As the summer winds down, University of Maine cross country runners are winding up for the fall on the trails at the Tanglewood Residential Camp in Lincolnville.

It’s a a five-day training and bonding exercise that co-captain Kelton Cullenberg knows can push the Black Bears to great things, at least with a little bit of hard work, patience and luck.

Cullenberg put all of those facets together to become an elite runner in the America East Conference in three sports last year. Now his senior season holds all of the promise he showed four years ago coming out of Mt. Blue High School, where he was a star cross country runner and track athlete for his mother, Kelley, as well as an outstanding skier.

As it is for most cross country runners, Cullenberg’s freshman year was one of difficult transition. Adapting to the longer races and more rigorous competition only got more difficult as injuries began to nag him late in that first year and well into his sophomore year.

Maine cross country coach Mark Lech said ability and work ethic were never a question with Cullenberg, “but to get to the next level, you have to be able to do the work.”

“Ever since he came in, we’ve had this little thing, and that little thing, and he was never able to do the work because of it,” Lech said.

The little things kept Cullenberg from being able to train properly and from reaching his ideal racing weight in a sport where every pound can add seconds per mile onto a runner’s time.

Cullenberg believes impatience was his downfall those first two years. He tried to build himself up too quickly and didn’t allow his body to adapt.

Last summer, he took a more prudent approach to training and maintained his strength exercises. It wasn’t a coincidence that he stayed injury-free, got more fit and focused on his workouts and went into the season with a good base off which he could build.

“I was training by myself the whole summer. I come into camp not really knowing what kind of shape I’m in and I was like ‘Wow, I think I’m in pretty good shape.’ And it kept rolling over, week after week,” he said. “It’s pretty tough to lose that good base the whole year.”

Cullenberg’s confidence grew with each meet as his strengths became more apparent. Blessed with exceptional aerobic capacity, he’s able to step on the gas when most racers are looking to pace themselves and gear up for the final kick.

“He can press the pace during the middle of a race,” Lech said. “His speed is decent, but it’s not as good as some of the others, so he has to press the pace in the middle.”

Cullenberg dominated the season-opener at UMass, then won the Black Bears’ only home meet. After finishing 41st in the conference both his freshman and sophomore years, he took third at the America East championships, finishing in 25:34.79 and leading the young Black Bears to fifth place in the conference overall.

He followed that by leading all UMaine runners at the 10-kilometer NCAA qualifier with a 61st-place finish.

“I was pleased with that,” Cullenberg said. “We definitely focused more on conferences last year with training and everything. It sounds small, but making the jump from 8K to 10K is pretty huge. The race didn’t go exactly how I wanted it to. I still did OK, but I definitely wanted to be top 50, maybe top 40, and give myself a better way to come into this season.”

He couldn’t have done much better in the winter and spring, winning conference 5,000-meter titles in both indoor and outdoor track.

Last year’s success just bred a hunger for more. Cullenberg, who is studying exercise science at UMaine, spent the summer in Orono and started training for his senior year earlier in hopes of building up his mileage at a more deliberate pace.

“I ended my outdoor season in early May and I think I took nine days off, then started really low mileage and built up real slow,” he said. “I got up to a lot more mileage than I had done before, probably 15 more miles per week than I had been used to. I’ve been at points where I was a good month ahead of where I was the year before.”

Lech, who also coaches Cullenberg in track, said getting back on the medal stand at the conference cross country championships is a realistic goal for his top runner.

“He’s capable of doing that again,” he said. “I think he ran even better in the spring time than he did in the fall in cross country.”

“He’s really made leaps and bounds from years before. It’s a testament to his stick-to-itiveness and drive and determination,” Lech added.

His work ethic and leadership by example earned Cullenberg the title of co-captain, along with junior Ryan Hardiman.

One of only two seniors on the team, he is counting on his teammates to help push him to his best season while also hoping to motivate his teammates and perhaps help Lech find a strong No. 5 runner that could make the Black Bears, who begin their season on Sep. 14, a factor in America East.

For personal goals, Cullenberg, who plans to continue competitive distance running after college, is hoping to become the first Black Bear to win America East since Riley Masters in 2010. A top 20 finish at regionals and a coveted spot at nationals would be the perfect way to cap his college career.

“When you have a little bit of success, you always want more,” he said. “You want to add the next level.”

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