When Jared Beers ’01 took over as men’s cross-country coach in 2006, he understood the challenge he faced. He had to lift the fortunes of a program that had little success over the last 20 years. He had to do it as a former sprinter and football player—not a distance runner.

“It was two weeks before the season started,” Beers recalled. “When I took over, the team was pretty small. The priorities were in the wrong place. Outcome is important, but the values were out of whack.”

After years with little success, the team culture had turned inward, he said. The emphasis seemed to be on individuals, not on the team as a whole. Beers told himself, “We need to change who we are.”

Or as he summed up his recruiting pitch, then and now, “It’s nice that you can run fast. But who are you?”

Runners answered that question. And now so has the team.

In October the Mules were ranked sixth in the nation among Division III schools by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, and they were first in New England. That comes on the heels of their first appearance as a team in the NCAA Division III championship meet last year. Colby finished 22nd.

in-groupjared-coachingAfter placing near the bottom of the 11 schools running in the New England Small College Athletic Conference championship meet for two decades, Colby finished fifth in 2013. The top six runners from last season returned to Mayflower Hill this year and promptly won a major meet on the course of perennial power Williams. On Nov. 1 this year the team finished second at the NESCAC championship, behind only Williams, the number-three team in the nation.

Seemingly overnight, the Mules raised their profile dramatically in cross-country circles. In fact, the renaissance began nine years ago when Colby turned to Beers, at the time the sprint coach on the track team and a former Colby football defensive back.

It turned out that football brought something to Beers’s cross-country runners—a new attitude. Beers was a senior on a Colby football team coached by Tom Austin that went 7-1 in 2000.

“That experience of being on a winning team made me understand how you can be successful,” he said. “[The football players] cared about each other. We’d do anything for each other and did.”

So Beers applied that philosophy to cross country—that compassion and commitment can eventually nurture winning and winners. His philosophy is working.

Beers has a no-cut policy. His squad this season has 35 runners, nearly double the size of his first team. Runners with slower times say they don’t feel forgotten, despite the fact that Beers can’t take all 35 team members to big away meets. He finds race opportunities for those at the back of the pack. In return, he asks that they commit to their roadwork and understand they’re an integral part of the team.

Recent cross-country recruits said they didn’t get a hard sell from the coach. What sold them on Colby was interaction with cross-country runners on campus visits. “I went to a team dinner and saw how everyone treated each other,” said co-captain Charlie Coffman ’15. “From the best to those who probably didn’t contribute much in scoring—it didn’t matter. They were all teammates. I liked that.”

A standout distance runner in high school, physics major Jeff Hale ’15 didn’t think he’d continue his running career in college. That changed when he went for a casual run with the team. “I discovered I wanted to be part of this,” said Hale, who is now a co-captain.

He wasn’t alone in gravitating late toward the cross-country group. As a champion runner and Nordic skier at Fryeburg Academy in Maine, Silas Eastman ’17 said he might have concentrated only on skiing at Colby but for the bonding he found in cross country (he does both). He’s another of the team’s top runners.

close-of-groupgroup-wide-sideThe team vibe also attracted David Chelimo ’17, who didn’t compete seriously as a runner at his high school in Kenya. He played volleyball. But with the embrace of the cross-country culture at Colby, he’s tapping his potential and is Colby’s leading runner, earning national and New England honors this season. “It’s very accepting here,” Chelimo said. “I feel very comfortable.” Or as Beers put it, Chelimo has found a home.

The team’s sense of community doesn’t end on the course. Ben Lester ’15, in addition to being a math and Spanish double major, was the Colby Outdoor Orientation Trips (COOT) co-coordinator with Emma Wood ’16, a Nordic skier. They led planning of training for 130 COOT leaders and organized and managed 56 COOT trips.

Lester, asked about the particulars of that role, made it a point to note the nonathletic accomplishments of some of his teammates. Chris Millman ’16 is co-president of Mules Against Violence (MAV), a student organization that works to raise awareness of sexual violence, and a peer educator in sexual violence prevention programs for first- and second-year students. Nolan Dumont ’15 is an EMT with Colby Emergency Response. Nathan Madeira ’17 plays in the Colby Jazz Band and Colby Community Orchestra.

As important as the steady progress that the program has seen is its transformation to a team in all senses of the word. It’s a lesson Beers keeps in mind with each new season, “how powerful [sports] can be when the locker room is full of people really committed to each other.”