Nov. 18, 2016

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Five days before the race that would determine whether the University of Virginia cross country team advanced to the NCAA championships, Brent Demarest came down with chills and developed a fever.

He was too sick to run, and he struggled to sleep. As the race approached, Demarest remained ill.

“The fever just wouldn’t go away,” said Pete Watson, who coaches the men’s distance runners at the University of Virginia.

But Demarest, a redshirt sophomore from Charleston, S.C., was determined to compete last Friday in the NCAA Southeast Regional, a 10-kilometer race on UVA’s home course, Panorama Farms in Earlysville.

Without him, Demarest knew, the Cavaliers’ chances of advancing to the NCAA championships would be slim. The top five runners from each team score at the regional, and the gap between Nos. 5 and 6 at Virginia is substantial.

“Not running really wasn’t an option, because we needed all five guys,” Demarest said.

“That was basically the mindset: My teammates need me, Coach needs me, the team needs me. So I’m just going to do it, no matter what. I know they would put it on the line for me if I asked them. We’re a family, and I would do anything for them.”

On race day, Watson pulled Demarest aside as the Cavaliers gathered near the starting line.

“I was like, `Listen, man, life isn’t easy. At some point, you’ll want to be in the Olympics or something, and you’re going to be sick, and you’re going to have to gut through it,’ ” Watson recalled. “I said, `We can’t do it without you, so let’s see what you’ve got.’ ”

Demarest, usually the Wahoos’ top finisher, had just enough. He finished 38th overall, in 30 minutes and 23.8 seconds — three-tenths of a second faster than NC State’s Elijah Moskowitz. Demarest’s effort clinched second place for the `Hoos, who thus qualified for the NCAA championships.

During the race, Demarest recalled, “I just thought, `I’ll end up where I end up. I’m just going to give it my all.’ ”

Had Demarest finished 39th, the `Hoos would have placed third, and that might well have ended their season. There was no guarantee Virginia would receive an at-large invitation to the NCAAs.

The regional was memorable for both UVA and Demarest, Watson said, “because Brent is super, super talented, but he hasn’t been the toughest kid in his career at times, and this year he’s really just made a huge step with his commitment to everything, and he’s led the way. I think in years past maybe he wouldn’t have gutted that one out for the guys. This year, with him being No. 1, he’s definitely taking on a bigger leadership role.”

The NCAA championships are Saturday at noon in Terre Haute, Ind., where the forecast calls for temperatures in the 40s, with winds gusting to 23 miles per hour.

“I think our guys will be fine with that,” Watson said. After all, they overcame considerable adversity last week.

Demarest wasn’t the only UVA runner who dealt with illness ahead of the regional, though his case was the most severe. Several of his teammates also got sick last week, and three days before the race, Watson said, he worried that neither Demarest nor junior Chase Weaverling would be able to compete.

“It would have been a disaster,” Watson said.

At the ACC championships last month in Cary, N.C., Virginia placed second, behind Syracuse.

Demarest, with a seventh-place finish, was the first Cavalier to cross the line, followed by freshman Lachlan Cook (11th), senior Zach Herriott (12th) and Weaverling (13th). Rounding out UVA’s scoring five was freshman Matthew Novak, who finished 29th.

At the NCAA Southeast Regional, Herriott finished ninth, Cook 12th, Weaverling 14th and Novak 32nd. Well behind Demarest was the sixth Cavalier to cross the finish line, freshman Alex Corbett, who placed 101st.

Demarest, who’s from Charleston, S.C., won four state cross country titles in high school. But he’s more than a talented runner. In July 2014, he won the USA Triathlon junior title in Ohio, finishing a 750-meter swim, 20k bike ride and 5k run in 54 minutes, 56.8 seconds.

His background in the triathlon, a sport Demarest picked up in high school, helped him as labored over the Panorama Farms course last Friday.

“Doing all three sports has prepared me to dig into whatever energy I have left,” Demarest said. “I trust the training that I’ve been doing, that I’ve put in for the whole rest of the year. I just trusted my fitness, and it carried me through the race.”

Demarest, who enrolled at UVA in the summer of 2014, redshirted that fall in cross country because of a knee injury. (He’ll compete as a junior in indoor and outdoor track later this school year.)

At the ACC cross country championships in 2015, Demarest was the fifth UVA runner to finish. Still, his rise to the top of the Cavaliers’ lineup this year did not surprise the coaching staff.

“It was definitely a possibility, for sure,” Watson said. “It was only a matter of time. He’s super talented. We have a bunch of guys who really grind things out. I think he’s one of the guys who’s actually really talented, who once he figured out how to grind it out was going to be really good.”

The 5-10 Demarest trains seriously for triathlons when he’s not in school. He swims occasionally at UVA’s Aquatic & Fitness Center and rides his bicycle around Grounds, “but [triathlons are] mostly an offseason thing,” he said.

Watson said: “I think the big thing with Brent is, he’s not trying to be a triathlete and a runner at the same time. I think when you try to do that, both suffer. Long-term he knows he’s a great triathlete, but right now he wants to be the best runner he can be.”

A biology major, Demarest wants to attend medical school after graduating from UVA. His mother, a former distance runner at the University of Connecticut, is a flight nurse in Charleston.

His recent illness posed challenges for Demarest on the academic front, too.

“I actually had two tests [last] Thursday that I had to study for,” he said. “So on top of not sleeping very much, and the fevers, and the being lethargic because of the sickness, I had to study for those and get those done.”

He followed a more normal schedule this week.

“I definitely feel a lot better than last week,” Demarest said. “Having a second chance is awesome. I really wanted one. Obviously regionals didn’t go as well as I wanted to, and that drives me even more to want to be an All-American.”

The UVA men, who placed 13th at the NCAA championships in 2013, finished 22nd last year. When it’s healthy, Watson said, his latest team is superior to either of those two squads.

“This year the team’s a lot more cohesive and on the same page,” Watson said. “It’s a fun group. If we run to our potential, we’re very good.”

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