Testing limitations: Zac Benham continues his trek toward greatness in boys cross country

Mason County Central's Zac Benham runs during the Division 3 boys race of the MHSAA cross country championships at Michigan International Speedway on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. (Brian J. Smith | MLive.com)

Mason County Central’s Zac Benham runs during the Division 3 boys race of the MHSAA cross country championships at Michigan International Speedway on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. (Brian J. Smith | MLive.com)

By Tony Wittkowski | Reporter | MLive – Muskegon Chronicle

SCOTTVILLE, MI — Ed Sanders can always count on Zac Benham’s yellow jersey at the front of the pack for every meet.

As the coach for Mason County Central boys cross country, Sanders witnessed Benham finish his junior year with a win in 10 out of the 13 meets he raced. In two of the three races in which Benham did not finish first, he was runner-up to the same person.

The amount of success Benham has had can be traced back to the eighth grade, when his brother first began to show interest in his ability.

“I never saw myself as a runner growing up. I saw myself as a soccer player,” said Benham, who was named the 2014 Muskegon Chronicle boys cross country runner of the year. “My older brother ran four years for North Muskegon. He was someone who pushed me, although he never told me the potential he saw in me until later.”

Outside of his brother, Benham has found motivation through a time capsule in Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine – a runner who was at the pinnacle of his career four decades ago.

The two share several traits from their drive for the sport to their impressive work ethic.

One of the most striking attributes is their lack of size in a sport that is dominated by tall, lanky runners. Prefontaine was never one to back down from a challenge, as Benham has never paid attention to those who have told him he’s too small to be successful in cross country.

In the past, Benham has always wanted more. (Andraya Croft | MLive.com)

In the past, Benham has always wanted more. (Andraya Croft | MLive.com)

“(Coach) calls me ‘Pre’ sometimes,” Benham said. “He was a complete stud back in the day and he was a huge inspiration.”

Sanders began calling him that when he saw the same grit in Benham that the world saw in Prefontaine.

“I’ll call him that sometimes and a smile will come to his face,” Sanders said. “Because he was smaller, people didn’t think he had the ability. He proved it with guts and determination. That’s the way Zac looks at it.”

The two first met when Benham was an eighth-grader at North Muskegon. Sanders stood outside of a course and watched helplessly as Benham blew away his team and the rest of his competition.

A year later, Benham transferred and the two wouldn’t have to go head-to-head again.

Academically, Benham boasts a 4.0 grade-point average while finishing as an all-state runner in his first three years in high school. His list of accomplishments is longer than most courses he runs, being named all-conference champion for the last two years and becoming a regional champion at the Grand Traverse meet this year.

‘Enjoy the moment’

At the state meet as a freshman, he finished 17th overall in Division 3. For many this would be quite the accomplishment for someone who has never taken part in the state meet, but for Benham it was awful.

“He’s so hard on himself that it is difficult for him to enjoy his accomplishments,” Sanders said. “I keep telling him ‘enjoy the moment.’”

Coming into high school, Benham had a few goals in place. Some of them seemed to be a bit out of reach for a freshman runner who had only started cross country the year before.

He wanted to be all-conference. Accomplished.

He wanted to be all-state. No problem.

He also wanted to train all year long until Sanders pulled him aside to let him know it was OK to rest. In Benham’s mindset, his season never ends until the next one begins.

“He is so driven and tough mentally. There is not a kid that works harder,” Sanders said. “He may practice our workout (and) then decide he wants to do a little more. He goes above and beyond.”

When asked why he goes the extra mile – sometimes literally – Benham said it’s all about finding out what you can do and how far you can do it.

“It’s about pushing a little harder and testing yourself,” he said. “Most people don’t realize that each workout is an opportunity to get better. If you don’t push yourself, you’re losing an opportunity to get better.”

That’s why after all the work and training, Benham was not satisfied after finishing second place at the Division 3 cross country state finals at Michigan International Speedway with a time of 15:44.6.

Colleges across the country have been taking notice of Benham, who has received letters from Yale, Tennessee and Nebraska.

But before he makes a decision on where to go next, Benham is still eyeing that state title for his senior year.

“I think I see myself in the same position I am in now, only without the seniors this year,” Benham said. “I’ll have a different view going into states. I want to see myself being more fit and getting more comfortable.”

Tony Wittkowski is a staff reporter at MLive Muskegon Chronicle. Email him at twittkow@mlive.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 3, 2014)

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