BILLINGS -- The cross country men at Rocky Mountain College are locked into a trip next spring to the NAIA national meet thanks in large part to legwork from their top two runners.
When Elijah Boyd and Jackson Wilson laced up their shoes for the Frontier Conference championship meet a few weeks ago in Havre they knew they had a legit chance to win it.
“Honestly the race started out pretty slow," Boyd recalled to MTN Sports. "We hit like a 5:28 first mile.”
“At two-and-a-half miles, I decided it’s our time to go and if we want to win this, we have to go now,” Jackson said.
The two runners liked the early pace on what they called a "perfect afternoon for running" in Havre.
“It was controlled, it was comfortable and we knew that any moment someone could make a move,” Boyd said.
While Boyd and Wilson say they typically don't converse much during a meet, or even practice runs, there was a time and a place mid-race at the conference championship.
“We talk here and there and he just said, 'Go,' so I went,” Wilson told MTN Sports.
And from about the three-mile mark, in a race close to five miles long, neither really looked back. Boyd recalls thinking he was in a slugfest with the field before hearing his assistant coach down the stretch.
“He was like, ‘You’ve got a 35-meter lead on the next guy.’ I was like, ‘This is it.’ I mean, Jackson and I were running shoulder-to-shoulder and it was something, like, cinematic," Boyd said.
Wilson wasn't really in a mood to take any chances.
“I didn’t really want it to come down to an all-out sprint finish," he said.
So, Wilson kicked it into gear and won the conference championship race by almost 17 seconds. Boyd made it a one-two Battlin' Bears finish and the rest of Rocky’s runners held up their end to slam the door on a men’s team title and the automatic qualification to nationals next April.
Rocky’s Mike McClean was later named Frontier Conference men’s cross country coach of the year while Wilson earned men's runner of the year.
“It was exciting," Wilson said. "I went up to coach and we were counting teammates, seeing what our points were. He had his score compared to the other teams and we were on top, so it was really nice.”
“Going into the race I just thought, ‘This is it. This is what we’ve been working for the entire season,’” Boyd said.
It really was what Boyd had waited for his entire cross country life. That journey started six years ago when his family moved from Tennessee to Whitefish.
“I just remember flying over Glacier National Park and being like, ‘This is home, this is awesome,’” Boyd recalled.
And naturally, he’s taken advantage of the terrain and powder surrounding Whitefish.
“We’ve got Big Mountain at home and I picked up snowboarding the first year there and have just been doing it ever since,” he said.
Boyd says he can hold his own but confesses he’s not ready to trade cross country for collegiate snowboarding.
Wilson is from Box Elder — not in Montana — but South Dakota. He’s considering computer science but has no plans to give up running for collegiate esports. As reserved as Wilson comes across, his choice of music was a bit surprising.
"Rap music and stuff to pump you up pretty much," he said.
When asked if he can you rap a beat real quick during his interview, Wilson smiled and sheepishly replied, “No.”
Boyd tried to egg him on, but Jackson wasn’t having it.
Boyd, meanwhile, admitted he left everything on the championship course. Everything.
“About 10 minutes after the race I found myself buckling down and puking my guts out," he laughed. "But that comes with racing, you’ve just got to leave it all out there and that’s what everyone did.
“Every guy on the team was facing something outside of running and just to know that all our work paid off and we’re heading to the Big Dance, it’s an amazing feeling."