Paul Reneau couldn’t believe his eyes.
In one of his first races for the Missoula Youth Track Club, Paul’s 8-year old son, Sterling, came out of turn 2 in a 400-meter race strides ahead of everyone else — and just kept going.
Paul knew Sterling was fast. When Paul took his son along to his older brother Zane’s soccer practices, Sterling would always torment the older kids with his speed.
But this was different.
Sterling’s form on the track was perfect, his mechanics looking like they had been fine-tuned for years.
It made sense — Paul Reneau is a former Olympic sprinter and long-time track coach in Missoula — but that was the catch. Paul hadn’t taught his son any of this.
“I can’t take credit for that,” Paul Reneau said. “Some of the genetics is, but he was running a certain way that was efficient already, mechanics-wise. He had proper mechanics that I didn’t teach him. … And he kept running, and we were like, okay. That day was quite an interesting day for us, because he just kind of blew the field up at 8 years old.”
Another one of the talented young sprinters for the Missoula Youth Track Club around that time was Alex Mustard, who ended up going to Big Sky years later while Sterling Reneau went to Sentinel.
Together, they’ve been through trials and tribulations, up and downs, injuries and championships. Now, nearly 15 years after it all started, the two fifth-year seniors for the University of Montana will cap their careers on the same Dornblaser track at the Big Sky Conference Outdoor Track & Field Championships this week in Missoula.
“It’s definitely a very emotional time,” Sterling Reneau said. “Alex and I have been running against each other since sixth grade. We have been either rivals or teammates for a very long time. … I’ve been running on this track since I was like 6 years old, and so for that to all to be coming to a head, getting to finish my collegiate track career in front of my hometown and stuff, it’s a really cool feeling.”
As a sophomore at Big Sky, Mustard finished dead last — 39th out of 39 — in the 200 meters at the Swede Dahlberg Invitational in Butte.
A year later, as a junior, he won the prestigious male-only invitational meet.
That sophomore year performance is hard to imagine now, as Mustard is one of the most decorated sprinters in recent Montana history, a four-time All-Big Sky selection who’s run the 200 in under 21 seconds.
Asked about him, Paul Reneau, now the Griz sprints coach, considered for a second, then said simply, “We haven’t had anyone run as fast as Alex has for a while.”
It was a swift ascent that Matt Johnson, who coached Mustard in football and track at Big Sky, could have predicted.
According to Johnson, a typical dialogue between the two of them at practice would go something like this:
Hey Alex, are you tired?
What’s tired mean, coach? I don’t know what that is.
Eventually, his physical development began to catch up to the hard work he was putting in. Mustard finished second in both the 100 and 200 at the state championship meet as a junior, and became a leader on the team.
Johnson has a rule that he calls “8 or 80,” meaning that, no matter how hot it is, the sprinters warm up in their sweats — and sure enough, in a meet on a 90-degree day, there was Mustard, warming up with a full sweatsuit on, hood cinched, setting an example.
“I really liked that, because he bought into the things that we coached him on,” Johnson said. “He was a leader and would grab kids at times and say, hey man, let’s go warm up. … I always appreciated that.”
In his senior year, Mustard fought through a hamstring injury to help the Eagles win a team state championship.
It was the first injury of his career, and, even though he was back competing by the state meet, the coaches were unsure about how many races they could use him in.
But, in the anchor leg of the 4×100 relay, he cut through the pack, taking Big Sky from seventh to second.
“[That was] maybe the greatest anchor on a 4×100 I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said. “It was like he was shot out of a cannon, and I think if we had five more yards in that race, we might have won it. It was pretty unbelievable.”
The injury kept him out of the 200, but Mustard fought through it to finish second in the individual 100 meters as well, racking up much-needed points for Big Sky.
As he crossed the finish line in that race, his last one in high school, he re-pulled his hamstring, putting him right back at square one with an injury that would haunt him throughout his freshman year at Montana.
Dealing with the double whammy of adjusting to the new level of competition while running hurt, Mustard struggled.
He didn’t go to indoor conference championships as a freshman, then didn’t get out of the prelims in the 100, his only event, at outdoors.
“Complete recovery for that [injury], I’d say, was anywhere between nine and 12 months before I fully felt healthy again. So that carried over through most of my first year here for the Griz,” Mustard said. “[Also,] things you could get away with in high school, you don’t necessarily get away with in college. Everyone’s just as competitive as you, there are athletes that are just as focused as you, dedicated as you, and that’s a little bit to adjust to.”
If the freshman year was one of adjustments and getting healthy, sophomore year was the breakout for Mustard.
Paul Reneau turned out to be the perfect coach for Mustard, who praised his sophistication.
Mustard made the commitment to focus on the little things, and together, they broke down mechanics, made adjustments and unlocked more speed.
“Alex, when I first started coaching him here at the university, there were just a lot of pieces that were missing in his physical abilities,” Reneau said. “There are people that I’ve talked to out there in the Missoula community that had no idea that Alex could run that fast. Every once in a while he comes in to talk to me about something and we get to talking about, you know, track and field and where he was and how many improvements he’s made, not only in his running and all of that, but in his knowledge of what he does and why he’s doing it.”
Just like in high school, it came together quickly for Mustard.
After not advancing to the final in either of his races at indoor championships as a sophomore, he came out and stunned everybody at the outdoor championships, finishing third in the 200 — and running an NCAA Regional qualifying time in the process — and fourth in the 100.
“I wasn’t even thinking about the second day,” Mustard said. “I just wanted to say, okay, just get into the finals. That was just kind of a wake-up call to me that said, hey, if you take this seriously, maybe you can achieve more than you ever thought you could have. So for me, that was just a liberating moment, I think.”
He went on to record another third-place finish at outdoors the next year as a junior, this time in the 100, before redshirting in 2018 to have his final outdoor championships this year in Missoula.
It remains to be seen where he’ll place — his season-best of 10.8 in the 100 is just 12th in the Big Sky this season — but no matter what, he’ll be a long way from that last-place finish as a sophomore at Big Sky.
“I could care less about the rankings,” Mustard said. “They don’t really mean anything to anybody, and at the end of the day, it’s who performs on that specific day that’s going to do well. … It’s an exciting time, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a couple years now, knowing that the meet would be here. Again, just fortunate to be able to compete on this team, surrounded by awesome coaches, great athletes, in my hometown.”
For Sterling Reneau, the natural runner, track isn’t just something that he’s always been good at.
It’s something that’s always meant a little more, the one passion that shone brightest in his life.
“It’s just free. When I’m running, there’s nothing else that matters. That’s truly it,” Reneau said. “To me, track is an expression of who you are, and it’s an art form. Everybody has their thing, whether that’s painting, or science, or whatever it is. That one thing that you can do and never get tired of, that’s what track was for me. There’s just something about running and feeling everything is working the way it should.”
In these last few days as his career comes to an end, it’s even more important to him because of the obstacles he’s had to overcome to keep chasing that passion.
Reneau then was a prodigy, who stunned his father with how advanced he was at 8 years old.
Reneau now is a two-time Big Sky champion, in the 400 and 4×400 relay, who’s finished top-3 in eight of the 15 races he’s ever run at various conference championship meets.
In between, he faced some of the most difficult challenges of his life, including one that threatened to take away forever his ability to do what he loved.
“You make the decision. You either let it break you, or you fight,” Sterling Reneau said. “At that point in my life, I made the decision to fight and give it everything I had, because I knew if I didn’t, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
In sixth grade, Reneau began to feel soreness in his knee. He sat out for his entire seventh and eighth grade years, but felt no better.
Eventually, he was diagnosed with osteochondritis dissecans, a rare condition in which, essentially, small spots of bone break away from the surrounding bone and are held in place by just cartilage — “The end of my femur died in three spots,” Reneau explained matter-of factly.
Typically, those lesions are small, not much bigger than a fingernail or a pencil eraser. But Reneau had three that were up to the size of a quarter.
The usual procedure — replacing the dead spots with a plug of bone from the patient’s own hip — wouldn’t work.
It was a crushing blow for a young runner who, at 14, had already been successful, and who’d already set his sights on going to the University of Oregon to join the fabled track program there.
Now, it wasn’t just that dream quickly fading into the rearview mirror, but the possibility of Reneau even having a track career at all.
There was one last chance, so uncommon that the family’s doctor in Missoula refused to do the surgery because he hadn’t done it before.
Instead, they had to go to Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, where Reneau received a bone transplant from a cadaver.
“At that point in my life, that was probably one of the hardest things I’d ever been through,” Reneau said. “It really sucked having to get that surgery, but at the same time I was extremely grateful, because it’s a second chance.
“It’s another chance to get to be where you want in life, and I would never take that for granted. Especially because being put on a cadaver list is a very, very weird feeling, because you know somebody just passed away, giving up their life so that I could have another chance.”
Free of the pain for the first time in years, he returned to run the second-fastest 400 in the state as a senior in 2014.
The dream of going to the Pac-12 was dead, but he did have a place to run in his hometown, at the same school where his father had played football and run track.
“He’s talented. We wanted him from the first time I ever saw him run,” Montana head coach Brian Schweyen said. “Early in his high school career, I knew he was very talented. He is a great human being, he’s a great role model, he’s a great leader and teammate.”
Reneau contributed right away for the Griz, running on top-three 4×100 and 4×400 teams at the conference outdoor championships as a freshman.
He started getting some individual glory as a sophomore the next year, finishing second in the 400 and fifth in the 200 at outdoor championships.
But his junior year was the special one for Reneau. He won the 400 and was part of the winning 4×400 team at indoor championships.
After that, the 4×400 team disappointingly finished second at outdoors, but Reneau, who came in with the top time in the conference, was still the favorite in the individual 400.
Just a few steps into the race, he collapsed with a blown hamstring. After that, like Mustard, he decided to redshirt the 2018 season to preserve his eligibility for the outdoor championships in Missoula in 2019.
“We had great expectations for what was going to happen, and in the finals, he came out of the blocks, and 20 meters into the race, he was down on the ground,” Paul Reneau said. “So it’s been kind of a rough traveled road, but I think he’s remained positive.”
To see how far athletes like Mustard and Reneau have pushed the Montana sprints program, look at the results from the Big Sky outdoor championships in 2014, the year before they arrived on campus.
The Griz had just one runner make the finals in the individual sprints: Dominique Bobo in the 200. The 4×100 relay team finished dead last, and the 4×400 team was the standout with a fourth-place performance.
At various times in their careers, both Mustard and Reneau have scored more points by themselves in a championship meet than the entire Montana sprints program did at that meet.
“Before my freshman year, we didn’t have a sprint program,” Sterling Reneau said. “You had a couple people that were just really good athletes and could do a bunch of different events and got thrown into some stuff. Before my freshman year, before like me, Dominique Bobo, Alex Mustard, Calum McNab, all those guys, we didn’t have a sprint program, and now that’s where we’re scoring the majority of our points on the men’s side.”
The next step is passing that on to the next generation.
At the Tom Gage Classic in Bozeman on April 27, freshman Paul Johnstone barely beat Reneau to the line in the 400.
The final times were 48.41 and 48.49. According to Paul Reneau, it was the first time Sterling had been beaten by one of his teammates in a meet.
For Reneau, who’s dealing with a calf injury and admitted that he physically “isn’t where he wanted it to be” going into his last guaranteed meet this week, it was surely disappointing, a sign that his body again isn’t letting him do what he wants to do.
But he congratulated Johnstone nonetheless. Mustard is the same way.
“Maybe I can help inspire some of my teammates or predecessors to maybe shoot for some similar things,” Mustard said. “If you’re willing to do the right things, and to come out here and put the effort in … I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more all-conference accolades, regional qualifiers, especially out of this group that’s here now. I’ve been blown away by the freshmen. The level that they’re at now, if they can continue to progress through these next three or four years, they’ll be competing at a high level by then.”
Before that, though, comes one last hurrah for the two fifth-year seniors, on the track they grew up on, in the shadow of the mountains they’ve been running under their whole lives.
For both of the sprinters, it will be over in seconds But they’ll hold the memory throughout their lifetimes.
“It’s honestly unreal,” Reneau said. “You step into those blocks, and at no point do you feel nervous. … And it’s like, there’s nothing better. It doesn’t get better than that, besides running on like a world championship team or an Olympic team. It’s amazing.
“There’s not really too much that can describe it, besides the fact that you know you’re going to run fast. That’s it. I don’t care how far behind I am, I know I’m going to run fast and leave it all on the track.”
Photos courtesy of Montana athletics. All Rights Reserved.