Running with Buffaloes

It is around 7 on a cool, sunny Thursday morning, and Pierce Murphy is getting ready to run.

He wears his trademark baseball-style cap backwards, a pair of Nike Pegasus, a Nike watch and black Nike shorts.

The trim and toned 19-year-old goes through a short set of stretches, occasionally glancing around Ke Al Hele Makalae, which he’ll be on in a few minutes.

Today’s workout calls for 50 minutes of running.

“Maybe 6:30s,” he says, when asked how fast he plans to run. “I just run on time. I don’t really know the pace.”

And then, after a few more dips and reaches, he’s off.

Murphy glides when he runs. He makes it look effortless. It’s a smooth stride — easy and strong that carries him past and around walkers, cyclists, couples and groups. He does not look like he’s working hard, but his legs greedily gobble up ground.

His style is one that makes running seem like pleasure.

And on this day, that’s how it is.

“Today was an easy day,” Murphy said, barely breathing after clipping off eight miles. “In the beginning I went a little fast and it felt good. I kind of cooled down a little bit toward the middle. It wasn’t a hard run.”

The 2011 Island School graduate and high school state champion is home in Kilauea for the summer, following his first full season of cross country and track at the University of Colorado.

In Boulder, Colo., Murphy lives in an apartment with two other runners. College life, he says, is good.

“Your parents aren’t there to tell you to clean up your room,” he said, laughing.

But he’s glad to be back on Kauai, surfing, hanging out and spending time at the beach with friends.

And sure, he runs.

Since he’s been home, Murphy won the Haena to Hanalei eight miler, for the third straight time. He’s building up to 90 miles a week, and will soon add in double-workout days, some farleks, some speed work.

“I haven’t done that yet, and I haven’t done very long runs. By next week I’ll probably be doing that,” he said.

In August, he’ll return to Boulder, Colo., where he’ll resume his studies to major in film. But what really brought him there, what earned him a scholarship, is running. Murphy belongs to the University of Colorado Buffaloes, where running isn’t some side sport, dwarfed by football and baseball.

It’s the stuff of legends, made even more famous by Chris Lear and his book, “Running with Buffaloes: A Season Inside with Mark Wetmore, Adam Goucher, and the University of Colorado Men’s Cross Country Team.”

Murphy, who during this interview is quiet and reserved, smiles when asked about the pressure of competing at that level, at that college where Wetmore is still the coach.

Remember, this is a guy who grew up on an island, pretty much dominated in high school and most often ran alone out front.

In college, there are guys in front, alongside and right behind him, like a stampede.

No problem.

He’s OK with this college life that revolves around running, cross training for strength and studying. Mentally and physically, demands are great. So are the rewards.

“It’s not very stressful for me,” he said. “I used to get really nervous before. But now in college, I don’t know why, I’m not as nervous, I’m more relaxed.”

Believe it or not, he even refers to it as fun.

“It makes you not think about how fast you’re going when you’re with so many people,” he said.

In college cross country and track, “everyone is fast,” he said. “There’s tons of people faster than you, there’s tons of people slower than you.”

In Murphy’s first big college race, he recalls it not really even feeling like he was running.

“I was just trying to make sure I didn’t fall or hit anyone,” he said, laughing.

Island runner

Growing up on Kauai, the son of Shawn and Doreen Murphy could run back and forth and around the soccer field without tiring.

“I guess I was just fast and had endurance,” he said.

Running wasn’t exactly a household conversation, but it became one.

He competed in local kids’ races, usually winning.

In ninth grade, he joined cross country, entered more races, and realized he was faster than most.

“I got really serious,” he said. “I started thinking about it more.”

At Island School, his talent took off. He was a KIF all-star for track and cross country his freshman through senior seasons.  

He won the 1,500 and the 3,000 state titles on the track his junior year, then defended both his senior year.

In 2009, he was named the Gatorade Hawaii Cross Country Athlete of the Year. In 2011, he was named Gatorade Hawaii Track Athlete of the Year.

Murphy still owns records for the island of Kauai in the 800, 1,500 and 3,000.

Colleges came calling, and he chose the University of Colorado.

Running with Buffaloes

In Colorado, where the elevation is nearly 5,500 feet, the air is thin. Try running there, and you’ll feel like you’re gasping for every breath, until you acclimate.

Consider Murphy acclimated.

“It’s good training once you’re used to it. When you come down to sea level and race, you race faster,” he said.

After redshirting his first year, his second year of running with Buffaloes was filled with highlights.

During the last cross country season, Murphy ran a consistent fourth or fifth on the team.

At the NCAA mens’ cross country championship meet on Nov. 17 in Louisville, Ky., Murphy ran fourth for the Buffs, 45th overall, as he covered the 10,000 meter course in 30:11 to help the team to a third-place finish, narrowly missing All-American honors.

Murphy, about 60th halfway through, began picking off runners. With a half-mile left, he was about 50th. He sprinted past a group in the final stretch, claiming 45th, just five spots from All-American status for the top 40.

It was, he says, a fine effort.

“I just hung in there,” he said.

Not bad, for the kid from Kauai as he went up against the nation’s very best college runners.

“I think that was my best race,” he said.

Others noticed.

He received the school’s Sports Performer of the Year for being the outstanding freshman male athlete.

On the track, he’s become one of CU’s top runners in the 5,000 and the 10,000.  A highlight for Murphy’s 2013 track season came in May at the Pac-12 track and field championship inside Loker Stadium in Los Angeles.

The 5-8 1/2, 145 pounder placed third overall with a personal best of 29 minutes, 36 seconds. And this, from the kid from Kauai.

He’s improved with a best of 14:04 in the 5,000, too.

“I’ll do my best in college. So far I’ve been getting better,” he said. “If I keep getting better, I think after college I could run professionally. That’s my long-term goal.”

Work hard

To succeed in college, Murphy says it’s pretty simple: Work hard. In running, if you want to win, get used to pain. Don’t think negative. Don’t think you still have 5 half-mile repeats left with only a 30-second recovery. Don’t think. Don’t wish you were on the beach back home. Just run.

“You can’t be lazy. If you feel like not running one day or not running as hard, just do it. Afterward, you feel better than if you didn’t.”

Murphy pays attention to diet, as you must when you’re among the nation’s elite college runners.

“I don’t eat whatever I want. I try to eat pretty healthy. I get my fruits and vegetables in, proteins after runs, water throughout the day. I don’t really eat fast food or anything like that. I try to get a lot of carbs when I start doing high mileage.”

It’s the adrenaline, the excitement that comes with racing that he enjoys most. Once the gun sounds, it’s all him. Teammates can encourage, but he knows where he finished reflects directly on the effort he gave his training. So he gives all.

“I like the competition of running, knowing it’s all up to you. It’s a team sport, but it comes down to how fast you want to go. You control everything yourself,” he said.

Murphy chuckles when asked about the black backwards cap he wears. That’s required thanks to his shaggy hair that falls out the back and down to his shoulders.

“Whenever the wind’s at my back, my hair just blows in my face,” he said.

He grins as he recalls a race when he forgot his headband. He couldn’t see for part of it because his hair was flopping into his eyes. Didn’t matter. He still ran.

Any directives from coach Wetmore his locks must be cut?

“They haven’t said anything yet,” he said.

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