Kelly Christensen had never seen such a chaotic finish to a race.
On the last lap of the 3000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA Div. II Track and Field National Championships, all three front-runners went down.
The runner in the lead went down first, the second runner landed on him, followed by the third-place competitor, who couldn't get out of the way. Christensen, a 2000 graduate of Moffat County High School and a Western State College junior, remembers it well -- he was the runner in second place.
"It was crazy," he said. "I saw the guy in the lead go down and I tried to get out of the way, but I landed right on top of him."
Christensen's race, the steeplechase, is one of the most unique races in track. It is just short of two miles and has four 36-inch high hurdles on the track and another hurdle followed by a 12-foot-long water pit. The pit stopped the first three racers in their tracks.
"I had never fallen in the steeple," Christensen said. "All I could think was 'get up, get up.'"
Christensen emerged from the pile first, cleared the last hurdle and crossed the finish line a national champion.
Moffat County High School girls basketball coach Craig Mortensen was at the meet to watch his daughter Emily, who runs for Adams State College. He witnessed the wreck.
"It looked really bad at first and we didn't know what was going to happen," Mortensen said. "Then Kelly jumped up and took off."
Despite his fall, Christensen finished the race with a personal best time of 8:56.8.
"I'd been sitting at nine minutes for a month so it was nice to finally break the barrier," he said. "I was in second, but I felt really good, and I think I could have outkicked the guy in front. If we would have stayed up, we probably would have been five or six seconds faster."
The national title was Christensen's first and his third All-American honor. The championship was just as much redemption as an honor for the junior.
A year ago, Christensen was diagnosed with mononucleosis. He ran at nationals but finished 14th. For most of the summer, he didn't run and was still sick when the season started again.
"I just didn't have it, and I knew I had to take some time off from everything," he said.
Christensen stayed in Gunnison but he took the semester off from school and running.
"I tried to stick with it, but girls were beating me in workouts," he said. "It was really a low point for me, and I didn't know if I would ever have the desire to run again. ... I wanted to quit."
He stuck with his training and returned to school for the second semester. In March, Christensen finished seventh in the 5,000 at indoor nationals. With his confidence and strength back, he set a goal for outdoors.
"I really wanted to go after the steeple title," he said.
A month into the three-month indoor season Christensen ran a 9:01.45, which at the time was second in D-II and the thought of a national championship became a reality.
"For about two-and-a-half years I never would have thought that I would be in the hunt for a national title," he said. "But when I got into the low nines, I knew it could happen."
He went into the national meet with the top time in the country. In the preliminaries, he ran a 9:16, nowhere near his best time, but it was what he needed to reach the finals.
Then came the big show.
"I would definitely say that (the final) was my best race ever," he said. "It didn't really sink in until the next day, but it was great."
Breaking nine minutes in the steeplechase means a runner goes from the top of the college ranks to the being a top runner in the country. That gave Christensen a chance to pursue an invitation to the Olympic trials this summer.
"I would need to improve by at least 12 seconds for the trials," he said. "That's substantial, but I'm running well now."
He'll never know how good he could have done this summer. He decided to put Olympic aspirations on hold for four years. He has a team to run for.
"I really feel like I let my team down by not being able to run cross country last fall," he said. "I don't really have enough money to travel around North America to qualify for the trials."
This summer, Christensen is going to stay in Gunnison and train to help his team go after a national championship, which finished an uncharacteristic fifth last year in cross country.
"We've got 27 guys staying to train, and we've got an outstanding recruiting class," he said. "We're definitely talking title."