Olympic hopeful Jerrell Mock didn’t think he’d be in this position two years ago.
In the spring of 2018, he ended his college career disappointed. After placing 10th in the 10,000 meters at the 2017 NCAA Outdoor Championships, the Colorado State runner was hoping to improve on the performance as a senior. However, a tactical race at the NCAA West Preliminary that finished with a kick left him out of the 2018 NCAA championship 10,000-meter final and cut his last season short.
But Mock didn’t let one upsetting race define his career. Instead, he used it as motivation for the next chapter.
“To come off of a race that I wasn’t happy with, it kind of pushed me to want to keep running at a higher level because I just felt dissatisfied,” Mock told Runner’s World. “And I knew that wasn’t reflective of what I could do as a runner.”
On October 13, 2019, Mock, 24, showed that potential when he ran his debut at the Chicago Marathon. He placed 10th overall in 2:10:37, which is the sixth-fastest performance among Americans who have met the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying standard in the last two years.
“It [Chicago] was a nice test,” Mock said. “I wasn’t overreaching for a lot of the race. It’s kind of exciting to finish that way and know there’s definitely some room to grow and push harder.”
On February 29 in Atlanta, he’ll face his second test when he competes in his first U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials with a shot at making the Tokyo Games.
The Headspace of Running
With parents who were competitive cyclists, Mock was introduced to endurance sports at an early age growing up in Logan, Utah. On his own initiative, he started to go for runs by himself in middle school.
“I wasn’t particularly good at it,” he said. “[I liked] the headspace of it, being alone and thinking in a meditative state.”
He started his high school career on the junior varsity cross-country squad with a 2009 season best of 19:38 in the 5K. Over the years, Mock improved exponentially. In his senior year, he finished second at the Utah state championship.
While running for Colorado State, Mock earned All-American honors three times and posted personal bests of 13:44 for 5,000 meters and 28:11 for 10,000 meters. Looking for redemption after his last race for CSU, Mock started emailing race directors the day after the 2018 NCAA West Preliminary.
His first race as an unsponsored post-collegiate athlete was the Boilermaker 15K in Utica, New York, where he finished 11th as the second American across the finish line. That fall, he continued the momentum with top seven finishes at the Great Cow Harbor 10K, the USATF 20K Championships, and the Medtronic Twin Cities 10 Mile.
“I just tried to be really strategic with picking races that paid out well,” Mock said. “[Where] I knew finishing in the top 10 or the top five would be an attainable goal. That kind of got me through until recently.”
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In addition to prize money income, Mock also took a job doing field work for the forestry service. His crew identified plants growing back in the mountains that were affected by forest fires.
For Mock, the decision to run the marathon was a gradual process thanks to Colorado State head coach Art Siemers, who continued training him in Fort Collins.
“The marathon has to be your own decision,” Siemers told Runner’s World. “It can’t come from outside. But I slowly put some carrots in front of him [to show] that he’d do really well in the marathon. I just knew the marathon would be his best chance to do big things.”
Mock started to see his 26.2 potential at the 2019 Houston Half Marathon, where he ran 1:02:14, faster than the Trials standard of 1:04:00.
“That’s when I started to believe it,” Mock said.
Finding Confidence in Longer Distances
While Mock took to road racing well, training for the marathon presented new challenges. Longer workouts—such as 2 x 6 miles—made him question whether or not he could finish, they also helped him discover a tougher mental approach.
“[I went] from trying to feel good all the time and running really short, fast stuff to being okay with feeling really bad and realizing that that doesn’t necessarily mean the pace suffers,” Mock said.
Ultimately, Mock found a way to complete the workouts by trusting his coach’s training. “He thinks I can do it so I guess I’ll have to find a way,” Mock said.
Based on Mock’s success in track and cross country—especially on hilly courses like the Roy Griak Invitational, which he won twice—Siemers believed that longer distances would play to the athlete’s aerobic strength.
He knew that Mock was ready for a breakthrough in Chicago when he completed an impressive 18-mile progression run three weeks before the race. On country roads at 5,100 feet of elevation, Mock ended the effort under 5:00-minute mile pace. “He just seemed to get stronger as the workout went on,” Siemers said.
Siemers’ perspective on the marathon comes from personal and coaching experience. As an elite runner, he specialized in the mile and 1500 meters with personal bests of 4:01 and 3:45, respectively, but he also showed range in the marathon. At the 2002 California International Marathon, Siemers ran 2:18:51, which earned him the 2004 Trials standard.
In preparation for the 2008 Trials, Siemers coached a group of Olympic marathon hopefuls, including Tera Moody, who finished fifth overall in 2:33:54. For the 2020 Trials, he is guiding three athletes: Mock; Andrew Epperson, the assistant coach at CSU; and former CSU All-American Grant Fischer.
The members of the group call themselves “Siemers’s Dreamers.” Epperson qualified for the Trials by running 2:13 in Beppu, Japan, in February 2019, and Fischer qualified by running 1:03:27 at the Houston Half Marathon last month.
Respecting the Distance Siemers’s Dreamers run a fartlek workout in Fort Collins.
When he’s not running, Mock sings and plays guitar in a band called Hermit Commune. For Mock, the music provides balance to ensure that every day isn’t solely focused on running. But when he is running, he’ll often think of ideas for songs.
“He’s got a lot of interests outside of running, which I think is pretty neat,” Siemers said. “He’s a very humble person and you wouldn’t even know that he’s an elite athlete [based on] how he carries himself.”
Success on the roads paid off for Mock this year when he found a sponsor in January. The BAA High Performance Team signed Mock and former CSU teammate Cole Rockhold to the Boston-based training group. Mock is being coached by Siemers in Fort Collins through the Trials with plans to move to Boston in April.
“I’m lucky,” Mock said. “To be at a point where I’m still surprising myself or exceeding expectations, and I know that won’t go on forever but I think the main thing is just seeing where it goes and seeing how far I can take it.”
Heading into the Trials on February 29, Mock is looking forward to the hills on the Atlanta course—which has 1,389 feet of climbing and almost exactly the same amount of downhill—while taking into consideration his lack of experience in the event compared to a lot of his competition.
“I need to continue to have a lot of respect for the distance,” Mock said.
Olympians Galen Rupp, Leonard Korir, and Jared Ward, plus Scott Fauble and Jake Riley have run faster and have more championship experience than Mock. But the rolling hills on Atlanta’s course could present an opportunity for the strong climber.
“I like it when you have a hilly course,” Siemers said. “It changes things a little bit. You can get a potential sleeper or someone that you wouldn’t normally think would make the team. I think that’s really exciting for someone like Jerrell.”
As a former college athlete who didn’t make the NCAA final, Mock admits that he never imagined he’d be in a conversation about making Team USA. But he’s not counting himself out of contention.
“More than anything, I just want to make the breaks with those top guys and be there when [the top] three separate,” Mock said. “I would love to be one of them.”
Taylor Dutch Taylor Dutch is a freelance writer living in Chicago.