By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Nate Burnand had trouble motivating himself as a freshman. In his words, he was "not a mature student."
Sure, he was balancing two sports during his first semester at Waterford Mott. But he was slacking in the classroom, a shame because he had the potential to do so much more.
We know how much potential because of what he's accomplished over the last two years.
These days, it’s AP economics, U.S. history and comparative politics during the school day and some of the fastest cross country times in the state when class is done. The running achievements came first and the academic success next, and together they’ve provided for an incredible finish to Burnand’s high school career – much like his kick at the end of races that has made him an MHSAA championship contender.
“The positive reinforcement when I have success in running and school, I see the rewards and it makes me want to work harder to do more,” Burnand said. “I think when I made all-state sophomore year in cross country, it clicked for me that I needed to do better things than what I was doing. I had opportunities, and I needed to capitalize on them."
Burnand receives a Second Half High 5 based in part on his 15:21 to win the elite race against a loaded field at Michigan State’s Spartan Invitational on Sept. 14. He also won the Waterford Mott Fall Classic two weeks later in 15:44, and took second last week at the Oakland County Championships.
But his impressive climb to the elite started long before this fall.
He ran his first high school race, in 2009, in 18:16 and finished his freshman season with a personal best of 17:23 while splitting time playing soccer. He decided before his sophomore year to focus solely on cross country, and the surge began.
Burnand opened the 2010 season with a 17:09 and closed it with a 15:45 and 17th place in the MHSAA Division 1 Final at Michigan International Speedway. He improved on that with a 15:38 and sixth place at last season’s Division 1 Final – despite suffering multiple stress fractures that affected how much work he could put in heading into the fall.
Mott coach Ryan Robinson recognized that talent right away, and after Burnand’s freshman year compared him to teammate Scott Albaugh – who went on to win the Division 1 individual title in 2010. The key to this season’s drop has been consistent training; now healthy, Burnand put in 70-mile training weeks this summer, plus swimming pool and plyometric training with his teammates.
And he’s smart with his workload too. After the second stress fracture during spring 2011 forced him to train in the pool alone, Burnand decided he didn’t want to go through that again. He learned his body’s limits and is careful to do just the right amount of work.
“He will do whatever I ask him to do, and then some,” Robinson said. “And he does a lot of research on what other people are doing, what other kids are running, and the times he’d like to run. He’s always trying to do more.”
And as noted above, race success was followed by class success. Burnand had a 2.4 grade-point average after his freshman year, not because he struggled with the material but because he didn’t put in enough effort. Sophomore year was about breaking habits, and the comeback was on.
Burnand scored a 3.8 GPA as a junior, bringing his cumulative up to 3.0. He has the three Advanced Placement classes this fall, and would like to study economics or politics in college.
“I always knew I was capable of this. I wanted to be a good student, but I didn’t have the motivation,” he said. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to have a running career if I didn’t keep up in school.”
That's the plan, and he’s making it difficult for others to keep up. Robinson said Burnand executed strategy perfectly at MSU. Burnand like to push opponents in small spurts through the middle of races before taking off for the final 1,000 meters. That’s what he did at the Spartan, and over the final 500 Burnand had energy that his opponents couldn’t match.
As a junior, he had to convince himself he could finish those races in first. But during that summer training he began to believe, and after a few weeks staying with family and training on the hills surrounding San Francisco, he saw dividends.
Like with his studies, the more goals he hit, the more goals he chased.
“I think my confidence has gone up,” Burnand said. “Over the summer, I was running everything fast, hitting my mileage goals, not struggling, and I think it just started clicking. I had a feeling things were going to happen this year.”
PHOTO: Waterford Mott's Nate Burnand rounds a turn during last season's MHSAA Division 1 Final at Michigan International Speedway.