognize his coach. But he was headed to nationals for a second consecutive year.

Two weeks later, Appel finished 21st overall at the Foot Locker National Championships, second among non-seniors. This year, he's gunning for a national title.

"At this point, everything revolves around nationals," says Appel, who was undecided on his college plans at press time. "A high place and maybe a win at nationals is all I want to do. Maybe along the way I can defend my state championship, but everything comes down to nationals."

Appel's high-altitude training -- he lives in Conifer, which is about 8,300 feet above sea level -- and his love of running hills are the biggest keys to his success.

"As long as he stays healthy, there's nothing that's going to stop him when he's got something in his sights," Callor says.

Callor knows just what Appel can accomplish. He saw the distance phenom do his best while feeling his worst, and that's something he'll always remember.

Even if Appel can't.

Christopher Parish covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.