The story of John Cline, UNC’s last men’s cross country All-American

Pre-race anxiety is no stranger to the runner. He feels his muscles tighten, gently and gradually pulled taut like a new guitar string. Tension builds not only in his body but in his mind. Though not normally claustrophobic, his nerves are on edge. Personal space doesn’t exist here. He can smell the runner next to him. He notices a gnarled scar on the shoulder of the runner in front of him, only inches from his face. Oxygen is scarce. His mind races with thoughts of how the next moments will play out.

What if I don’t get out fast enough and get stuck behind a pack of slower runners that won’t thin out for 800 meters? I can’t let that happen. I won’t. If only I could have gotten in just one more stride before everyone lined up, then I’d really be ready. What if my legs get entangled with someone else’s? What if someone spikes me with their cleats?

John Cline knew this feeling well, and embraced it. I’m not sure drinking two liters of Mountain Dew is a good idea for your nerves before any race, but Cline did it for every race of his life, including the biggest one – the NCAA Division I Men’s Cross Country Championship in 1997.

In the heart of November, the best collegiate runners from across the country and a handful from around the world flocked to Furman University. It was a normal late-November day: chilly and brisk, with a slight wind that slices through your racing singlet, right into your chest. The sun bathed Furman golf course’s rolling hills, the host to decades of collegiate cross country’s best runners. Anxious runners sprinted back and forth, preparing for the race’s start and relieving tense muscles and nerves.

That year’s championship race was loaded. Cline squeezed into the crowded individuals starting box with men who would go on to qualify for the Olympics twelve times. And those were just the one-off qualifiers whose teams weren’t quite good enough to make the championship field as a complete squad.

Future Olympians Meb Keflezighi, Bernard Lagat and Abdi Abdirahman, extraordinary runners with extraordinary talent and extraordinary names, joined Cline in their starting box that day.

And he was John Cline. No exotic or legendary name. No legendary running history. He had made some noise his senior year, but still few had heard of him because the oft-injured UNC redshirt senior never seemed to align his physical and mental strengths at the same time at this level. Yet there he was lined up at the 1997 NCAA Division I Men’s Cross Country Championship.

As it is with all cross country races, the pre-race jostling for position on the line was heated. Cline had trouble getting the room he needed amid the bodies.

But the starting gun doesn’t wait for anyone to settle in.

A single shot broke the morning silence.

And John Cline fell.

 ***

Two years earlier, Cline had also come crashing down on the trail.

UNC’s cross country team was in the midst of a 4.8 mile time trial to shrink the team down to twelve men. But Cline was in awful shape and on the edge of being cut.

“After one loop, I couldn’t see straight,” Cline said. “I was hurting. Really hurting.”

However, if there was one thing John Cline was good at, it was running through pain. “He has an ability to take pain at a pain threshold beyond limits, almost like he likes it,” former teammate Danny Stein said. “Sometimes it’s scary, but it’s what makes John, John.”

Cline decided to latch onto a teammate and hung onto him through the second loop. He described it as “probably the worst I’ve ever hurt in my life.” Closing in on the finish line, he picked up the pace to start moving up, putting pain on the back burner.

“And the next thing I remember, I was in an ambulance right by campus.”

He had collapsed, falling three times out of immense fatigue before crossing the finish line. But he crossed, holding on to his spot on the team.

The ambulance trip was an interesting one, as his coach Joan Nesbit Mabe (then just Joan Nesbit) recalls: “When he was about to be transported to the hospital, he said ‘No, no. I can’t – I’ve got to go do my cool down.’”

Cline was “passionate to a fault,” Nesbit Mabe said. That’s the way he is, and always has been. He pushed his body to its limits, whether in college or beginning his running career in high school.

In Charlotte, N.C., Cline rose up the ranks as a highly-touted recruit. People began to take notice as records fell and he collected trophies. Cline would go on to become named MVP of the North Carolina 4A Track & Field Championship his junior season.

Colleges from all over began to take notice. “He was a thrilling racer and had a flurry of leg speed that was sort of superhuman,” Nesbit Mabe said.

Cline chose to go to Stanford. At the time, legendary cross country coach Vin Lananna had just begun coaching at Stanford, recruiting the second, third and seventh place finishers from the Footlocker National meet. Cline knew not only would he join the best class in the nation by going to Stanford, he would also get the best education.

It was the best of both worlds, he figured.

 ***

Back in the world of 1997, John Cline was getting back on his feet, like he had done so many times before. There was no time to think, no time to wait and wonder if officials would call back the runners to restart the race.

“Instead of going out being conservative, John went ripping out with the likes of Meb Keflezighi and Adam Goucher and Lagat,” Stein said.

After breaking into a dead sprint, Cline had joined the front pack somewhere between 400 and 800 meters. He hit the mile at about four minutes and 20 seconds, now with the leaders.

At two miles in, his time was at nine minutes, 11 seconds. The guy no one had expected see close to the front was fighting to stay with Meb Keflezighi, who would go on to not only win the race, but also win a silver medal in the Olympics less than a decade later.

“I was hurting,” Cline said. “I was hurting really, really badly the whole race.”

 ***

The natural pain of pushing his body to limits in a race or workout was never much of an concern for Cline, but injuries were a constant issue for much of Cline’s collegiate running career.

They cut short his first cross country season at Stanford after two races. Frustration mounted quickly, and the college lifestyle didn’t help. He was a young kid, immature on the trails – and as it turned out – off the trails.

Cline coped with his injury by partying. A lot.

“I was very immature. I didn’t realize the dedication and commitment that it took,” Cline said. “I thought I could just play around and just run more and I’d be better. I didn’t realize that I needed to focus on my diet, my rest, stretching – just all of the little things. I’m not sure I was mature enough to manage those.”

After recovering from his injury in cross country in the fall of his freshman year, he got injured again the following spring. Without a group of friends at Stanford, he started to really miss home. With frustration dogging him at every turn and greener pastures closer to home tempting him, Cline decided to transfer.

But to avoid losing a year of eligibility, he had to request a release from Lananna.

The conversation was a memorable one. “Lananna released me,” Cline said. “But I remember what he said. He said something to the effect of ‘Nobody has ever left my program and been successful somewhere else.’ He said, ‘You’re making a mistake.’” Knowing Lananna, Cline’s teammate Dave Mabe guesses the actual conversation was probably even more intense than that.

Regardless, Cline took the talk to heart and vowed to turn it into motivation later on.

But it didn’t exactly pay off as quickly as he hoped. His first year at UNC was marred by injuries, both in cross country and a track season that marked his first of many stress fractures.

“I had the ability to hurt myself,” Cline said. “I could run really hard without a lot of training and it would just tear up my body. … Whereas some people when they race or train, the pain may cause them to back off or avoid it, I like to take it head on. I love to go out hard to try to challenge myself to make myself hurt early and then to face that challenge of hanging in there and holding on.”

Again and again, injuries struck. Frustration, it seemed, had followed him home.

But one late night would change his mindset completely in 1995, during his redshirt sophomore year. Cline and a friend were mugged in downtown Chapel Hill. It served as a wake-up call for him. Nesbit Mabe called it a “spiritual turning point” for Cline.

“It was a culmination of a lot of things going on in my life at the time,” Cline said. “‘What are you doing? You’re about to blow this opportunity to run and get a good education.’ I started to realize I needed to be consistent, that I needed to take care of myself, I needed to eat right.”

Despite sharpening his focus and surrounding himself with more positive influences, injuries continued to shadow him after nearly every season.

Cline returned in the spring of 1997 for track season and recorded a third-place finish at the ACC Championship meet in the 5,000 meter event despite getting spiked accidentally on the kneecap by another runner. The errant spike injury altered his kneecap’s tracking, setting him back once again.

There was just one shot left and he would have to battle back like so many other times in his career.

 ***

John Cline was fighting a battle at Furman University that no one thought he could win.

He made “dramatic goals,” as Dave Mabe would call them.

“Even when no one else counted him in, he was thinking no one else had a chance to win that race,” Stein said. “Everyone else had doubts, but he, himself, never had a doubt.”

Cline thought he could be top 10 at the national meet, and after two of the 6.2 miles, he was in prime position. However, his rough start began to take its toll.

“That was a race where you hurt the whole race,” Cline said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of relaxing in that race because it was so tight. Every space counts and it seems like during the whole race, everybody’s fighting.

“If you relax for one second, 10 people would go by you. So if I relaxed and let off the gas for a second, I remember there was a guy from Providence College and he would go right by me. And then I would push the pedal down and go by him. It was just a battle the whole way.”

Roaring onlookers crammed against the ropes separating them from the trail, screaming out everyone’s place. If you were 25th or better, you had better hold on tight to that position, because the difference between All-American and ‘Guy Who Ran At Nationals One Year’ could be just a single second.

 ***

Of course no one pegged Cline as a national contender for his senior year in cross country. Coming off of injury, rehabbing and training on a short schedule was a challenge few people could turn around into a historic season, but few people could get back into prime shape as quickly as Cline.

After rebuilding his base with consistent and solid training, he began his season with impressive performances against William & Mary’s future All-American Matt Lane and finishing 30 seconds behind Meb Keflezighi in the pre-nationals race.

He further impressed after winning the ACC Championship outright by more than 30 seconds, beating a talented NC State team led by two future selections for the ACC 50th Anniversary Men’s Cross Country Team.

Though his team failed to qualify for the national meet at regionals, he ran well enough to qualify to enter as an individual.

 ***

Preparation the morning of the race began like any other for Cline, who had the same ritual since he began running. He drank his morning two-liter Mountain Dew to wake up and headed out to the course. Visions grew within his mind of a top-10 finish.

Though his vision didn’t come to fruition, he cinched an All-American spot and he finally proved Lananna’s earlier remarks wrong, placing within Stanford’s top five runners and finishing 19th overall with a time of 30 minutes and three seconds.

Cline stood in the finish chute after the race for ages. “I hurt all over,” he said. “I was in intense pain. It was good, but it wasn’t the typical run where you hurt for a little bit and then you see your friends and family and your coach and you’re all better. I was in that chute for a while just going ‘Wow.’”

More than a decade later, John Cline’s talents still stand out to those who knew him. UNC still hasn’t had a men’s cross country All-American or ACC champion since.

“I still have yet to see an athlete like John with the talent level, both mentally and physically that he had,” Stein said.

Injuries would eventually preclude Cline from continuing on with professional racing, but he would become an assistant coach at Wake Forest before beginning a teaching and cross country coaching career in Charlotte at his high school alma mater.

On some days you could see the remnants of the elite talent still within him. I’ve seen him handily beat his teams of some of North Carolina’s best high school runners in workouts and road races despite injuries hounding him for years and the disadvantage of being two decades older than them.

Even those days are behind him now. His back pains him too much to permit him to run like he used to.

But the memories remain, the plaques marking the highest points of his running career tucked away in the darkness of his attic.

Recently he ventured into the sweltering poorly-ventilated space to revisit them.

“The flame was short,” Cline mused. “But it was pretty damn bright – when it burned.”

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