Monday Morning Conversation: NCAA DIII Champ Patrick Watson

Photo from Dave Berdan

On Saturday November 23 at Tom Sawyer Park in Louisville, KY, Patrick Watson did the same thing he had done all season long: win a race. In fact, Watson had only lost one race all season back in August. While he had already won his first career MAC and DIII Mideast regional titles, this one was different. As Watson crossed the line six seconds clear of the field, he was crowned the 2019 NCAA DIII national champion.

Watson hadn't always been in the conversation of top runners in the DIII landscape during his time at Stevenson. His high school times (16:06 5K, 10:09 3200) hardly hinted at the potential he would uncover over four years at Stevenson. He didn't qualify for the national meet until his sophomore year, and didn't break 25 minutes in the 8k until the final race of his junior season. His final cross country season as a Mustang, however, was just about as good as it gets. We talked to him about his title, his season and his journey to the top.

MileSplit: It's now been a week since you were crowned the national champion. Has it really started to settle in your mind at this point? Has your self-image or outlook on the sport changed because of it?

Patrick Watson: Yeah, it has started to set in, although I still don't believe it at some points. It was a relief at the end [of the race] because I had played it over in my head a million times beforehand so it was great that my vision of the race became reality. It really hasn't changed my outlook on the sport other than the fact that I know I can handle pretty much whatever is thrown at me. This race was a huge boost of confidence because I feel like I can run any race plan in any conditions.

MS: What was the race plan heading into the meet? You hadn't lost a race since late August - was that streak a source of confidence? Did anything about your strategy change due to the competitive field or the conditions at last week's race?

PW: My coach and I had talked about making a move at three miles if I felt good. My coach and I both believed that I could be the one to make the move and run away from the field. When I saw the conditions I thought the race plan would change, and I went into the race basically feeling it out and making a move when I felt comfortable doing so. It happened to be that I stuck to the original race plan and made my move at the three mile mark and just went with it and wasn't challenged again.

My races this season absolutely gave me confidence. Every race I ran [with] a different race plan to prepare for anything at the national championships, and this really prepared me well. Also, racing against some of the other top-ranked guys gave me confidence that I could run with anyone in the nation and come out on top as long as I was there when the move was made.

MS: What was the feeling like after you made your move at three miles? Were you expecting someone to challenge you for the lead again? How close were you to the finish when you realized that nobody was going to catch you?

PW: I felt really strong and confident when I made the move. I knew that if someone came with me they were going to have to run really hard to stay with me. I was kind of expecting at least one guy to come with me, but if I got a little gap on them to run really hard so I could make the gap large as quickly as possible and make it hard for the others to try and make up ground on me. At about 7k I knew I had it because I had about 50 meters on second place, so I gave one last push to secure the win and kind of just enjoyed the moment coming down the stretch.

MS: Those final moments down the stretch - how long ago had you started to visualize that moment? This season? This past summer? Last year, after finishing 15th at nationals?

PW: I'd say I've been visualizing winning for a year now (since last year's nationals), but that particular setting with those guys - I had been visualizing that straightaway since at least the summer. It kept me motivated on the hard days of training alone.

Photo from Dave Berdan

MS: So you came into the summer knowing you wanted to become a national champion this fall. Did you change anything, either physically or mentally, from past summers? How did you collaborate with your coaches and/or teammates to try and reach that next level?

PW: I did a lot of training alone, which was very tough at points, but also prepared me to race along in some sense. I went into this summer way more serious and made a full commitment to the training. My coach was a huge part of my success and his training over the past four years had prepared me for [nationals].

MS: Did the increased focus on summer training pay off immediately coming into the fall season? Were you able to notice that you felt different than you had entering past cross country seasons?

PW: I came in with not only a lot of confidence but a lot of fitness and that really became noticeable early in the season. All I wanted to do was race to see where I truly was, fitness-wise.

MS: Which race would you say, during the season, was your best performance? Did you surprise yourself by consistently running in the mid-24s after consistently running between 25:30 and 26:30 last year? Did it take time to adjust to racing and training at a completely new level?

PW: I would say my best race this year was [the Rowan Inter-Regional Border Battle]. This was a race where there was a lot of good competition and a lot of the top guys in the nation. I knew I had it in me to run these times this season and I proved that during the season by running them, both by myself as well as with the competition.

My hard training over the summer definitely prepared me to run these times but I would not say I was surprised because I was ready to run fast after the summer I had. I think I adjusted alone to training along over the summer which really helped me get to the next level by making me much more mentally tough.

Photo from Dave Berdan

MS: Was there any particular workout over the course of this season that surprised you or gave you an additional confidence boost?

PW: Yeah, there were a few ones, particularly a ten-mile progression where I closed my last five miles between 5:05 and 4:55. That really showed me that I can run 25 minutes [for five miles] in a workout, so I can crush that in a race where I'm only running five miles.

Also, closing the Rowan race in a sub-4:30 mile was a huge confidence boost. I knew I had a lot left and should be able to run well under 24 minutes.

MS: Even going back to your first and second years at Stevenson you weren't really on the national radar. What is it like now to look back at your progress all the way to the top. Was there a specific season or time period within these past couple years when things just sort of clicked?

PW: I would say that, during my freshman year of college, I didn't really take this sport seriously and therefore didn't see much of a progression. Sophomore year I got really serious and started seeing a lot of progress, and that is when I made it to nationals for the first time. From there on out I pretty much got more and more serious each year leading up to this year when I went all-in and really saw the true potential I had in this sport. Looking back, although I wish I would have taken it more seriously, I wouldn't change it because I learned a lot and credit a lot of my success this season to that.

MS: Did that attitude change in how seriously you took the sport come from within? Was there someone who helped change your mindset?

PW: I would say a mixture of both. My coach has a lot of big goals for me and I was ready to achieve them, both for him and for myself. At the same time I held myself to a very high standard this season and learned a lot about self-motivation. My mindset is a result of the progression throughout my four years at Stevenson under Coach Berdan.

Watson as a high school senior in 2015. (Photo by Tim Dillistin)

MS: What would you say to someone looking for inspiration to find that next level within themselves? Do you think your journey all the way to the national championship can serve to help others heading into college or possibly struggling to stay motivated as an underclassman?

PW: If you need inspiration you need to decide what you actually want from this. I've known plenty of people who just do this so they can eat what they want or stay in shape for another sport. In order to get to the next level, this sport needs to not only be a priority but something you love and have fun doing. Only then will you get to the next level. When running goes from feeling like a job to something you look forward to in your day you can reach the next level.

I think my journey is one that many runners go through. There are points when you don't take it seriously, but the question is are you okay with just running to run, or do you want to be successful with it? If you want success, you have to want it. In high school I was definitely not mature enough to handle this sport. Throughout my journey I've gotten much more serious, and once you taste success, you want more. So my advice would be to find your goals and stick to them. Get to the end of the season and ask yourself what you could have done to have a better season and take that information into the next season. That's how you become a successful runner. It's a mental game.

(Table provided by Stevenson Head XC Coach Dave Berdan)

PlaceNameTime (muddy)High School (1600/3200)
1Patrick Watson (senior)24:13:004:55/10:09
2Matt Wilkinson (Junior)24:19:004:19/9:15
3Thomas D'Anieri (senior)24:25:004:18/9:05
4Jared Pangallozzi (Junior)24:31:004:24/9:19
5Josh Shraeder (Senior)24:32:004:19/9:22
6David Fassbender (Junior)24:32:004:25/9:43
7Ethan Widlansky (Sophomore)24:32:004:28/9:43
8Tyler Nault (Senior)24:36:004:30/9:48
9Ryan Cutter (Junior)24:38:004:18/9:18
10Aidan Ryan (Junior)24:40:004:14/9:09
11Matt Osmulski (Senior)24:42:004:33/15:14 3mile xc
12Chase Hampton (Senior)24:42:004:17/15:48 5k XC
13Zach Klokow (Senior)24:43:004:44/10:01
14Jack Whetstone (Junior)24:44:004:34/9:55
15Alex Phillip (Freshman)24:46:004:28/9:40
16Dante Paszkeicz (Sophomore)24:48:001:54/4:17
17Joe Demonico (Senior)24:49:004:24/9:33
18Jonathan Ellis (Junior)24:49:004:26/9:49
19Ryan Cox (Senior)24:49:0015:46 5k xc
20Nick Matteucci (Senior)24:49:004:33/9:47/15:46 5k xc