MISSOULA — Brant Heiner lined up and got in his stance on the day of the state track meet in May.
The Ronan senior took off, churning his arms and legs as he pushed himself to record the fastest time possible in the 1,600-meter run. He repeated those actions in the 3,200-meter run that rainy day in Ronan.
The one thing that was missing was other runners. The pandemic led to the cancellation of spring sports, but Heiner still ran the races he was planning to compete in that day because he wanted to demonstrate to himself that all his work throughout the previous months had paid off.
“He was absolutely crushed that he didn’t have a track season,” Ronan coach Noelle Winebrenner said ahead of the State A cross country meet this weekend in Kalispell. “But he said, ‘Guess what? I can have a phenomenal cross country season.’”
That’s exactly what Heiner has done after posting personal-best times in those track runs, turning the frustration into an opportunity to improve. He now owns the fastest time among Class A cross country runners heading into the state meet, which he’ll run at 11:30 a.m. Friday on the 5K course at Rebecca Farms in Kalispell.
Heiner will chase history as he seeks to become the school’s first runner, boy or girl, to win an individual state title in cross country. He’s in this position because of the work he’s put in to transform himself after he realized he was wasting his talent early in high school.
“The hardest part for me has been my mentality,” Heiner said. “Along with that goes work ethic and spirit and competitive drive. I’ve always been an athlete who wanted to win, but I’ve never really cared about putting in the sacrifices, the work that needed to be done.”
Heiner started to take running more seriously after finishing 95th at the state meet as a freshman and 34th as a sophomore. They weren’t the results he wanted.
His conversations with former Ronan runner Jackson Duffey, now at Rocky Mountain College, helped him recognize the importance of putting in work if he wanted to fulfill the potential he felt inside. He paid more attention to how former teammate James Normandeau, now at Carroll College, handled practices and running on his own, learning the ropes that way.
“I figured it was just time to step up and talked to some really good runners,” Heiner said. “It just got me to really figure out that I have to feel pain, I have to feel discomfort and get used to those things if I wanted to win.”
Heiner began forcing himself to wake up at 4:30 a.m. or 5 a.m. for his morning runs. Those could reach about 13 miles. He went on to take 17th at state as a junior and was optimistic about a track season that never came to fruition.
Heiner’s revamped internal motivation is even more needed because the pandemic shut down spring sports and limits the time he can spend with his team and coaches this fall. He ramped up to 65-75 miles per week by June and did additional speed workouts.
He’s run so much around the town of about 2,100 people one hour north of Missoula that he’s gotten the playful nickname Forrest Gump from his team. He even hears people yell, “Run, Forrest, Run,” from their cars.
“I’m loving to feel the pain and the adrenaline rush all together,” Heiner said. “I love to work myself and show people just how hard work can lead to success. Over quarantine and summer, all the hard workouts I’ve done, I loved it because I know I’m going down the path of success.”
Heiner is showing his capabilities after starting to run in middle school at the urging of his mother and grandmother but not finding any enjoyment in it until after his freshman year. He watched races by former Oregon Ducks runner Steve Prefontaine and even grew a mustache, now shaved off, as a nod to the late Prefontaine, his inspiration and motivation.
All his work, though, could have been for naught if the pandemic led to the cancellation of the cross country and track seasons his senior year. So he’s stayed motivated by trying to run a personal-best time each race in case it was his final high school competition.
“It’s just kind of that survivor-type instinct,” he said.
Heiner ran a then-personal-best 16:44 early in the season, leading Winebrenner to see his potential finally coming to life. Not one and done, he replicated runs in the 16-minute marks four more times. His personal-best time of 16:16.1 is about 15 seconds better than Hamilton senior CJ Purcell, who’s expected to be Heiner’s biggest competition at state.
At divisionals last week, Purcell almost came from behind to catch Heiner, who likes to get as big a lead as possible as quickly as possible, putting space between him and the second-place runner. Heiner will have to make sure he doesn’t get caught at state.
Winebrenner has seen a Ronan runner blow a late lead, keeping the school without an individual champion. Michael Fisher, who went on to run for the Montana Grizzlies, got caught from behind at state in 2005, losing by 0.85 seconds. Ronan’s boys still won the team title, as did the girls, led by Terinee McCready, who took second that year and finished with three second-place finishes and one third.
“To take it to the level that he’s taken it too, it’s blown me away,” Winebrenner said. “In some aspects it has, but I look back, and all he’s done is run and run and run and run.
“There’s something inside him that said, ‘This is what I want to do, and I’m going to be successful.’ He’s such a driven person. He’s going to do everything within his realm of possibility to get there. That’s what amazes me about him.”
Heiner is well aware Ronan hasn’t had an individual champion and that he could be the first one. That’s led to feelings of excitement with some nerves heading into state, resulting in him focusing on being mentally strong this week.
He’s already put in the physical work, and it’s shown going back to that track meet he ran on his own in May. Now he’ll have actual competitors and fans present, giving him a chance on the biggest cross country stage to show how it’s never too late to make a change for the better.
“It is stressful, but it’s very nice and comforting to have the work really be showing,” Heiner said. “Just for anyone who’s wondering, I’m loving to be the example that hard work does pay off. You just got to have patience and determination.”
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at email@example.com.
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