Nathan Heddleston Alliance Ohio Recounts his Recollections of an NCAA Division III Indoor National Championship 60-Meter Hurdles Race that Ended in a Tie
Mason Plant and Connor Troyer, both NCAA individual and team national champions, tied each other twice in their careers. The first time was at a mid-season meet at Baldwin-Wallace University. They had asked twins Hillary and Hannah Reigle, Mount Union distance runners, to hold their blocks, and before the race, Connor looked back and asked them to “give us some twin power.” That they did; as mentioned, Mason and Connor, men who would go on to have remarkable track and field careers, tied that day with “twin power”. This is the story of the other time they tied:
At the 2019 Division III NCAA National Indoor Track & Field Championships in Boston, Connor Troyer and Mason Plant did something of which there is no known record at the National level in college Track and Field. Both athletes with multiple individual NCAA National hurdle titles and two teams NCAA national titles on their resumes, Troyer and Plant tied as national champions on the same day, in the same race, wearing identical jerseys.
Both athletes had battled injuries earlier that year. Plant’s had been less serious but more recent, a hamstring injury, like his teammate Troyer’s, was sustained a month prior when he won The All-Ohio Championship in the 60-hurdles, a race that Connor sat out as a precaution. Winning All-Ohio indoor and outdoor was a feat that no athlete other than Mason Plant or Connor Troyer did through the four years they were in college. Troyer had barely finished the race at the National meet the previous year, too soon back from injury, and then redshirted for outdoor. A hamstring routine was added for Connor by Coach Nate Heddleston with the help of a friend and doctor of physical therapy, Nick Hoopes, and Mason’s recovery was fast but not complete after only a month.
Nathan Heddleston, Tough Decisions
In National Meet preliminaries, Troyer ran the fastest time, and in a separate heat, Plant ran the fifth-fastest time, which he did not like at all, Mason a staunch competitor. “I can’t lose, Coach,” he said to hurdle coach Nathan Heddleston, disregarding his meet-day mandate to only talk about winning. “I have to win. I can’t…”
“Well then, let’s talk about what you’ll have to do that,” he responded as they walked together across the warmup facility. “What were you thinking when you were coming out of the blocks? Because it looked like you were thinking about maybe turtles, molasses, erosion, other quintessentially slow things.”
“I was just worried about getting to [hurdle] one. It’s so weak,” he said rubbing his hamstring. He hadn’t done a workout in over a month, and his strength and speed had suffered. He was fortunate to be at the meet at all, much less a qualifier for finals, which meant he would be an All-American again at the very least if he ran the race. Although, Heddleston had heard many opinions that Mason shouldn’t be running at all.
Nathan Heddleston Alliance Ohio, “DRIVE, DRIVE, DRIVE”
“‘DRIVE, DRIVE, DRIVE’. We won’t have another cue until you’re standing on the podium,” Coach Nate Heddleston said. Connor had spent much of the previous year cheering on Mason as he won titles and broke records, some of them his, and with virtually unmatched natural speed, he wasn’t about to give up the what would be his first National title easily, which would be one of two he would earn that day alone. “If you want to be with Connor over [hurdle] five, you can’t let him leave you as he did to one. You have to get out, and we could squeeze an entire tenth out of your start, and that will be enough. DRIVE, DRIVE, DRIVE to one.”
“‘Drive, drive, drive,” Mason repeated as he headed over to do a couple starts with the new mindset. Coach Nate allowed him to do two starts, and Mason talked him into a third, a normal negotiation between the two for an extra rep, even after the second was perfect. Mason and Coach Nate had an unspoken agreement to undo whatever could be unspoken on the days of meets. Mason was a results-based thinker; he could shatter his personal best and lose to an actual cheetah and be upset that he didn’t win.
Connor, on the other hand, was the epitome of a performance-based thinker, happy with good times and good races, a social butterfly at track meets, social networking, making friends, and taking pictures. He caught up with Coach Nathan Heddleston, “What’s wrong with Mason? He should be happy he made finals. I mean… he’s hurt.”
“Nothing. He’s good. Awesome race, dude. You’re gonna do it.” They both thought about how a National Title had escaped him more times than it should have. “We are ready for Saturday. Get out fast, and make [hurdle] one look like two,” he said, repeating Connor’s cue to him.
“I’m gonna win, Coach Nate.”
“Yes, you are,” Coach Heddleston responded. He had now told both of his athletes that they were going to win Saturday’s final at the National Meet.
They weren’t just different thinkers; they were different hurdlers. Connor’s natural speed made him impossible to beat to the first barrier and a bullet between them. Mason was so perfect over-the-top and off-the-back of the hurdles, and he would rip out chunks of leads by faster runners and overtake them near the ends of races. They were both “programmed” in the air, as Coach Nathan Heddleston would say. In outdoor, the previous year, Mason had come from fourth place to win his 110-meter hurdle title in a windy Lacrosse, Wisconsin, by a margin that required staring at the leaderboard for a period of time until his title was broadcast, a waiting-game he was spared as indoor champion the year before in Birmingham, Alabama. Since they were so different, they both spent time with Coach Nate focusing on the strengths of their teammates, Mason would frustratedly try to keep up with Connor out of the blocks, and Connor would try to hold Mason off in reps of four to five hurdles or longer in practice. Along with talent and hunger and strong coaching and the tradition of athletic excellence at The University of Mount Union, they both had the country’s best training partner in each other. They would often say, “I can’t go light for a single day because I will get my ass kicked in practice by this guy.” Together, they were too good to not win.
On Saturday, warmups were as unusual as any National meet. It is cramped and too small. There are too many athletes in not enough warmup facility space. Coaches fight over hurdles and space and calm nervous athletes who are unable to conduct normal warmup routines, while they secretly try to convince themselves of what they’re assuring their respective runners.
Coach Nate Heddleston and Connor Troyer had long conversations about how cool and fun the whole thing was, how lucky they were to be there, at Nationals in Boston, Massachusetts, and how he’d win if just ran his best because he was the fastest and Coach Nate had taught him how to “get his legs out of the way”.
Coach Nathan Heddleston and Mason Plant had shorter conversations. They consisted of one word, three times: “drive, drive, drive.” He paused, this time with small addition: “and lean. Whatever you get, you’re going to get because you leaned so hard that your chest hit the track.”
“Drive, drive, drive,” the other would say back as an iPhone or headphones or a hip number would change hands. “Drive, drive, drive.”
Coach Nate yelled it across the facility as it quieted in the moment between when the athletes stopped moving, and the starter brought them to the “set” position. “DRIVE, Mason!”
When the gun popped, “drive, drive, drive,” he did. He got to the first hurdle in the mix except for Connor comfortably ahead and on his way to the National title and with one other athlete close behind, running in second. The rest of the race was not as clean. A hurdler who had “never been seen clearing a hurdle,” by Heddleston’s assessment, wrapped hurdle two which tripped the athlete beside him. That young man tripped the athlete beside him. Two of the three fell, and across the track, another, unaffected hurdler went down. By hurdle three, Plant was doing what he did so well: he was walking down first place. Over four he was nearly caught up to Troyer and the third athlete who found himself in the best race of his life. However, over the fifth and final hurdle in the race, Mason was clearly still in third.
“Off-the-back,” Coach Nate had focused on from the very first day he realized that he was going to have to borrow and invent things to make these young men better. “Rip off-the-back,” he would say as they would analyze video. “We are better over-the-top, but we leave them behind off-the back,” he would explain at coaching clinics and to recruits looking for evidence that they were talking to a coach who could be trusted with their futures. Mason was the best at this. He was just a little taller than Connor who almost had to wait a split second to touch down, a phenomenon that they would discuss frequently, while Mason was able to get his perfectly vertical lead leg to the ground just before Connor’s to begin to apply the force for the reacceleration that would always drop opponents behind, literally every single time.
He ripped off-the-back, strode hard with his arms, and leaned so far that “his chest [literally] touched the track.” He had fallen over the finish line leaning as far as he could.
Nathan Heddleston Alliance Ohio Breaks Down Scoreboard
- Troyer — Mount Union
The Mount Union faithfuls shouted in jubilation: the parents–namely Connor’s parents–and families, the athletes hoping for another team title, the coaches… except for Coach Nate. He looked on as the next name on the list populated and his phone began ringing in his pocket for what would be the next two hours with calls from all the former Mount Union athletes and coaches and current fans watching at home.
- Troyer — Mount Union
- Plant — Mount Union
Cheers. Hugs. Tears. They had gone 1-2 in the country. What many joked Coach Nate
should be able to do with these two.
- Plant — Mount Union
- Troyer — Mount Union
Confusion. Mason had won? Connor’s title escaped him again? His mother froze with
her hands over her mouth.
Coach Nathan Heddleston stopped and waited along with everyone else, his phone still alive in his pocket. The parents started asking questions to which there were clearly not yet answers. There is a mandatory 15-minute protest period before results are finalized, and there would be a protest, to be sure, after the interference away from the Mount Union athletes. Whispers of rerunning the race were already circulating, and a private conversation had already begun between Kevin Lucas, Mount Union head coach, and Coach Nathan Heddleston about how that simply couldn’t happen with their injury history and with Connor running on a relay later that day. Not to mention the fact that Mason might not be able to finish another race with his hamstring.
Just then the jumbotron flashed back to life.
- Plant — Mount Union
- Troyer — Mount Union
And the place lost its collective mind. The results would stand this time.
They had done it. Teammates had tied for the National Title.
Amid the phone calls, Coach Nathan Heddleston checked his phone to see if there was information yet on when he would be passing out the All-American Trophies as the coach of the co-Champions, an honor that he would enjoy for the third straight NCAA National Meet, and there was a tweet from college track and field coach and former Mount Union Purple Raider National Champion in the hurdles, Tyler Mettille: “‘The best you can do with those guys is 1-2 in the country.’ Coach Nate Heddleston, ‘Hold my beer. Watch this’. Troyer and Plant just went 1-1 in the COUNTRY! #MOUNTUP!”
Nate Heddleston Teacher and Coach
When they finally allowed Coach Nate Heddleston Teacher onto the infield to hand out awards, Plant and Troyer met him for one of their many group hug celebrations. “You guys never cease to amaze me,” Heddleston said. “Winners win, gentlemen. You did it. I TOLD YOU! What was going through your minds? Walk me through.”
Connor said, “I knew I was going to win as soon as I touched down off one. I just had to hold them off, so I focused on running clean and working between them.”
Mason just smiled and looked down at his ripped jersey, “drive, drive, drive, Coach,” he laughed, probably for the first time in a month, “…and lean.”
The next day at the airport gate in Boston, the parents and coaches were all reliving the race. The man beside them, familiar to Coach Nate, took out his phone and spoke up clearly aware of the conversation, “I was running the finish line. You’re going to want to see this,” and he pulled up a picture from the Finish Lynx camera system to show them that it was indeed deadlocked; the tie simply couldn’t be broken, even with the computer and camera system in perfect working order. Connor had gotten out just fast enough, and Mason had run it down just perfectly enough. Another foot long or short of 60 meters would have changed the result in two different ways. This was the same picture he had shared with the head meet official who agreed and made the determination final. The finish line administrator was Josh Klein, former Mount Union Track and Field athlete and teammate of Nathan Heddleston.
In the continued jubilance and disbelief of the conversation, a young woman close by sat up in her seat at the gate. She leaned into the conversation and confidently directed her comment to Coach Nate, “hi, I’m Lauren Brill of Fox 8 News in Cleveland. Something tells me that I need to hear this story.”