June 28, 2012
The cover of "High School Runner" in 2007 highlighted a familiar face around Ann Arbor, Mich. It featured Craig Forys, a senior in high school standout who was tabbed as one of the top recruits in the nation. The young runner looked off into the distance, perhaps reflecting on the successes and hardships that had gotten him to that point, as well as his hopes and expectations for the future. His body appeared young but had been pounded through hundreds of miles, and has failed him at times because of it. He didn't know it then, but that would continue to haunt him throughout his running career. As he left behind his legacy at Colts Neck High School in Howell, N.J., he had no idea the journey he was about to experience at the University of Michigan.
Craig began to make his mark in the running community at just 14 years old when he set the national record for that age in the 1,600-meter run. That same year, he set the national freshman indoor record in the 3,200-meter run and then set the national standard for 15-year-olds the following year in the 3,000-meter run. It is safe to say that Craig did not waste any time seizing the running world's attention.
His list of high school accomplishments is lengthy to say the least and includes a number of feats that most young runners can only dream about. From Meet of Champions victories, state championships and state records, all the way to national championships and national records, it is easy to see why as a senior Craig was one of the top recruits in the nation.
"High school went really well," Forys humbly recalls as he reflects back on his success. "I had a great coach who was a really smart guy. He had a plan all along to develop me so that I wasn't burnt out by the end of high school."
Forys credits his coach, Jim Schlentz, with a lot of his success.
Through all of his individual success, Forys says the highlight of his high school career came his sophomore year when he and three of his teammates won the distance medley relay at indoor nationals. "We had this dream of winning it and we knew we were good enough," Forys recalls.
As confident as his team was at the time, Forys' body had other intentions. Craig was diagnosed with a stress fracture just nine weeks before the meet.
Forys spent seven weeks off from training and off his feet, and started running again only two weeks before the national meet. "I was off my feet for seven weeks, got back just in time and then we were able to win it. It was like it was stolen away from us and then we won it back -- it was so exciting."
The fact that Forys chose that experience as the highlight of his high school career shows how humble he is. He didn't even mention the fact that he claimed the national record in his age group in the 3,000-meter run that same year.
Because so much success had come his way in high school, Forys anticipated that success would continue on into his Michigan career. But as everyone learns at some point, expectations are not always reality. "I thought things would go well right off the bat with increased training, but it was a bumpy road for a while, getting used to training smart."
Forys was accustomed to a low-volume, high-intensity training regimen in high school. At the collegiate level the volume increased, as he expected, but the intensity did as well. "I didn't even know that was possible," Forys commented with a laugh.
It didn't take long for his body to break down on him once again and his collegiate struggle with injuries began early on as he was forced to redshirt during indoor track during his freshman year. Throughout the next few years, Forys also missed the first half of indoor track his sophomore year, outdoor track sophomore year, and cross country his junior year.
"Freshman year it was a hamstring injury coming off of cross country. My sophomore year is when I redshirted outdoor track. I came off a big indoor season and I was running super hard indoor and I hurt my calf. That injury led right into two more injuries -- both in my knees with patellar tendinitis -- so over the summer I had to deal with that and I couldn't run for the longest time."
Forys had to take nine months off from running due to the patellar tendinitis, and even underwent a minor surgery to fix the problem. As upsetting as the injuries were, he found motivation in it as he watched from the sideline while his team continued to train but continued to fall short.
"I missed crossed country my junior year and that was tough because the guys didn't do so well. I guess the only thing that kept me running was seeing the other guys doing well, or even in the times when they weren't doing well. I was thinking, 'Man, I could be a help to that team,' so I guilt tripped myself into getting back into shape, and I guess that kind of worked."
That is an understatement.
With Forys back for the next season as a redshirt junior, he individually qualified for the NCAA Cross Country Championships. In his final cross season in 2011, he helped lead his team to an at-large bid to the NCAA Championships, U-M's first national berth since 2008.
Halfway through his time at Michigan, the head coaching staff that had recruited him in high school stepped down from the program. For some athletes, this could be a deal-breaker or something to get overly upset about. Forys decided to look at the bright side though and make the best of the situation at hand. "It was hard for us to go through a change like that, but I wasn't doing so hot anyway, so I was open for anything. I was able to convince myself and my teammates that we needed to take it for what it was and believe in the new system and it has been going really well."
And Alex Gibby stepped in as the eighth head coach of the program, following a seven-year stint at William and Mary.
If it hadn't been for Coach Warhurst, however, Forys never would have gotten involved in the steeplechase, where he has seen his most recent success. "Coach Warhurst and I talked about it my sophomore year, but then I couldn't run that outdoor season. It's an event that is wide open for points at Big Tens and I needed another event besides the 5K. My brother did the steeplechase in college, so I thought, 'you know, he did I, I can probably pull it off too.'"
If there had ever been any doubt if that was a good decision or not, those thoughts were diminished in Craig's final year competing for the Maize and Blue.
Due to his degree in physical education, which is a four-and-a-half year program, Craig always had the possibility of a fifth year in the back of his mind. When his four years came to an end, there was no doubt that he was going to take advantage of that extra year.
In his final outdoor track season at U-M, Forys excited the crowd at the Big Ten Championships as he broke away from the pack in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and won his first conference title with a record-setting time. "I knew eventually I would have a breakthrough -- I was ready for it, but in no way could I have predicted what did happen."
Crossing the line in a time of 8:28.90, Forys tied the second-fastest time in school history, set a facility record, Big Ten meet record, improved his personal-best time by 13 seconds, and met the 'A' standard for the Olympic Trials. "It was one of those races that felt so good. It was kind of crazy when I saw the time. I was lucky that everything aligned that day."
After placing third at the NCAA East Preliminary Rounds, Forys was on his way to the NCAA Championships. With 400 meters left in the race, Forys was in fourth place and kicking himself for letting the top guys get away. A few steps ahead of him was Ohio State's Corey Leslie, who Craig had already out-kicked in the final straightaway earlier in the season.
"I knew I had outkicked several people during the year, so my focus was just catch Corey and get third." In a crazy twist of fate, the runner in second place fell over the final barrier with just meters of the race remaining. "When I saw the Texas A&M guy go down, it sparked the light in my eyes. I had already started my kick and I had just passed Corey over the last hurdle."
Forys' final kick earned him second place overall and a spot on the All-America first team. "Way to save it to the very end, right?" Forys laughs as he comments on yet another collegiate accomplishment.
Five years after Craig appeared on the cover of "High School Runner," he has accomplished almost every goal of an elite athlete. Forys graduated in the spring with a degree in physical education and plans to continue his running career at the professional level. Currently talking with agents and potential shoe contracts, Forys will find out within the next few weeks who is interested in taking him on as a professional athlete. He plans on staying in Ann Arbor to continue training with Coach Gibby.
However, before turning in his Maize and Blue uniform for the last time, Craig will represent Michigan, on perhaps his biggest stage yet. On Thursday (June 28), Craig will race in the 3,000-meter steeplechase final at the U.S. Olympic trials. Earlier this week, he qualified for the final round after finishing eighth in the prelims with a time of 8:30.85. "It's a huge step transitioning into the next level -- the professional aspect of the sport," said Forys of his prelim performance. "Hopefully, it isn't a rude awakening -- hopefully it goes well."