When Kenai distance running ace Jonah Theisen made his commitment to run cross-country for Black Hills State University last April, he had never heard of Gage McSpadden.
McSpadden, an incoming senior on the Yellow Jackets men’s running team, was a key cog of the Black Hills contingent that was looking for its first ever bid at the NCAA championship meet. As a college freshman, Theisen was about to join the same rising team that had gone from NAIA stragglers to Division II contenders since the turn of the millennium.
Unfortunately, Theisen and McSpadden never had the chance to meet.
McSpadden was tragically killed by a lightning strike while playing frisbee golf July 12 near Spearfish, South Dakota, hometown of BHSU. As a clear leader of the team that infused all he knew with a contagious enthusiasm, McSpadden’s death hit the cross-country running community hard, but it also inspired the Yellow Jackets to a record-breaking season that was completed in his honor.
“When we’d go on runs, we would just reminisce about old stories,” Theisen said in a phone interview about the recent season. “Before every race, we’d huddle up, and (because) Gage wanted to make it to nationals, he was thinking this was going to be the team this year to do it.
“We put in an extra motivated effort to do it for him.”
As a 21-year-old runner from Rawlins, Wyoming, McSpadden was the leader of an emerging Division II contender.
With personal bests of 4 minutes, 30.63 seconds, in the mile and 15:26.83 in the 5,000 meters, McSpadden was attempting to bring the Yellow Jackets to the DII National meet for the first time in school history.
The accident that ended McSpadden’s life was truly a freak occurrence. Playing a round of “Frolf” near the mouth of Spearfish Canyon, McSpadden, friend Evan Strand (a BHSU alum) and girlfriend Tess Byrd noticed the incoming clouds that were beginning to obscure an otherwise bright, sunny day. The trio were not able to move out in time before the first bolt of lightning struck a nearby metal disc cage, which created additional streaks of lightning that hit both McSpadden and Strand.
Strand regained consciousness, but McSpadden did not. After two days on life support at Spearfish Regional Hospital, McSpadden’s family decided to pull the plug after being told Gage had no brain activity and would not wake up.
BHSU head coach Scott Walkinshaw emailed all team members informing them of the tragedy, including Theisen.
Theisen, a 2015 Kenai Central graduate, arrived in Spearfish in the middle of August for the beginning of the collegiate cross-country season, just over a month after McSpadden’s death, so he never got the chance to meet his would-be teammate. Theisen was also attending BHSU with fellow Alaskans Michael Marshall of Seward and Levi Fried of Kodiak.
Black Hills State — a Division II school — does not hold as glorious a past in distance running as perennial kingpins like Oregon, Arkansas, Stanford or Wisconsin. But something it does have is a rare culture created by coach Walkinshaw meant to develop young talent far from the usual hotbeds of the sport.
When Walkinshaw took over the coaching position at BHSU in 1998, there were two members on the team. Fifteen years later, the Yellow Jackets became an NCAA Division II school, and today have a total of 22 runners involved with the team.
In his four years of running for the Kenai Kardinals, Theisen and twin brother, Jordan, teamed up with fellow Kenai superstar Allie Ostrander to establish a dominant distance contingent in the state of Alaska, one in which the effects are still being felt (the Kenai girls won their first state cross-country team title last October, without Ostrander).
In his time running for Kenai, Theisen became accustomed to the high-load workouts and long runs that helped build the team up into what it is.
But at BHSU, the tall, lanky Kenai grad found a different culture of running. Theisen described his early impressions of Walkinshaw as an easygoing leader of the team with a potent skill of working his runners into race-ready shape without burning them out too early.
“It seems like he’s holding you back, but he’s really knowledgable,” Theisen said. “I think he knows when to put in the effort and when not to.”
Under the guidance of Walkinshaw, the Yellow Jackets were able to find their stride at precisely the right moments.
At the ultracompetitive Roy Griak Invitational near Minneapolis in late September, the Yellow Jackets won the Division II men’s race, led by men’s overall winner Alec Baldwin from BHSU. Theisen finished 10th overall — ninth among attached runners — and second on his team, only behind Baldwin. Every BHSU runner set a new personal best at the invite.
“I thought we peaked in the season just perfectly,” Theisen said.
Having never known McSpadden, Theisen said the affect of hearing the tragic news did not cut as deep into his emotions as some of the others, but it wasn’t long before he realized the impact the 21-year-old Wyoming athlete had on the BHSU cross-country program.
Upon receiving their first-place trophy and snapping pictures atop the Griak podium, some of the BHSU runners who knew Gage began reminiscing about McSpadden and dedicated the win to him. It was then that the tears began flowing, and that Theisen realized the sort of impact Gage had on the school.
“It hit me a lot, more than I thought,” Theisen said. “Just seeing how much they cared, and how much Gage cared. Everyone was happy and emotional.
“That was the turning point we realized we were good enough, because we had knocked off a few big schools.”
The emotion streaming from his teammates’ faces told Theisen all he needed to know about what kind of person McSpadden was. Additionally, Theisen said the team would break almost every prerace huddle on the count of, “Gage!” which became all the more appropriate at the South Central Regional meet.
Facing a 10-kilometer course in Canyon, Texas, the Yellow Jackets needed to finish in the top six of the team standings, otherwise they would not advance to NCAA Nationals.
Two years earlier, the region meet was the final one of McSpadden’s career, and as one of the leading candidates to propel BHSU to an NCAA Nationals bid, McSpadden worked to peak for that race. The 2015 crew knew that it would be a massive cherry on the cake if they could honor Gage by succeeding.
Following a fast start to the race that saw BHSU place themselves in position to advance, the intensity of the 10K took its toll and several members of the team began backsliding through the field. Baldwin led the Yellow Jackets with a sixth-place finish, while Theisen finished 29th in a time of 31:27. Ultimately, the team’s performance was good enough to finish exactly sixth, right where they needed to be to compete at Nationals.
“We were all just focused and knew what the goal was,” Theisen said. “We were doing this for Gage.”
Two weeks later, at the NCAA DII meet Nov. 21 in Joplin Missouri, the team followed up with an even bigger performance. After their regionals performance, the Yellow Jackets set goals of finishing higher than their peak ranking from earlier in the season of 17th and finish ahead of one of the teams that beat them at the regional meet.
BHSU did all that and more. The team took home a 14th-place finish, beating not one but three other teams from their region, and Baldwin was awarded with All-American status. BHSU finished as the third-best squad in the South Central region.
Theisen self-admittedly ran a poorer race than normal, finishing 133rd out of 246 in the 10K race after being boxed in by the tight field in the opening and middle stages, but said the encouragement offered by his coach and teammates helped to lift his mood.
“My teammates were really reassuring, and they were saying that I was only a freshman, and it was a learning experience,” he said. “I should be able to make it back.”
This upcoming spring semester, Theisen’s brother Jordan will be joining the Yellow Jackets to run the indoor and outdoor track seasons. Since graduating from Kenai Central in May, Jordan had been in the National Guard.
Since he arrived in Spearfish, Theisen said the community and atmosphere of the school helped contribute to the efforts to immortalize McSpadden’s memory. The creation of the Gage McSpadden Memorial Scholarship brought about fundraising, some of which came from a new annual memorial five-kilometer race in McSpadden’s honor, and it was there that Theisen met McSpadden’s father and brother. In the first 24 hours of the scholarship’s existence, over $10,000 was donated.
“It was a blessing,” he said. “I guess Gage was looking down on us.”