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High school track: Park City distance runner emerges as best in the nation

We could easily make this story about Ben Saarel The Straight A Student. The worst grade he's pulled in high school is a single A-minus as a freshman (what, they can't give the kid a mulligan?). His cumulative GPA is 3.99, with an honors curriculum.

He loves chemistry, science and math — no, seriously — and he is mature beyond his years, saying things like, "I don't really think about grades. I just enjoy learning new stuff. I just focus on becoming a better person and elevating my knowledge of the world."

But we're not here to talk about Ben Saarel (say it SA-rell) The Student. This is, after all, the Sports Section. We're here to talk about Ben Saarel The Runner. Ben Saarel is the best distance runner in the country at the moment. He's also one of the greatest high school distance runners in Utah history.

Saarel, a muscular, 6-foot-1, 160-pound Park City High School senior who dwarfs most of his rivals, has won two national-class races this month in head-to-head meetings with Arizona's Bernie Montoya, both in California. For the uninitiated, Montoya won last year's prep Dream Mile in New York with a nation-leading time of 4:01.32. Signed by Arizona State, he is considered the top prep runner in America again this year — or he was before he met Saarel.

Saarel and Montoya's first meeting was a 3,200-meter race at the Arcadia Invitational, where Montoya was featured on the cover of the meet program. Saarel unleashed a surprising kick on the final homestretch to pull away for a victory. His time of 8:45.74 is the fastest in the nation this year.

"That was a shocker to everyone," says Jeff Wyant, Park City's coach. "That's the first time Montoya has been outkicked."

Saarel and Montoya met a week later. In the 800, Montoya and Saarel finished second and fourth, respectively, with the top four finishing within .72 of a second. A day later, Saarel met Montoya again, this time in the mile. With neither runner wanting to take the lead, they dawdled through the first half-mile in a pedestrian 2 minutes, 10 seconds, before the race really began. They ripped through the second half-mile in 1:58. With a lap to go, Saarel took the lead and when Montoya pulled up on his shoulder with 200 to go, Saarel took off. Covering the last lap in 54 seconds, he pulled away from Montoya on the homestretch again to win in 4:08.55, fastest in the country so far this season.

For the record, Saarel's mile time converts to 4:07.11 for 1,600 meters — the distance commonly used in high school — making him the third-fastest Utahn ever. He also ranks second at 3,200 meters and sixth at 800 meters on Utah's all-time list.

As Wyant notes, no Utah prep has demonstrated such a range. Judge's Luke Puskedra, who went on to become an All-America at the University of Oregon, was strong in the mile and two-mile, but not the half-mile. Alta's Dan Hutson was a speedy half-miler (and quarter-miler), but he refused to move up to the mile. Davis' Brad Nye was a force in the half-mile and mile, but didn't post elite times at two miles.

Saarel had the endurance to place fourth in the national cross country championships last fall, and the speed to run a national-class 800.

"He could run the 400 in 48 to 49 seconds, I would guess," says Wyant. "It's a weird combination."

There is little doubt Saarel can run faster, especially if he finds a rival to push the early pace. Running virtually alone in a 3,200-meter race in St. George last month, he clocked 8:55.27 — after running the second half of the race (1,600 meters) in 4:11, only three seconds slower than his mile race at Mt. SAC.

"That's definitely not his fastest," says Wyant. "It was so slow those first two laps. He can run six or seven seconds faster."

Saarel is preparing for a big finish to his senior season — the BYU Invitational this weekend, the state meet two weeks later and then the Dream Mile in New York. He takes the same approach on the track that he does in the classroom.

"I don't really focus on the times," he says. "If I focus on training and put in good solid workouts, I feel confident I'll run well. I want to run as fast as I can and feel like I put in a good effort."

Wyant claims he knew Saarel was "special" the first time he saw him three years ago, and he can prove it. During Saarel's sophomore season, Wyatt dared to compare his young runner to Puskedra in an interview with a local newspaper.

"When he was a sophomore, I told people he is going to break Puskedra's records and nobody believed me," says Wyant. He says Puskedra's coach playfully told him he was much too premature in making such a pronouncement.

"He was right — it was a crazy statement to make — but he has lived up to it," says Wyant.

Saarel took up running relatively late. A freshman at West High, he had just given up soccer as his long-time sport of choice when his sister Emma invited him to join her on the school's cross country team.

"I thought I'd try it a year and be done with it, but I started enjoying it," he recalls. He skipped the track season, but after transferring to Park City High the following year, he signed up for both cross country and track. He has claimed three state cross country titles and two state titles in both the 1,600 and 3,200. He showed early promise with times of 4:17 and 9:28 as a sophomore, followed by a 4:16/9:14 showing as a junior.

Saarel's success this season triggered a recruiting war and so many phone calls from coaches that the Saarels asked Wyant not to give out the family's phone number. Saarel took official recruiting visits to Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado and Stanford (and an unofficial visit to Princeton). He plans to pursue his studies in the sciences, as well as his running career, at Colorado in the fall.

Saarel comes from an academic family. His parents, Doug and Tess, are both Princeton graduates, and Emma attends Swarthmore College, the famous brainiac school. Tess is a cardiologist and Doug a stay-at-home father and former employee of Columbia Pictures.

The family lived in the Midwest and on the East Coast before moving to Utah four years ago. They live in the Salt Lake Valley and chose schools for their children based on academic programs. Ben chose to commute to Park City High daily for the school's AP program.

"I work hard at school," says Saarel. "I just enjoy learning new stuff. I love math and sciences. If I can pick up anything new there, I enjoy it."

"He's really academic, very smart," says Wyant. "He's one of the top kids in the school academically. But he's surprisingly humble and shy about all this stuff. I think the attention has been overwhelming."

When he's not studying, Saarel is running workouts that most preps would not attempt. He runs 70-75 miles a week, but much of it is close to a five-minute-per-mile pace. "He does not run many miles that are slow," says Wyant. "His tempo runs are very fast. He would be setting state cross country course records on some of those runs."

Shortly after returning from the Mt. SAC Relays, Saarel was hard at it again, preparing for another big test.

"I'm catching up on my sleep," he said, "and studying for the AP test."