It’s a sunny, autumn September day. Lines of small orange cones and strings of red flags line the trees surrounding the soccer stadium at Saint Martin’s University. Slowly, but surely, parents, coaches and event officials meander toward the finish line and clock set up on a red-tinted track, their shadows continuing to elongate in the evening sun.
Everyone waits for the first runner from the Ramrock Classic’s boys 5-kilometer race to appear.
Some know exactly who will lead going into the final stretch.
Across the facility, ribbons lead a rugged path from a meadow onto the track. From the finish line’s flank, Bryce Cerkowniak, standing 5-foot-10, places a foot onto the track. He has about 300 meters to go until the finish line.
For the first 200 meters, it’s just him and the track. His short strides increase as his arms continue to pump and his strides get longer.
The small crowd begins cheering.
With a final push, Cerkowniak leans through the finish line and the timer, his legs slowing his body from the sprint — 15 minutes, 36 seconds and first place.
Not bad at all.
Just as Cerkowniak begins catching his breath, a North Thurston runner enters into the final stretch. With a final push from his deep strides, Samir Amin brushes through the finish line, high-fiving Cerkowniak and moving off the track in the process.
Both are juniors at their respective schools and have forged a friendly rivalry as the South Sound Conference’s top runners. Amin joins Cerkowniak on the side of the track and the two commence a casual conversation, each of them congratulating Yelm’s Ryan Lange, then Kelan Herness as they pass through the finish line. The four young athletes smile, recounting the course.
They stay on the side of the finish line, cheering on runners as they enter onto the track and throwing high fives out toward finishing runners. The 20th man finishes, and the boys keep the cheering strong. Cerkowniak may have finished first, but it was the talk of sportsmanship that lingered on as the crowd of young men grew.
It’s a scene that has been repeated again and again this year as hard work and dedication have propelled Cerkowniak to the front of the pack and title contention.
The road that brought Bryce Cerkowniak to the forefront of Yelm cross country running isn’t one explained by natural talent and physique alone.
If you’ve driven around downtown Yelm at all within the last two years, you’ve probably seen him either early in the morning or in the afternoon; a scrawny, short-haired boy running the sidewalks that grid the small town.
His focus is forward. His shoulders are broad. His strides are short but consistent.
People drive past. Angie Cerkowniak, Bryce’s mother, said this is something he’s kind of known for around town.
“He’s almost a local celebrity,” she said, noting that people will often tell her “I saw Bryce running today.”
And while many have seen Bryce Cerkowniak’s entranced glare in transit, you can’t help but believe his stature as a local celebrity might be true. Just a few years ago, Cerkowniak was a talented, impressionable freshman at Yelm High School. Now, he’s possibly one of the best runners in the school’s history.
A junior this year at Yelm High School, Cerkowniak is competing for the state 3A cross country championship title after placing first at both the 3A South Sound Conference league and West Central District championship meets.
While he may not be the favorite to take state this year, he, his coaches, fellow athletes and a small support group disagree. They believe he has what it takes to go for gold and clinch a massive upset on the course this November in Pasco.
Last year, Cerkowniak placed eighth at state and is currently the third fastest 3A runner in Washington.
Cerkowniak twice broke the school’s 5-kilometer boys record as a sophomore and this year as a junior, lowering it down to 15:22, which still remains his best time. Last spring for track and field, Cerkowniak twice broke the boys 3,200-meter school record.
Most recently, Cerkowniak clinched a first-place finish at the West Central District 3A Cross Country Championships 5K race last Saturday, Nov. 2. Cerkowniak’s eyebrow-raising finish helped propel the Tornados to a fourth-place finish, qualifying them for state.
For a program like Yelm, coaches say runners like Cerkowniak only come around once in a blue moon.
Dan Baker, who coaches the girls cross country and track and field teams, discussed Cerkowniak’s success last year after first breaking that 38-year-old 3,200-meter record during track season.
“This is my 21st year coaching track here. There have not been a lot of kids at his caliber,” Baker told the Nisqually Valley News last spring. “It’s not a surprise that he’s doing well … He’s got natural racing smarts.”
Over a slice of pizza and surrounded by cross country athletes during an after-practice team get together at Bertoglio’s Pizza, head boys coach Alex McIntire and Justin and Angie Cerkowniak, Bryce’s parents, explain why his story is an important one to tell. Simply put, great things follow when you put in consistent, focus-driven work.
In previous interviews with the Nisqually Valley News, top Yelm runners such as senior Jacob Barnert and junior Kelan Herness have highlighted Cerkowniak’s will to lead by example and his dedication to make the team tighter as a group shorten the team’s spread.
Earlier this season, Herness said he believed it was Cerkowniak’s leadership that would propel Yelm into its best season yet.
McIntire said Cerkowniak is a hard worker, but isn’t one to showboat despite his success.
”He came into my room the other day and he put all these lines up on the white board and says ‘Guess what this is?’ That’s a map of the state course. He has it memorized, he visualizes it every single day; what it’s going to look like, feel like to win state,” McIntire said. “He’s got his goals written above his toilet seat so it’s the first thing he sees when he wakes up and the last thing he sees when he goes to bed.”
In the restaurant, Cerkowniak is quiet but doesn’t mince words.
Recounting the story, Cerkowniak, sporting a medal from the last track and field season and with pizza in hand, smirked at the claim.
“It’s actually on my desk. He just wishes I put it on my bathroom wall,” Cerkowniak said. “I wanna have the state championship. I sit at my desk every day and do homework, basically. So I see it every day, so it keeps it in my head, keeps it fresh so I remember what my goals are.”
Stringent routine drives Cerkowniak’s day-to-day.
The Yelm junior wakes up every day around 5:30 a.m. After bagging up his lunch that he prepared the night before, he heads out to the high school parking lot to meet McIntire for a 2 and a half mile run.
After school, he heads to practice where more workouts ensue. This is where Cerkowniak’s friends are. Over the years the team has become closer, he said, if not for the countless hours they spend every season running than because of the frequent team dinners and activities their parents will host.
After practice, Cerkowniak gets home, takes his dog Krypto out, and then hits the books. On the weekends, he’ll usually take it easy, but he’ll make sure to run every day.
More important than the runner’s routine is the diet. Cerkowniak, like many of his friends on the team, keeps a consistent diet on most days, including leading up to a meet. Before class, the Yelm junior will usually down an egg, meat and cheese burrito to cap off his run. For lunch, it’s usually a black-forest ham sandwich with pretzels.
Even while driving across the country during vacation this summer, Cerkowniak wouldn’t give up on his daily running routine. He’d constantly be looking for routes to run during downtime.
“I think it was kind of cool because it gave me something to do. I run in Yelm every day, it’s the same loop every day and on the weekends and the offseason. It’s nice to get out, find something new,” Cerkowniak said.
To say he’s dedicated could be an understatement. But running, as a sport, is something that’s developed into an addictive passion. Last summer, it was reported that he ran upwards of 640 miles in preparation of the 2019 season.
“I’m just proud of his dedication to it. We never tell him, ‘Hey, you better get out and run.’ It’s him. He’s self motivated with it,” father Justin Cerkowniak added.
McIntire didn’t believe in the hype Yelm Middle School track and field coach Art VanVeen and other athletes were trying to feed him on Cerkowniak.
As a freshman new to cross country, Cerkowniak showed potential but didn’t blow anyone away when he finished 75th in state.
“I didn’t realize fully the type of runner that Bryce could be until his track season freshman year,” McIntire said. “Bryce really worked toward being good. I wouldn’t say it’s totally talent. I mean, he has a lot of talent … but he really put in a lot of work right away.”
In the months following the 2017 cross country season, Yelm lost one of its top runners, then-sophomore Logan Miller.
In Miller’s absence, Cerkowniak worked a tough training regiment going into the track and field season. McIntire said Miller’s departure left something of a hole for Cerkowniak to fill as the Tornados’ top runner.
“He came out and he ran 10 seconds off the school record as a freshman. So that’s where you start thinking, ‘OK. There’s some real talent here,’” McIntire recalled. “He works hard. He ran every single day that winter, did not miss a day. And he’s got his journal to prove it.”
As McIntire took the helm of head boys cross country coach, he began to refocus what he wanted his athletes to take away from running — a love for it.
In the summer of 2018, as school let out, McIntire took a group of six boys to Glacier National Park to work out goals and teach his boys, especially young Bryce, how to love the sport of running and work through the pain.
“I think Bryce loved to win, he loved to be competitive. I don’t know if he’d learned how to love to run at that point yet. So, we just got out in the mountains and ran for four days. And that really, I think, was the kind of spark he needed to say, ‘I actually like doing this,’” McIntire recalled. “He just has a really good fundamental understanding of the bigger picture. I think a lot of athletes kind of struggle to see the ‘why’ of doing everything. And he got it pretty quick.”
McIntire said he knew Cerkowniak was a different breed of runner after that summer.
Going into last year’s cross country season, McIntire said he wanted to build off of Cerkowniak’s confidence and turn to competing fiercely at the state cross country meet. McIntire said he also wanted to make sure that he was building a solid foundation for Cerkowniak to look to his junior and senior years for the state title.
Cerkowniak ran about 50 to 60 miles a week going into the season.
After a record-breaking season and taking eighth at state, McIntire said he began to visualize Cerkowniak taking state his junior year.
Going into state this year, Cerkowniak is ranked in at third in the state. McIntire said the beauty of the sport is that even the best runners can have tumultuous days.
”Nobody’s shooting for 3rd. Nobody says I want to be 3rd at state. No, you want to win. So that’s what we were geared towards after that sophomore year. It was now we need to start training like a state champion,” McIntire said.
Cerkowniak will find challenge in two superb eastside runners this weekend; North Central junior runner Leif Swanson and 3A state champ favorite Stanford Smith, a senior from Kamiakin who will undoubtedly be leaving everything he has on the Pasco course as he finishes out his high school career.
The Yelm boys cross country team will run in the 3A Washington Interscholastic Activities Association State Cross Country Meet Saturday, Nov. 9, at Sun WIllows Golf Course in Pasco.