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John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s Troy Fraley may be a bit crazy but he’s nation’s top steeplechaser

The most curious event in track and field – or silliest, if you prefer – involves 7 1/2 laps, 35 sturdy road-closed barriers and a wading pool. The peril is not just oxygen debt but open wounds, and it requires a special breed.

“You have to be a skateboard dork,” offered Pat Tyson, Gonzaga University’s track coach.

He meant it as a compliment, skaters.

“Maybe a distance-running pole vaulter,” he said. “Edgy and a little crazy.”

Perhaps this is true. But at the moment, Troy Fraley is the nation’s foremost collegiate practitioner of the 3,000-meter steeplechase, and in all probability the only student on GU’s campus who’s in bed by 8:30 each night. So obviously there’s wiggle room in the edgy-crazy characterization.

That’s right. Gonzaga’s name is back atop the rankings.

The final cutdowns for the first round of the NCAA’s track championships came out on Thursday and for all the blueblood distance stables at Oregon, Wisconsin, Colorado and the like, the national leader over the logs and puddles of the steeple comes from the school without a track of its own.

“Actually, I kind of like it that way,” said Fraley. “As long as I have shoes to run in, I’m pretty low maintenance. I think that’s pretty representative of our team. We’re not about the stuff.”

This, of course, is the perfect posture when you don’t have the stuff.

It was a few years back that Gonzaga president Thayne McCulloh bumped into Tyson on campus and cheerily said, “We’ve got to get you a track.” It hasn’t materialized. But since returning to Spokane to take the Gonzaga job nine years ago, Tyson has seen some incremental gains. Patty Ley signed on to coach the women six years ago, and Tyson now has three scholarships to divvy up among his men.

And there’s room in the budget to get a runner like Fraley into a hothouse meet like the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford two weeks ago, where his time of 8 minutes, 39.30 seconds put him atop the NCAA heap.

“I wanted to go run 8:30 to 8:35 – that’s the kind of shape I know I’m in,” Fraley said. “The steeple is interesting because you can knock 20 seconds off just because you’re more comfortable over the hurdles your second or third race of the year.”

This is like getting the No. 1 seed in hoops, however. You still have to make it stand up. The redshirt junior gets his chance next week in the NCAA preliminary round in Austin, Texas.

But he’s already something of a poster boy for Tyson’s program.

“It’s funny how many more recruits are emailing me now after this,” he said.

Funnier still is that it didn’t even take an email to lure Fraley.

The two first met at what was once the Flathead Lake Distance Running Camp in Montana. Then a middle-schooler in Kalispell, Fraley picked up on “this certain energy that follows Tyson everywhere” – even though he still saw himself as a soccer player. That changed the next summer, before Fraley entered Glacier High School.

“He called me a ‘punk,’ ” Fraley recalled. “It made me so angry – I thought he meant I was a bad runner, but he just meant young. I didn’t have the Tyson translation yet. So it got under my skin and I started training like, ‘Screw that guy – I’ll show him next year.’ Tyson’s way more involved in my running career than I’d like to admit.”

Racing in Montana, Fraley swapped leads and elbows with some top-level runners – Zach Perrin of crosstown Kalispell, and Adam Peterman and Chris Herrick of Missoula Hellgate. All three wound up at Colorado – Perrin winning the Pac-12 5,000 last weekend ahead of teammate John Dressel from Mt. Spokane.

And Fraley took the road less traveled, and almost immediately got lost – waylaid by the college life and “trying to get my butt through organic chemistry.” His training, times and self-esteem all stagnated.

“I went home that summer feeling like I’d wasted a year of my life and let people down,” he said.

So the lifestyle became more Spartan. The major became accounting. His weight dropped – 24 pounds – and so did his times. In 2015, he broke 9 minutes in the steeple and it became his race.

“It took me a few times before I realized I liked how it hurt,” he said.

The progress of Tyson’s program is miraculous. Only one men’s school distance record that stood when he arrived – Jon Neill’s 1:52.31 800 meters – survives in the Gonzaga Top 10. Makes you wonder what the Zags could do with their own oval.

But not having the advantages can make the achievements sweeter, too.

“Nothing we achieve here is fake,” Fraley said. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

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