By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Nathan Mylenek ran in high school to stay in shape for soccer. He will run Saturday to become a collegiate All-American.
Mylenek, a junior from Clarkston, Michigan, is the first University of Iowa men’s cross country runner to qualify for the NCAA Championships since Jeff Thode in 2011. He did so by finishing third at the NCAA Midwest Regional on Nov. 9 in Peoria, Illinois, the best placing by a Hawkeye since Micah VanDened won in 2006.
In other words, Mylenek has come a long way since his prep days as a soccer player running for fitness.
“I would love to be an All-American,” he said. “If the race runs right and I’m feeling good, I think the top 40 is reasonable. But this meet is elite. If I could crack the top 100, that would be impressive.”
Then Mylenek quickly offered a disclaimer.
“I don’t race to be top 100, I want to win,” he said. “I will put myself into position to win whether or not I have a shot.”
The evolution of Mylenek as an elite Division I distance runner is remarkable. Primarily a soccer player at Pontiac Notre Dame High School, his final three seasons he joined the cross country team once soccer season ended. Still, in three trips to the Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 2 state championships, he had finishes of 21st, fifth, and third.
“My senior year I was doing a double sport, so they moved the soccer times,” Mylenek said. “I would run after school, have an hour break, and then go to soccer practice. I did that for an entire year and it was awesome.”
In the summer of 2015, before his senior year of high school, Mylenek competed in AAU track and field meets. The steeplechase was an option, so in typical Mylenek fashion he thought, why not? He became a Junior Olympic All-American in the 1,500-meter run and the 2,000 steeplechase.
Mylenek, who began his career at Iowa as a walk-on, really broke through in running circles during his sophomore season at Iowa in 2017-18. He was the top Hawkeye in five of six cross country competitions and set the school 10K cross country record of 29:53.15 at the Midwest Regional in Ames, Iowa. At the Big Ten Outdoor Track & Field Championships in May, Mylenek finished third in the 3,000 steeplechase and fifth in the 5,000 run.
He hasn’t slowed since.
Mylenek led the Hawkeyes in the three most recent races this fall: Wisconsin Pre-Nationals, Big Ten, and Midwest Regional.
Typically not one to fret before a race, Mylenek admitted to having a few butterflies at regionals until he stepped to the starting line.
“Normally I’m never nervous or worried,” he said. “So when the starter blew the whistle, I put my toe on the line and I was ready.”
Mylenek and Iowa head coach Randy Hasenbank anticipated a slower pace because of cool temperatures and a muddy course. They were right. Mylenek led the first half of the 10 kilometer race and stayed within striking distance, even after Iowa State junior Edwin Kurgat and Oklahoma State freshman Isai Rodriquez passed.
“What he did the other day was pretty difficult because he is used to doing short, fast stuff — miles and steeplechase, where you have to be aggressive,” Hasenbank said. “To see him execute 10,000 meters with a couple of the best guys in the entire country was exciting to watch.
“We talk about developing your skillset as a distance runner. When you step on the line, you like to believe that your tool kit is as good as anyone’s. You’re the fastest 800 guy, you’re pretty solid at 10,000 meters, and your specialty is somewhere in between.”
Only six Hawkeyes have run to All-America status in cross country. The first was Deacon Jones in 1957 and the most recent was Thode in 2010. Former coach Larry Wieczorek (1966-67) and Kevin Herd (1992-93) did it twice.
The men’s 10K at the NCAA Championships begins Saturday at 11:45 a.m. (CT) on the Zimmer Championship Course in Madison, Wisconsin. Runners who finish in the top 40 earn All-America accolades.
“I’m hoping we run through 5K at a good clip and then that’s when the race really starts,” Mylenek said. “If that happens, I think I have a good shot to do what I want to do…if not better.”