Together is better.
Courtney Gutwein, Branden Simmons and Thomas Tullius are incredible in their own right. All three distance runners are proficient in their discipline, and each has their own set of off-the-course pursuits they delve into when not concentrating on running.
Each is also relatively quiet, individually. Introverted, in their separate ways. Simmons and Tullius are matter-of-fact when chatting, using introspection to guide answers.
Put a recording device in front of Gutwein — heck, tell her she has to do an interview — and there is physical recoil. The face scrunches as if reacting to smelling spoiled milk.
But together is magic.
Consider this scene, played out as the trio is gathered in head coach Melissa Culver-Pekny’s classroom. The group is assembled because of their distance-running prowess — all three were among a group of White County runners who reached the New Prairie Semi-State meet, and because of their finishes in New Carlisle and others throughout the season, they are named White County Boys Co-Runners and Girls Runner of the Year, respectively.
They are well into a half-hour meeting and are asked to assess each other.
“Thomas has always been a pretty good runner,” said Simmons, the lone senior. “It kinda helps he had three-foot long legs.”
Immediately, Gutwein chimes in: “Yeah, really. Right? His legs go up to here on me.”
Tullius, a junior, recalled his teammate’s first height inference.
“I remember first year of regionals (in 2017), after I beat (Branden), you said I had freakishly long legs and that’s the only way I beat you at the final stretch,” Tullis said.
With a near-blank expression, Simmons said, “Yeah. It’s true.”
As Tullius begins to argue, Gutwein laughed. She turned to Tullius: “Stand up. Seriously stand up.”
They stand up, and Gutwein adds: “See?” She is roughly 5-2, and he’s — well, 6 feet. His legs constitute close to half her size, length-wise. It’s not quite as disparate as the photo of Carsen Edwards dribbling next to Tacko Fall during a Boston Celtics exhibition game, but the sentiment remains.
Meanwhile, Culver-Pekny just watches, trying not to laugh. The architect recruited both juniors into the program when they were freshmen in an effort to help turn the program around.
Gutwein ran in sixth grade, but wanted to try volleyball the next year. She continued through her freshman year, but switched mid-season.
Asked what prompted the switch, Gutwein pointed at Culver-Pekny.
Simmons said, “You have to say something,” and Gutwein slowly exhaled in an exasperated tone as Culver-Pekny and Tullius stifled laughter.
Together is better.
“Well, CP goes, ‘Well you want to come run?’ I was like, ‘Uh, sure,’” Gutwein said. “CP kept bothering me about it.”
Later, Tullius gives a similar tale.
The coach pitched him after seventh grade: “Hey, you should run cross-country. You seem like a good runner,” Tullius recalled.
“That seems like a reoccurring event,” Gutwein interjects, to laughter.
“Well, yeah, CP’s a recruiter,” Tullius said.
“At the time, I was running 5, 10 miles a week, and I thought I was doing fine,” Tullius continued. As he said it, Gutwein whispered ‘Same as me’ in regards to her first year of cross-country training, and Simmons nodded in affirmation.
Training mileage, in and out of season, increased for all three as the years rolled on and the programs ascended. The girls have won three consecutive Midwest Conference championships as Gutwein mixed in with a plethora of runners each year and led by example, moving from a top-4 runner as a freshman to the leader in all four postseason races.
The boys have won two Midwest championships in a row, and earned the Benton Central Sectional championship trophy behind Simmons, Tullius and their teammates.
“But that’s the difference, right?” Culver-Pekny said of the group — trio and programs — climbing the ladder. “These kids all put in the effort.”
They are also dutiful studiers. All three “are statistics people,” according to Culver-Pekny, watching numbers from around the state to compare and contrast. Gutwein offers her mother is more into statistics, but Culver-Pekny brings up Gutwein’s study of the Benton Central runners.
“She knows her limits, and every race this year she said ‘OK, coach, it’s ‘x’ amount of girls. I know where I need to be,’” Culver-Pekny adds. “The BC girls — ‘Coach, I need to be right here, between this one and this one’ if I’m going to make it to regionals, if I’m going to make it to semi-state. She knows.
“Court is a great leader; she’s just a silent leader. I think if you talk to any of the kids, her work ethic is ridiculous. The kids see her working hard; the girls do.”
So do her counterparts at the table.
“Courtney might complain a lot,” Simmons said. “But I mean she works hard and she’s been rewarded for working as hard as she does. She had a good starting point, and she just ran with that, literally.”
Tullius jumps in: “Even though she complains a lot, she’s a hard worker also.”
It leads to another group therapy session.
“I’ll complain, then I’ll get over it and do it,” Gutwein said.
“And you’ll complain during it, do it, finish, and complain some more,” retorts Tullius.
After a beat, they both laugh. She then praises the pair.
“They both worked really hard to get to where they are,” Gutwein said. “You can tell, especially the last month of practice before conference, they started kicking it in more and more and running more and harder.”
Statistics don’t always tell the whole tale.
“You can look at stats all you want, but it depends on how the course looks, how the weather is, how everyone is feeling that day,” Simmons said. “It comes down to the clock during a particular race.”
That leads him toward his next answer. He was, is and always will be appreciative and impressed with the program’s work during his final season. And a season in which he equaled a school record by reaching the semi-state level a second time was special.
There’s always a “but.”
“From the beginning of the season, yes I accomplished my goals. But I don’t think I quite reached the goals I set out for myself when I started cross-country,” Simmons said. “The season was definitely a good season for our team, but personally, it was kind of disappointing.”
Here, Culver-Pekny jumps in.
“Dude. Brandon,” she said in the same exasperated tone set forth by Gutwein at various points of the roundtable. “I said it to you after the last race — the only other person to accomplish what you accomplished was Tyler Kent. He never made it to state.
“Team-wise, you’re a heck of a leader, kid.”
Tullius concurs about Simmons’ leadership, noting the senior “set our boys team in the right direction” and consistently reinforced a goal of besting sectional and regional foe Benton Central.
He accepts the compliments, begrudgingly. Simmons and Tullius were at the head of the Falcons’ flock all season, but the postseason saw a literal and figurative passing of the baton. Tullius placed in front of Simmons at the sectional, regional and semi-state level.
Tullius took it in stride — “I just wanted to stay up with him, and as the season progressed, I got closer and closer. It was like, ‘I could probably beat him (at some point). And I can help lead this team to something better next year.’”
Culver-Peky called it “healthy competition,” adding both of their mothers are close friends and the team rallies around their example.
“(Their teammates) saw the back-and-forth without any bitterness or crankiness,” she said. “Even when (Simmons and Tullius) finished, they still liked each other and supported each other regardless of who finished in front.”
The sectional was one placement and less than 10 seconds difference; the regional also had a time difference of less than 10 seconds. And semi-state — well, “semi-state is a whole other ballgame,” Simmons said as chuckles emerge around the table.
The senior launched into all the variables — more runners, a different tempo for each pack that emerges, getting boxed in, etc.
Ultimately, he praises Tullius for what the junior has become and strives to be. Tullius is being recruited to run in college, which is a goal set as he took to the sport.
“He’s got the drive and has always been a hard worker and puts in the extra time. Some people might get annoyed because he — he goes above and beyond what you’d expect,” Simmons said. “Some people would say he’s trying to be better than everyone else. No, he’s trying to be the best that he can actually be.”
He also praised Gutwein again, and there is rare a moment of silence.
Culver-Pekny speaks up and introduces another moment of togetherness.
“They make fun of me all the time because they think I … they think I’m mean. But they were all ready to get pushed,” she said, then turns to her charges. “If you were going to say something to a kid who wants to run cross-country, what would you say to them?”
Immediately, Simmons blurts: “Suck it up and keep going.”
Gutwein and Tullius grin, then break out in laughter. Culver-Pekny shakes her head, then adds a smile.
Together is better.