The sound of 180 claps per minute ringing into his ears helped save Aaron Bartnik's running career and transformed him into an elite long-distance runner.
Last spring, key seniors from the women's cross country team graduated, making the Gophers a longshot to keep their streak of consecutive trips to national meets alive.
Saturday in Terre Haute, Ind., a fresh pack of Gophers on the women's team and Bartnik from the men's team will complete their revivals in the NCAA cross-country meet.
Bartnik finds stride
The process had become so painful that Aaron Bartnik and the Gophers men's cross country staff agreed it might be in the best interest of both parties to part ways.
Bartnik, a former high school state champion at Eden Prairie, had limped through his first three years of collegiate running. He would run in one meet and miss the next two, suffering from seven different bone injuries along the way.
"Whenever I got my mileage to a certain level, I would just break down and wasn't able to stay healthy," the redshirt junior said. "Up until 15-16 months ago, I was getting hurt nonstop. Once I figured out how to recover from that, I was able to get solid training in, and I've been able to perform at a very high level."
The transformation began after countless conversations with running and health experts and led to TRIA orthopedics physical therapist Blake Butler. Stride and strength analysis revealed that Bartnik's bouncy and long running form was causing the problems. His 160 strides per minute needed to increase to 180.
The next several months Bartnik ran with a metronome app sending 180 claps per minute through his headphones.
"I would just run to that and it was terrible, and I would go crazy sometimes," Bartnik said. "Listening to that, I was able to increase my turnover and essentially stay more efficient as a runner."
Coach Steve Plasencia believes there's still room for Bartnik to improve.
"For him to come around this year and be among the upper echelon in the Big Ten right away with a healthy season of training behind him … it's a lot of fun," Plasencia said. "He's really in a groove now."
It has led him to Indiana, where he runs Saturday as an individual qualifier.
Women's team reloads
Ashlie Decker never doubted this crop of runners. The fifth-year senior is one of only three Gophers with experience running at this level heading into Saturday's national championship meet, but she continues to see something special about this young team.
"A lot of people thought [this would be a rebuilding year], but I remember sitting in coach's office so excited for this group," Decker said. "Even though the girls don't have as much experience, they have enough training behind them. I have a lot of confidence in the team we have going out on the line."
The loss of five upperclassmen from last year's group that finished 20th at the national meet left a lot of concern about this team.
Becca Dyson and Liz Berkholtz were the only two that returned from last year's top seven runners. The rest of the spots were filled with young talent and Decker, who missed the 2013 season with an injury. Even coach Sarah Hopkins considered the possibility of a rebuilding year.
Instead, the 20th-ranked Gophers reloaded and qualified for their 10th consecutive NCAA meet after finishing second at the Midwest Regional.
"When you're kind of the underdog going into the season, you as a group really want to prove everybody wrong," Berkholtz said. "There is no limit on what our team can do."
Berkholtz will contend for All-America honors. She finished sixth in the Midwest Regional and ran among the top three most of the race.
"It was a lot of fun being able to be up [with the lead pack]," Berkholtz said. "… That was a good step in the right direction for hopefully having one more good race.
Jason Gonzalez • 612-673-4494
Watch video of the Gophers cross-country teams as they prepare for the NCAA Championships on Saturday: startribune.com/gophers.
NCAA Cross-Country Championships
Saturday, Terre Haute, Ind. • Women’s race: 11 a.m.; men’s race: Noon