#TGW: The Running Man
Track and field All-American Avery Bartlett is doing cross country to improve both teams
By Jon Cooper
Let’s be honest. Most athletes don’t like to run — at least not any more than they have to.
It takes a special breed of athlete to purposely take on more running.
That breed runs cross country.
These are athletes that run until it hurts, often even after that. They not only fight off the physical part of their body trying to put the brakes on but also the mental part issuing an alert saying, “Enough, already!”
Cross country runners treat that alert like the snooze button on an alarm clock. The same way non-cross-country people find a reason not to get up, cross-country runners find reasons not to give up.
Senior Avery Bartlett has become one of Georgia Tech’s top cross country runners and has narrowed his list of reasons down to one.
“For me it’s pretty simple. I just think about the team,” said the Tallahassee, Fla., native. “In track if I don’t race well for the most part I’m letting myself down. In cross country, especially being in the No. 1 spot like I am right now, I have to do well because the team is relying on me. I don’t really give myself the decision to fall back for that very reason.”
That Bartlett is running at No. 1 speaks volumes about his commitment, especially since he didn’t start running cross country until his sophomore year at Tech.
“In high school I was alright in cross country,” he said. “Taking the next step was really up to me to start doing everything right and start adding more mileage and just putting in more training to succeed in cross country.”
Cross country head coach Alan Drosky, also Tech’s track and field distance coach, believes Bartlett underestimates how good he was but is proud of how good he’s become.
“Avery’s grown in his confidence to handle the longer distances involved with collegiate cross country,” Drosky said. “He was a pretty accomplished runner in high school, but it’s been a patient process, and a lot of hard work on his part, for him to get comfortable racing 8,000 meters (roughly five miles). While his strength really lies in the middle distances during the track season, Avery knows that competing in cross country during the fall is a huge part of his development in the spring.”
That development hit a peak last spring, when he earned second team All-America indoors and outdoors at 800 meters, helped the distance medley relay finish fifth at ACC Indoors, then, Outdoors, won the 800 at ACCs, and ran a PR 3:43.45 in winning the 1,500 at the Tiger Track Classic, and helped Tech’s 4×400 run a season-best 3:09.08 at ACCs and helped the 4×800 run a season-best 7:18.18 at the prestigious Penn Relays.
That track success and continued success has made running the much tougher routes of cross country more worthwhile.
“Without a doubt, I think cross country is harder than the 800,” he said. “As far as mental preparation, in the 800 you just kind of get yourself riled up for a good like two minutes of running. There’s really no time to think in that quick of an event. In cross country, you know you’re going to be in pain for a lot longer time. You just keep pushing through all the pain and stay strong. There are just way more opportunities to, as I always say, ‘sissy out of a race,’ if it starts to hurt but in the 800, no.”
Bartlett said ‘no’ to anything and anyone trying to get past him in cross country’s first event of the season, the UGA Bulldog Invitational in Athens on Sept. 8. He set a personal record (24:20.7) in winning the race by more than three seconds ahead of teammate Andrew Kent, as the Jackets had four runners finish in the top 10, seven in the top 20 and Georgia Tech won the meet by 30 points over the host Bulldogs, beating them by nearly three and a half minutes.
“I was completely happy with the result,” he said. “Of course we went in there with the mindset that there was no way Georgia was going to beat us. To beat them by as much as we did was awesome. It always feels good to beat Georgia. Taking the win, I feel like I’m just doing my part, helping the team, minimize the points and get the highest place possible. I feel better about my performance for the team.”
Bartlett has always been team-first, regardless of sport, but he takes commitment to an even higher level in cross country.
“Avery is a team player and buys into the cross country concept that it doesn’t matter how you finish, it matters how we finish,” said Drosky. “We expect Avery to work hard at every practice to make the team better and to line up every race and compete hard for his team.”
Drosky first noticed just how hard Bartlett could push himself when he was recruiting the athlete, then a star runner for Chiles High School.
“Right after Avery’s senior year he competed in a prestigious high school meet. The winner would advance to a Dream Mile in New York,” Drosky recalled. “Avery took the lead into the last 100m of the race. Another very talented runner came storming up, with momentum that would clearly carry him to the finish. Avery looked over his shoulder and found another gear, literally willing himself to the finish line first. I saw in that race the competitor that Avery was, and the drive would carry him to success in college.”
Bartlett has developed a strategy for cross country that allows him to shorten the race into an 800, then put on his finishing kick — the kick that helped him win the 800 at last spring’s outdoor ACCs, running 1:48.05, winning it in the final 100 meters, as well as set a school indoor record (1:47.32) in last year’s Florida Relays. That strategy worked to perfection in Athens.
“Before the race, Coach said ‘Stay near the front of the pack as much as you can. Don’t push the pace until the last half-mile or quarter-mile,’ because that’s when I can really use my half-mile speed,” he said. “That’s kind of what I did. I stayed near the front, then with a little bit to go I made my move and got the win, which wasn’t really expected. In my mind, of course, I have that scenario that I can do it, but no one really expects me to win because I’m more of a track guy.”
Of course, only in Bartlett’s perfect-world thinking would he be Tech’s No. 1 in cross country.
“Did I expect it? I play out all the best-case scenarios in my head so, yeah, sure,” he grudgingly admitted, with a laugh. “Honestly, since this is a team sport I would be happy if I didn’t finish first. If I put out the best effort that I could and got third place on the team, I might be even happier because me being third means the team is better. Cross country for me is all about how the team does. If I’m fifth or first, I’ll still be happy. The entire front group, our 1 through 5 really give everything we can to improve better every day and create a good culture for the rest of the guys.”
While creating a winning culture is important, doing so at Georgia Tech is even more important. The culture and tradition of the Institute are well-known to Bartlett, a fourth-generation Yellow Jacket — his mother (Elizabeth, Class of 1989) and father (Andrew, Class of ‘91), grandfather (Woody Bartlett, Class of ‘56) and great grandfather (George Prescott Bartlett, Class of ‘30) are all alumni.
“It’s a family tradition,” said Bartlett, who’s expecting to graduate next fall, with a degree in computational media. “It means a lot being here knowing that the difficulties I have are the exact same thing my parents and grandparents had. As far as the decision in coming here, my parents didn’t put any pressure on me to attend this school. I was kind of recruited before they even knew about my family lineage and it just ended up being a perfect fit. Now that I’m here and succeeding, my family is so proud of me, which makes me very happy. Obviously, it feels great now but I’m sure down the road, knowing what this school means to me and my family it will feel even better.”
Drosky actually breathed a sigh of relief that the law of averages didn’t catch up with him when recruiting Avery.
“I knew a little bit about his family’s ties to Georgia Tech, but not fully,” he recalled. “As time went by, I did learn to full extent, and just kept hoping that Avery wouldn’t be the first one in his family to not go to Tech.”
Turned out there was no reason to worry then nor has there been since.
“What impresses me about Avery is his growth throughout his career,” Drosky said. “From season to season, year to year, Avery continues to contribute more and more to our program. As a person, Avery impresses me with the balance he achieves between school and sport and personal.
“With his strength in the 800m during the track season, Avery has had some great opportunities to compete at the highest levels of our sport,” he added. “When you compete at that level you develop a confidence that you belong among the best. That confidence helps Avery maneuver the challenges of the cross country season.”
He’ll confidently continue to walk — or run — the fine line of challenges in both sports.
“Switching from track to cross country is just using my experience,” Bartlett said. “As I’ve been getting older, as I’ve gotten more miles under my legs I have a better understanding of what it takes to succeed at higher distances. It’s still a painful sport, so if I can do really well in cross country, then competing in the 800 and half-mile really isn’t hard. So the better I do now the better I’ll do then, which is an easy motivating factor for me.”