Rock Bridge runner follows lonely path

Sunday, October 5, 2008 | 7:44 p.m. CDT; updated 12:08 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 6, 2008

COLUMBIA — Matty Bennett is all alone. And that's exactly how he wants it.

Rock Bridge's cross country coach, Neal Blackburn, often splits the team up into groups at practice. Bennett, a senior and the team's No. 1 runner, is in a group all by himself. That's all right with him, though, because he says that being the top  runner on the team helps him reach his absolute peak.

"This year, there’s no one really in front of me, and there are only people behind me pushing me to get faster," Bennett said. "I just feel like there’s no one really holding me back. So I can do as well as I want to do."

Blackburn agrees that the lonely practice is a benefit for Bennett.

"...It was a good thing when he kind of became somewhat lonesome there at the top, because he could just concentrate on what business needed to be taken care of," Blackburn said. "The race, not where his pecking order was on the team. So that’s been a good thing."

Bennett describes himself as a very self-motivated person.

"It’s mostly that my competitiveness comes from within, and I just want to do as best as I possibly can, and whatever’s going on around me doesn’t really matter that much. I just want to do as well as I can. So I feel like having no one in front of me helps me be like, yeah … I can do as well as I want to."

The approach has paid off this season. Bennett has finished close to the top three races. He started the season with a win at the Liberty Invitational. He followed that with an 11th place finish at the Forest Park Cross Country Festival in St. Louis, and he finished third at Springfield's Richard Clark Invitational, setting a new 5K personal best at 16 minutes, 20 seconds.

Saturday, he finished second at the Parkway West Invitational to lead the Rock Bridge boys team to victory in the meet.

Bennett attributes this year's success to a hard work in the offseason. Furthermore, an injury his junior year has pushed him to make the absolute most of his final season.

"I was really driven this summer to be like 'OK, this is my senior year, it’s my last year to run cross country for Rock Bridge, so I really want to make it good,'" he said. "So I put in a lot of hard work and effort. I’ve always been motivated and dedicated  throughout the summers, but this is the first summer where I didn’t stop for anything."

Blackburn says he has noticed the difference.

"He’s always been committed, but I think it’s just what he did last winter and this summer with his commitment that really helped bring him full circle," he said. "He did every last detail that he needed to do in his training that he may not have done before."

Bennett's cross country career can be traced back to the summer before his freshman year, when his father encouraged him to attend a serious running camp. After asking around, they chose a week-long, high-altitude camp in Oregon called Steens Mountain Running Camp.

 "... It’s on a mountain, you spend like a whole week out there, and it’s like absolutely nothing," Bennett explained. "The closest thing you get is a Port-A-Potty. Like, no showers. And it’s like you’re roughing it and you share a big tent with, like, 18 other guys. It’s intense."

The main event of the camp is a rigorous run/hike dubbed the "Big Day." Participants travel down into, through, and back out of a canyon. The grueling course totals about 30 miles.

The canyon run really opened Bennett's eyes to his skills as a long-distance runner.

"And, after that, just getting through, cause I was only a freshman, and it was just like, for me, it was a life-changing experience," he said. "... That’s kind of when I decided that I think I’m going to be a runner."

The camp helped him decide whether to pursue cross country or soccer. That decision aside, it didn't take long for him to start making an impact for Rock Bridge.

"His very first race, I put him in a freshman race just to get him the experience of what it’s like to win, and he won by like a minute and a half," Blackburn said. "From there, he earned a spot on the varsity team, and he’s pretty much always been one of our top five or six guys from the moment he stepped in and hit Rock Bridge."

Even with his strong start and years of success, Bennett has always seemed to fly under the radar. Even in this, his breakout season, he has been ranked below some runners that he has already finished ahead of.

Blackburn compares this quiet success to the Indianapolis Colts' wide-receiver Marvin Harrison.

"He just does his job. He's not real flashy ... He just goes out there and gets it done," he said.

Even amid all of these personal and team successes, though, Bennett will always cherish that time he spends all alone, simply running.

"It’s like the one thing that kind of, like, connects the mind and the body and the spirit all together during your exercising and stuff."

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