Prep boys' track: Park City elite runner catches his idol

High school track and field • Ben Saarel breaks ex-Judge Memorial star's 1,600 record.
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Provo • Luke Puskedra had to "chase ghosts" in high school.

As the state's top distance runner in 2008, the Judge Memorial star lacked the competition to test him on the track. So his coach had him look elsewhere for something that would push him, like the clock or the last man in the heat after lapping the competition.

Ben Saarel swears his ghost is real. He's met Puskedra, shook his hand.

And on Friday morning, Saarel still was chasing him.

It was cool and gray as Saarel and the rest of the field worked around the blue track at BYU. After 800 meters, Saarel saw his 2-minute, 7-second split.

Once again, he was off Puskedra's record pace in the 1,600.

Saarel was a soccer player in middle school when he watched in awe as Puskedra ran into the record books, becoming the first Utah high school runner to finish the 3,200 meters in less than nine minutes.

"For me, watching him run was the coolest thing," Saarel, now a senior at Park City High, said as he prepared for this weekend's state meet. "I said, 'I'll never be able to do that.' "

That didn't mean he wouldn't try.

After running cross-country at another school his freshman year, Saarel enrolled at Park City High, where track coach Jeff Wyant initially was skeptical about the young runner's claims.

"They told me what he had run, and I honestly didn't believe them," Wyant said about his first meeting with Saarel and his family. "I didn't believe a freshman could run that fast. After they left, it took me about 30 seconds on the Internet to see he was not lying to me. I was pretty excited that day."

Ever since then, Judge coach Dan Quinn said he's heard the same thing over and over from Wyant.

"Jeff's been telling me he's the next Puskedra," Quinn said.

The Judge coach said he saw similarities and differences in the two runners.

Both showed incredible devotion to the sport. While most of the seniors on the Park City team run somewhere around 50 miles a week, Saarel has pushed himself to 75. Quinn recalled telling Puskedra to run 50 miles in a week, only because Quinn knew his runner would exceed that.

But there are differences, too.

Puskedra shot into the lead of every race and never trailed.

Saarel, meanwhile, could sit back and wait to kick, saving his best for last.

Saarel, who will run next year at Colorado, has proved himself on the biggest stages. He left the Arcadia Invitational, a California meet featuring the country's best, ranked No. 1 in the nation.

He takes coaching from Wyant and the staff at Park City, but he trains mostly on his own.

"There's nobody in Utah that can push him right now," Wyant said.

Saarel likes the hills at Sugar House Park and the track around Liberty Park in Salt Lake, where he can be seen some days, racing the passing cars.

For motivation, he's focused now on the Dream Mile, a prestigious race to be held next week in New York. And then, of course, there's always Puskedra the inspiration, Puskedra the frustration.

"It's been tough because he's a great runner, and you're thankful to have someone like that come out of Utah. But at the same time, you're like, 'I don't own any records at all because of him,' " Saarel said with a laugh.

Saarel pushed himself to the limit last fall to his third consecutive individual cross-country title, but he came up short of Puskedra's state cross-country record. And every time Saarel ran, he seemed to be just seconds off the Judge runner's pace in the 1,600 and 3,200.

Quinn believed his pupil's two-mile mark would stand for some time.

But Puskedra himself sensed a worthy competitor when he first met Saarel. Puskedra, who has finished an All-America collegiate career at Oregon and is now a member of the Nike Oregon Project, was running along Jeremy Ranch Road outside of Park City with his high school teammate and mentor Patrick Smyth when he first met Saarel.

"I think it all kind of came full circle," Puskedra said.

Puskedra said he's watched Saarel's improvement with excitement, especially when the Park City runner finally broke the 3,200-meter state record earlier this month, with a time of 8:49.08.

Puskedra said he's been wowed by Saarel's versatility and national performances. The two talked a few days before the state meet while Puskedra was training in Park City, and Saarel said he was going for Puskedra's final state track record.

"I told him that I hoped he shattered it," Puskedra said.

But halfway through Friday morning's final, Saarel was going too slow.

"We need to be at 2:04 if I want to do anything special," he thought.

A minute later, Saarel was completing his third lap.

"The state record is 4:09.28 set in 2008 by Luke Puskedra," a voice over the speaker announced. But this time, Saarel did not hear the name of the man he's looked up to for so long, only the roar of the crowd cheering him on.

As he made the turn for the final stretch, Saarel's legs were pumping, his chest was out and his shaggy brown hair, like everything else, trailed behind him.

When he crossed the line, the time on the board was 4:07.95.

The fastest ever. —

Ben Saarel file

Senior, Park City High School

• Three-time individual cross-country champion. Signed with the University of Colorado in February.

State records • 3,200 meters (8:49.08); 1,600 (4:07.95)