Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
We could easily make this story about Ben Saarel The Straight A Student. The worst grade he's pulled in high school is a single A-minus as a freshman (what, they can't give the kid a mulligan?). His cumulative GPA is 3.99, with an honors curriculum.
He loves chemistry, science and math — no, seriously — and he is mature beyond his years, saying things like, "I don't really think about grades. I just enjoy learning new stuff. I just focus on becoming a better person and elevating my knowledge of the world."
But we're not here to talk about Ben Saarel (say it SA-rell) The Student. This is, after all, the Sports Section. We're here to talk about Ben Saarel The Runner. Ben Saarel is the best distance runner in the country at the moment. He's also one of the greatest high school distance runners in Utah history.
Saarel, a muscular, 6-foot-1, 160-pound Park City High School senior who dwarfs most of his rivals, has won two national-class races this month in head-to-head meetings with Arizona's Bernie Montoya, both in California. For the uninitiated, Montoya won last year's prep Dream Mile in New York with a nation-leading time of 4:01.32. Signed by Arizona State, he is considered the top prep runner in America again this year — or he was before he met Saarel.
Saarel and Montoya's first meeting was a 3,200-meter race at the Arcadia Invitational, where Montoya was featured on the cover of the meet program. Saarel unleashed a surprising kick on the final homestretch to pull away for a victory. His time of 8:45.74 is the fastest in the nation this year.
"That was a shocker to everyone," says Jeff Wyant, Park City's coach. "That's the first time Montoya has been outkicked."
Saarel and Montoya met a week later. In the 800, Montoya and Saarel finished second and fourth, respectively, with the top four finishing within .72 of a second. A day later, Saarel met Montoya again, this time in the mile. With neither runner wanting to take the lead, they dawdled through the first half-mile in a pedestrian 2 minutes, 10 seconds, before the race really began. They ripped through the second half-mile in 1:58. With a lap to go, Saarel took the lead and when Montoya pulled up on his shoulder with 200 to go, Saarel took off. Covering the last lap in 54 seconds, he pulled away from Montoya on the homestretch again to win in 4:08.55, fastest in the country so far this season.
For the record, Saarel's mile time converts to 4:07.11 for 1,600 meters — the distance commonly used in high school — making him the third-fastest Utahn ever. He also ranks second at 3,200 meters and sixth at 800 meters on Utah's all-time list.
As Wyant notes, no Utah prep has demonstrated such a range. Judge's Luke Puskedra, who went on to become an All-America at the University of Oregon, was strong in the mile and two-mile, but not the half-mile. Alta's Dan Hutson was a speedy half-miler (and quarter-miler), but he refused to move up to the mile. Davis' Brad Nye was a force in the half-mile and mile, but didn't post elite times at two miles.
Saarel had the endurance to place fourth in the national cross country championships last fall, and the speed to run a national-class 800.
"He could run the 400 in 48 to 49 seconds, I would guess," says Wyant. "It's a weird combination."
There is little doubt Saarel can run faster, especially if he finds a rival to push the early pace. Running virtually alone in a 3,200-meter race in St. George last month, he clocked 8:55.27 — after running the second half of the race (1,600 meters) in 4:11, only three seconds slower than his mile race at Mt. SAC.
"That's definitely not his fastest," says Wyant. "It was so slow those first two laps. He can run six or seven seconds faster."
Saarel is preparing for a big finish to his senior season — the BYU Invitational this weekend, the state meet two weeks later and then the Dream Mile in New York. He takes the same approach on the track that he does in the classroom.