I’m so proud of this guy. That’s not the first time I’ve said that about Aaron Braun. I met Aaron for the first time in 2012 when my wife and daughter and I moved to Flagstaff. He was running for the McMillan Elite team and, at 24, was already one of the best distance runners in the United States. That spring he ran 27:51 For 10,000 meters, 13:20 for 5,000 meters and went into the Olympic Track Trials as a darkhorse to make the Team. The Trials were in Eugene and I was there coaching an athlete in the 800. So for the men’s 10,000 I was simply a fan. And I was pulling for Aaron Braun. In the few short months I had spent in Flagstaff, I had come to admire Aaron’s iron will and his propensity to rise to the occasion on race day. In fact, I remember watching a couple of his workouts and, quite frankly, thinking that they weren’t all that special. But then I watched him click off lap after lap at 66 seconds at Payton Jordan, en route to his 27:51. And I watched him fearlessly go to the front halfway through the Portland Track Festival 5,000, while Dathan Ritzenhein sat on him the entire way. Ritz got the win that day but I remember Brauny coming back to Flag and revealing to his teammates that he hadn’t wanted to show all his cards yet; that he had left something in the tank for Eugene.
At 6:45pm on the evening of June 22, 2012, in front of 21,000 fans, and underneath a steady and heavy rain, the men’s 10,000 meters began. The favorite was Galen Rupp. The top contenders were Matt Tegenkamp and the aforementioned Ritzenhein. And then there were the up-and-comers like Brauny, like recent Stanford grad, Chris Derrick and like Oregon grad, Luke Puskedra. As the rain continued to pour, Puskedra went to the front early and pushed the pace. Slotted in behind were Rupp and Ritz, teammates at the time, and many thought they’d work together to ensure that the race was fast so Ritz could get the Olympic Standard (27:45). He didn’t have it and if he didn’t get it he wouldn’t be going to the Olympics, even if he were to finish in the top three. Brauny was in the same boat. But Tegenkamp had it. So did Derrick. They didn’t need it to be fast so they slotted in and followed along.
18 laps in it was down to five. Rupp and Ritz, trading leads and keeping things fast, followed by Tegenkamp, Derrick and Brauny. 22 Minutes into the race there was a break. Rupp, Ritz and Teg put a gap on Chris and Aaron. The Olympics were slipping away. That’s a devastating feeling; one I felt as a coach, and had to watch Kellyn Taylor go through, four years later on the very same track. But still Brauny pushed on, never giving an inch. He crossed the line, soaked and exhausted, in the pouring-down rain, in 27:41–a new personal best. This time he had left nothing out there. He had given absolutely everything he had.
Four long years later, in the fall of 2016, after some high highs, some very low lows, and a couple of years spent in Colorado; Aaron, his wife, Annika, and their daughters, Mackenzie and Myla, moved back to Flagstaff. After coming tantalizingly close to retirement earlier that summer, Aaron had decided to give it one more go. A year-long injury had kept him out of both the Olympic Marathon Trials (where he assuredly would have been one of the favorites) as well as the Track Trials, but he and Annika had come to the conclusion it just wasn’t time yet.
Fortunately for me, and for HOKA NAZ Elite, Aaron wanted to once again be a part of a team environment and he chose us as the group that he felt could get him back to where he wanted to be. Our gain was Colorado’s loss, I can tell you that. From the moment he began training with us that fall, it was clear he was the perfect fit. He was leading by example in ways that one would probably describe as intangible, but I’ll try to list them anyway. He showed up to practice on time. He never questioned the work. He never complained. He was quick to give words of encouragement to his teammates. He was never threatened by younger athletes like Scott Fauble or Martin Hehir, even as they gained fitness and showed they were capable of competing alongside him on race day. He was just as happy to be one second slow as one second fast on a given repeat. He understood the process of training, and that propensity to step up his game on race day had never left. That November, at the Monterey Bay Half Marathon–his first half marathon since his injury, he laid down a wicked hard move at the 11-mile mark and pulled away for the victory. Aaron Braun was back.
I’d love to tell you that over the next two years things just continued to get better and that Aaron went on to eclipse everything and anything he had done before, but that’s not the reality of this sport. There continued to be highs and lows. But I do believe there were more of the former than the latter. In both 2017 and 2018, Aaron ran the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, finishing 12th in ’17 and 14th in ’18. His 2:13:16 last fall was a mere 22 seconds off the personal best he had set in Houston in 2015 before his injury. Gosh darn it I was proud of him that day. I’ll always remember him giving me the thumbs up at halfway, letting me know–after what had been a difficult training segment, that he was having a good one. But beyond the running, I got to know Aaron as a person. And my wife became super close friends with Annika. And my daughter, Addison, became BFF’s with Makenzie.
So when Aaron told me he was taking a coaching job at Sacramento State, it was a sad moment, but it was also a happy one. Because I know Aaron really well and I know coaching is in his blood. He wants to be great at it. He wants to give student athletes the same sort of experience he had at Adams St. (if you’ve run with Brauny you’ve heard his Adams St. stories–and there are a lot of them!). So it didn’t surprise me one bit when the Sacramento St. women won last weekend’s Big Sky Conference Championship, thanks in large part to points scored by his distance runners–points that hadn’t been scored in years past.
And it didn’t surprise me when he told me, that even though he tried his best (and I know he did), he just couldn’t bring himself to keep training for this spring’s Boston Marathon. He’s an all-in guy and right now he’s all in for his athletes at Sac State. All of us at HOKA NAZ Elite know how those athletes feel. This time around, Flagstaff’s loss is most certainly Sacramento’s gain.
Good luck Brauny. I’ll miss you man.