This time last year, the Madison West boys cross country team was a fine-tuned machine, gearing up for a postseason run that climaxed with the program’s third state championship in a five-year stretch.
And Daniel Jacobs could only watch.
Jacobs saw his teammates win the WIAA Division 1 state title in Wisconsin Rapids last November because his leg was in a protective boot. He was dealing with another in a plethora of leg injuries that had plagued him since he started running in high school.
“(It was) really frustrating,” the senior said. “I had somewhere I wanted to be in cross country, and I felt like I was being held back.”
But this year, as second-ranked West has engaged in an entertaining, neck-and-neck battle with No. 1 Middleton atop the state coaches’ rankings, Jacobs has been front and center among the conference’s best runners.
He’ll test his mettle on Saturday morning at Lake Farm County Park, when the Regents take on Middleton and two other ranked teams, Madison La Follette and Sun Prairie, in the 10-team Big Eight Conference meet.
Jacobs’ most severe health problem has been a spate of stress fractures that flared up both during the fall cross country season and the spring track and field season. Jacobs would head for the sideline and heal up — but often, the frustrating injuries quickly returned, no matter what remedies he tried.
“The first one was in the first race in cross country, sophomore year, and they said it was because I wasn’t running enough,” Jacobs said. “Then the next year, I had the same one — because I had been running too much.”
The frequent injuries eventually began to affect his passion for the sport.
“Last year in track, I went through half of it without a lot of heart,” Jacobs said, adding he felt cheated and maybe even cursed.
But that was the point where Jacobs said he discovered something about himself — he realized what the sport of running really meant to him. And he decided he wasn’t going to give it up easily.
“It is such a big part of your life, when it is taken away it affects other parts of your life. When I was injured it was a really hard time for me,” he said
West coach Tom Kaufman said Jacobs has come back stronger after every injury. And that, the coach said, is what he’ll remember most about Jacobs.
“I’ll remember his work ethic — which at first got him into trouble,” Kaufman said.
After that first injury during cross country season in his sophomore year, Jacobs worked out obsessively, running throughout the winter so that he’d be ready for the spring track season. He was cleared to compete early on, but soon after he returned, he was injured again.
Six weeks later, with what Kaufman described as “little experience and just hanging on in terms of fitness level,” Jacobs ran the leadoff leg of a 3,200-meter relay team that eventually qualified for the state meet.
“He went from walking around in a boot to running at the state meet in a matter of 10 weeks,” Kaufman said.
This year, Jacobs has become one of the Regents’ most consistent runners. But he entered the season flying under the radar of many opposing teams.
“(We were) hopeful he would be a top guy, but (he) was an unknown — especially to others in the area. He had never run a race past Labor Day,” Kaufman said. “(His success and durability is) not a surprise, but a pleasing development and something we definitely saw as a possibility.”
The struggle has toughened Jacobs’ mind as well as his legs, Kaufman said.
“He has matured. He has been remarkably positive,” Kaufman said. “Through it all, he was able to keep good humor and took the training and recovery very seriously. (He’s) very humble and lets his running do the talking.”
After seeing his team win a state championship without him, Jacobs wants nothing more than to be a part of his own championship team.
“I was happy for everyone, but it was frustrating,” Jacobs said. “And it is a motivation to try and do well this year.”