This is what Garrett Zans always wanted.
The Wyoming senior cross-country runner has come to the end of his four years of long-distance competition over the back country hills with an invitation to race in Saturday's NCAA championships in Terre Haute, Ind.
After a strong finish at regionals, Zans and coach Bryan Berryhill got word that he might make the cut for the big one based on his personal-best 10-kilometer time of 29:50 going into last weekend. The invite came through officially Monday, but it didn't sink in right away.
"I honestly was completely in shock until Tuesday," Zans said in an interview Wednesday. "I've been daydreaming about it and really wanting it for four or five years."
The reality of what he accomplished struck him when he was walking along alone on campus.
"I just started laughing out loud," he said. "People were staring at me."
Zans, 21, who is from Rock Springs, won't mind if people are staring at him again Saturday in the 10k race that crowns a national collegiate champion, especially if it means he is doing so well they can't take their eyes off him.
Typically, in large, championship field races, the start is like a stampede with a herd of runners sprinting out and attempting to jockey for position so they don't get stepped on or tripped.
"My strategy is to be with the front pack, but not to lead because it can be suicidal," Zans said. "The idea is to be in the mix and see what happens."
Wyoming has not qualified a runner for the NCAA championship meet since 2008 when Mark Korir did so. Zans placed fifth in the 4A Wyoming State Cross-Country Championships in 2008, but has kept improving. Berryhill said Zans is displaying the fruits of several years of hard work and summer and pre-season training of 85-to-90 miles per week.
"Being a Wyoming kid, it's an honor," Berryhill said Wednesday of Zans being a native of the state and then representing the Cowboys at the big event. "He's a maturing as an athlete at the right time. Given that strength equals speed (at a distance over a mile), he's getting faster."
Korir is also the last Wyoming runner to earn All-American honors at the meet when he did so in 2007. Buffalo's Joe Hall was the last Wyoming-grown product to qualify for the Cowboys in 2000. Wyoming has qualified seven times as a team, but not since 1986.
Zans won All-Region recognition last week with a 14th-place finish. Also a competitor in indoor and outdoor track (he has two seasons of eligibility left for the spring season), Zans has fallen in love with the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
"I used to love cross-country more," Zans said.
But he embraced the new challenge, was chosen all-conference as a steeplechaser, and has a glowing personal best of 8:56 in that event. Zans has qualified for nationals in the steeple before, but although he has embraced the 10k distance in the great outdoors he wants nothing to do with that event on the track -- anywhere.
"I would just fall asleep in the middle of the race," Zans said. "I don't think coach would be mean enough to make me do that."
For now, Zans has cross-country on the brain. There has been a deluge of rain in recent days in the Indiana area, so Berryhill said the course will almost surely be muddy and good spikes will be necessary.
"It doesn't change (the race) much," Berryhill said. "You've got to get it into your head that it's the same as a dry course."
What Zans really wishes is that the course officials would throw in a few more gigantic hills. The harder the course, the better for him.
"I've always been really strong on hills," Zans said. "I'm one of those runners who doesn't mind making it hurt a little."
After all, it will feel so good when he's done, especially if Zans can break into the All-America category.