Time of the essence for UNC’s Isaac Presson
The Bell Tower tolls three times, but few are awake to hear it, save a select crew of athletes and early-risers.
It’s 5:47 a.m. on Sept. 18. The sky is a purplish gray, and a soft wind whips against the flags surrounding North Carolina’s Irwin Belk Track. The only respite from the darkness comes from the field lights towering above the track, and even that only illuminates patches of rubber and grass.
Isaac Presson, a 6-foot-3, 155-pound junior on the North Carolina cross country team, walks up to the second floor of Eddie Smith Field House and into the men’s locker room, where freshman Richard Miller asks him if he had caught the score to the Broncos-Falcons game the night before.
Presson had not. He had gone to bed at 10:30 p.m. The game was far from over.
Presson changes into a gray running shirt, tucks it into a pair of dark blue athletic shorts and exits. He joins his teammates on the bottom floor, and they walk to the parking lot outside the field house.
They pile into two 18-passenger vans at 6:11 a.m. and drive to the American Tobacco Trail in Wake County.
The routine seems ruthless — waking up before sunrise to run 10 to 12 miles — but for Presson and his teammates, it’s just another Tuesday. Another day in the life of a Division I cross country runner. Another day of running and routine.
‘Casual progression run’
The van ride is quiet. The runners have been awake for less than an hour. Some stare ahead at the road. Others try to sleep.
“It’s never a good sign when you have to start running when it’s still dark out,” Presson says.
The vans pull into the trail’s parking lot at 6:34 a.m., and the runners trudge out to begin a five-minute warm-up jog, followed by a series of stretches.
Head coach Mark VanAlstyne announces the workout: a 10-mile progression run. Each mile is supposed to be faster than the last.
“How far should me and (junior) Patrick (Schellberg) go? Full thing?” Presson, who has been dealing with a tender right ankle, asks his coach.
“I would shoot for nine.”
“Nice. Nice casual progression run.”
Presson joins the circle of runners at the trail head, and they clip off a 5:48 mile before it’s 7 a.m.
They’re what separate good runners from great ones, and they’re what can drive them insane.
They’re what earned Presson, a state champion in the indoor mile at Asheville High, scholarship offers from UNC and N.C. State and interest from Columbia, Virginia and Florida State.
And they’re what appear on Presson’s watch a little after 8 a.m. on this Tuesday, when the runners have returned from the workout.
The watch is black and simple, and it reads 51:17 for the nine-miler. He ran the first five in 29:12, a pace of about 5:50 per mile, and the last four in 22:05, a pace of 5:31.
Nice casual progression run.
Some runners slam down a Gatorade protein shake, attempting to replace the calories burned by running 10 miles in less than 60 minutes, and then everyone climbs back into the vans.
Fueling the furnace
They arrive back on campus at 8:49 a.m., and Presson, an economics major, attends Business Analytics at 9:30 a.m. and Introduction to Entrepreneurship at 12:30 p.m.
He then meets teammates Jack Driggs and Dan Mykityshyn at Sutton’s
Drug Store for lunch at 2:15 p.m.
Driggs and Mykityshyn already have a table and are sipping on cherry Cokes. Apparently Presson had told them to meet at 2 p.m. Driggs is half-mad and says he’s “on a schedule.” No time to waste.
Presson, a laid-back, unassuming 20 year old with unmistakable wit — “I.P.: Ladies love me. Guys want to be me. Jack (Driggs) can’t beat me,” is his go-to self-describer — laughs it off and sits down.
The waitress comes to the table, and Presson orders a cheeseburger with chips on the side. Driggs and Mykityshyn both order a double cheeseburger and fries.
The lunch conversation floats from running to recruits to girls to replacing Sutton’s framed basketball jerseys with speed suits.
When the food comes, Presson wastes no time. The burger is gone in less than five minutes, and he wipes his mouth.
A runner’s sanctuary
Presson leaves Sutton’s at 2:45 p.m. and arrives at Stallings-Evans Sports Medicine Center at 3:07 p.m.
He talks with a trainer and then begins a series of foot-strengthening and injury-prevention exercises.
He spots Sami Jorgensen, a sophomore on the women’s team, doing similar stretches.
“How’re the shins today, Sami?” he asks.
“They’re good, it’s just the breathing…” she says, explaining her most recent corporal difficulty.
A runner’s body, like any athlete’s, is a temple, a hallowed mix of muscle and bone, and they must treat it accordingly.
“I’m pretty fragile,” Presson says. “Definitely the biggest thing holding me back in my running career is injuries.”
After an ice bath, he leaves the training room at 4:07 p.m. and walks to the student athlete academic center inside the Loudermilk Center for Excellence.
“(A) good thing about this place is that it’s got the best bathrooms,” Presson says of the academic center, where he spends 40 minutes studying International Economics before walking to the weight room at 4:56 p.m.
The team knocks out a 45-minute weight-training session, and Gatorade protein shakes are handed out to all.
“They would replace a meal for most people,” Presson says on the walk back to his house for dinner.
There are sodas and salty snacks strewn across the coffee table of Presson’s off-campus house, and a flat-screen T.V. dominates the main room. Presson’s room is messy, large and filled with posters.
Junior John Ruhl III, one of Presson’s housemates, says he’s grown accustomed to living with a runner.
“I hear him wake up a lot early in the morning,” says Ruhl. “(And) there’s times we’ll go a while without seeing him because he’s always training.”
The housemates all find dinner — Presson prepares a burrito filled with generous amounts grilled chicken, rice, cheese, chopped lettuce and salsa — and gather on the couch to watch reruns of “The Office.”
“Isaac is probably the best cook in the house,” Ruhl says. “Nate (Koutlas, another housemate) and the other two are God awful.”
Before everyone has settled in, Presson is halfway done with the burrito. In less than 10 minutes he’s back in the kitchen making another one.
Back to sleep
Presson passes the rest of the night studying, and at 10:30 p.m., he’s back where he began the day 17 hours earlier: his bed.
He sets his alarm and goes to sleep, ready to do it all again tomorrow.
The Bell Tower tolls twice, a subtle, powerful reminder for Presson, and all college runners, that time is unchanging.
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