HYRUM — Conner Mantz appears to be a rather humble young man.
When asked what his goals were heading into his freshman year of cross country at Sky View, the 14-year-old said, "I'm hoping I'll be on the varsity team."
Truth be told, any high school program in the state would be fortunate to have Mantz on its squad. Mantz is already one of Cache Valley's best distance runners — regardless of age — and he proved it at the annual Blacksmith Fork Freedom Run on Saturday morning.
The Smithfield native stuck right with stellar Weber State steeplechaser John Coyle, who was using the scenic, downhill-heavy course as a training run. Coyle finished about 10 or so seconds before Mantz, but was not registered for the event.
Therefore, it was Mantz — who was competing in his first ever 15-kilometer race — who earned top honors. Mantz covered the 9.3-mile course, which starts at the Hydro Park in Blacksmith Fork Canyon and ends at Hyrum City Park, in 52 minutes, 59 seconds.
The clock read 52:17 when Mantz crossed the finish line, but the official times of at least the top participants were approximately 40 seconds slower than what the clock indicated.
"It's pretty satisfying," Mantz said of beating much more experienced endurance athletes. "I wondered if I could get the same pace as my half marathon I did a few weeks ago, but I don't know if I did. But I thought I ran a good race."
Maika Carlsen, who beat all comers in the women's competition, felt exactly the same way. Carlsen took control on the foreboding uphill ascent about seven miles into the race, pulling away from runner-up Victoria Grieve, who was within striking distance of the Providence resident.
Carlsen only led Grieve by about 35 seconds with three miles to go, but ended up winning by a little more than two minutes. The native of southern California was credited with a strong time of 57:27, which was good enough for 10th place overall.
"I didn't run nearly as fast last time (I did this race), but today it felt really good," Carlsen said. "I wasn't really sure what to expect, but this is the best I've felt in a race since I ran (the) Orange County (Half Marathon) in 2010. ... So today was a good day. I was surprised."
Carlsen, who placed third at the 2010 Top of Utah Marathon, was shooting for a time in the 58:30 range, but easily surpassed that. The 30-year-old never appeared to be laboring at all over the final five kilometers, and that made the experience that much more satisfying.
"I've been doing a little bit more speed work," Carlsen said when asked why she felt so good. "I don't think I've been putting any more miles in necessarily, but I just felt like I had a better control of the pace today. And I knew rather than hanging on, I feel like I was in control of the pace, so that felt good.
"And I knew that if someone came up on me, I would have something left in me to either stay with them or pull away from them again. I just felt a little bit more comfortable with the race today than I have in a while."
Although Grieve never challenged Carlsen over the final few miles, the North Logan resident still clocked in with a solid time of 59:34. Fellow 38-year-old Ralee Eck, who lives in Smithfield, placed third in 59:57, followed by Logan's Mandrelyn Foster (1:01.:42) and Hyrum's Ainsli Jenks (1:05:04).
And while runners in their late 20s and 30s dominated the women's competition, it was a pair of teenagers who stole three of the top five spots on the men's side.
Jerrell Mock, a soon-to-be junior at Logan, ran an excellent race and even gained a little bit of ground on Mantz over the final few miles. Mock's runner-up effort of 53:17 was just 18 seconds slower than Mantz's time.
Rounding out the top five in the men's field were former Mountain Crest standout Shawn Clawson (53:33), masters division champion Phillip Larsen (54:55) and Mustang junior Sean O'Very (55:17). O'Very, a very good swimmer and triathlete, was in the top four for much of the race.
Mock and Clawson did a good job not losing any time to Mantz on the big hill heading into Hyrum, but Mantz separated himself from some of the other top contenders at that juncture.
"It felt really good. I was a little surprised about how (I ran the hill)," said Mantz, who averaged a 5:41 per-mile pace. "... I thought I'd like die down on that hill, but I actually went a little faster than I thought I was going to, so that felt good."
Mantz turned some heads last month at the Utah Valley Half Marathon, where he placed fifth with an impressive time of 1:13:19. Whether Mantz's prowess over 9-12 miles will translate as well over the much shorter high school distances remains to be seen, but he looks forward to the challenge.
"It seems like more fun to run with them than just running alone," Mantz said. "And I don't know much about running with a team, so it will be a new experience and I look forward to it."
Mantz was one of 577 competitors — 579, counting hand cyclist Jerry Young and wheelchair veteran Nathan Crowton — who completed the course Monday. The Freedom Run is now capped at 600 entries, and most of the athletes are from the valley.
Local runners certainly made their mark Monday, particularly on the women's side, where the top 15 placers currently reside in the valley. Placing sixth through 10th were Jeni Buist, Mangum — the masters division titlist — Laura Hatch, Lee Labrum and Tami Suisse.
Of the top 10 placers in the men's field, eight reside in the valley. Drew Michener, Brian Behrmann and Henry Olsen, who all live in Logan, finished sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively. Olsen, who is just 15, had one of the day's most impressive performances.
At 9 years old, Luke Devries of Hyrum was the youngest competitor, while 80-year-old Logan resident Julia Barrett was the oldest runner.
Everyone who registers for the Freedom Run is given a T-shirt with logos of the race sponsors printed on the back.
For the first time in the history of the event, competitors were encouraged to write the reasons why they run on the back of the shirt, just above the logos. The words "I Run For" were printed on the back of each shirt, followed by a large line underneath people could write their answers on.
When asked about why they choose to run, a handful of participants answered it keeps them in shape, it's a great way to experience the beauty of the outdoors, or things of that nature.
For some people, though, the reason they choose to run is rather meaningful. Take Carlsen, for instance.
Carlsen graduated from BYU with a master's degree in exercise science and health promotion, and ended up writing her thesis and doing a substantial amount of research on childhood obesity. As a result, Carlsen feels very strongly about helping youngsters "see that you don't have to be a star runner to come and do something like this."
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention website, 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States are obese, which is triple the rate from just one generation ago. Encouraging kids to buck this trend is something Carlsen is very "passionate about."
"I passed a kid who was probably 10 years old out there, and that's more impressive to me than me winning a race," said Carlsen, who is married to 2008 LOTOJA champion Kent Carlsen. "I mean, that seems insignificant compared to someone learning to live a healthy lifestyle. So that's really my passion is helping people realize how good a little bit of activity can make you feel."