To be honest, it wasn't even his favorite race.
Regardless, Nebraska Christian's Hans Epp put an exclamation mark on his junior year of track by roaring back from next to last to winning last May's Class C 800 meters at the Nebraska track meet, his 1:57:74 a new school record. Not bad considering Epp ran the 800 mostly to get himself right to run the 1600 meters, which is his favorite race.
It is also the race he'll run Saturday at the prestigious University of Kansas Relays in Lawrence, Kan. He qualified for the race his last time on the track, last week at Fullerton, when using his teammate Warren Dexter to set the pace he ran a 4:32.7, just off the NC school record but good enough to qualify him for the big race.
"Warren was going to push me early in the race and get me on pace; we were shooting for a 65 (second 400 meters) but after one lap we'd run a 69 and I was four seconds off where I wanted to be. The second lap it was a 70 and I was nine seconds off pace, so I knew I had to buckle down," says Epp. "I decided to leave it all on the track, really pushing in the third lap and then sprinting a lot of the fourth lap. I knew it was now or never."
Turns out it was now. Or at least Saturday, when Epp will run his race at 12 noon in the KU Relays.
Epp is in the final few weeks of a remarkable high school running career, one which includes four state cross country medals, including the 2013 Class D gold, as well as the stirring championship run in the 800 last spring. Growing up in Giltner Epp was home schooled through junior high before he and his older brother Anthony, who was then attending Grand Island Northwest made a pact - the following school year they would both attend Nebraska Christian to run together.
Keep in mind, the Epps come from a running family, their father Greg a serious runner who has finished a couple of marathons. Hans loved the idea of attending NC with his brother but wasn't sure what kind of running teams he'd find himself on. "I wondered if I was going to be the only serious runner in the program," he says with a wink.
Not so. He knew that was the case after watching future teammates John Landrigan and Dillon Dexter run at that spring's state track meet. Hans thought to himself, with himself, his brother, John and Dillon, they could form a cross country dream team. "And we did," he says.
With that quartet at the team's core Nebraska Christian went on to win the 2010 Class D state cross country title, with Anthony finishing seventh, Hans ninth, Dexter 10th and Landrigan 11th. It was the first state championship in Nebraska Christian athletic history. Guess these guys are serious, Hans thought to himself.
The following year Epp and Landrigan were the only varsity runners returning yet the Eagles patched together another outstanding team. With freshmen newcomers Warren Dexter (16th) and Jerron Tiemeyer (45th) holding their own, and Epp finishing fifth and Landrigan eighth, the Eagles finished second at state, just one point behind nemesis Ord.
In the 2012 state meet Landrigan ran a great race to finish second, Epp finished third with Dexter fourth. The Eagles blew away the field, winning their second state title in three years. "I ran a good race that year but John was exceptional in that race. He was such a great leader for that team, really pushing us all to be better," says Epp.
Which leads us to his race in last year's state cross country meet. On the cosmic scale it was a thing of beauty, a snapshot of what kind of competitor Epp really is, which is to say hot-blooded. The kid wants to win everything, every time.
On that warm October day it didn't seem likely winning was in the cards. Ord had a thoroughbred of their own, a senior by the name of Andrew Fields and, good as Epp is and was, it was Fields' race to lose, he was the favorite. And the race opened with Fields running like a champion, bolting to a huge lead, running freely and fast. Epp, the tortoise to Fields' hare, was determined to run his race, keeping a comfortable pace and not getting caught up with how far he was the leader.
Which was quite a ways.
Epp was far back from Fields at the two-mile mark, far enough where Hans made a deal with himself. "It just wasn't my day. I was going to have to be happy with second and I told myself I could live with that," he remembers. But over the next minute or so he received two different reports saying he'd made up about five seconds on Fields and that the leader was faltering, if ever so slightly.
Epp reneged on the deal. He was in this thing to win it.
"That report gave me a spark and I decided I was going to give it one last shot, all I had, and see what happens," says Epp. From that point forward Epp was a machine, reeling in Fields and all other runners in front of him, looking all sorts of powerful in the final few hundred yards, breaking the tape with his eyes straight ahead. He never looked back, mostly because he didn't want to know what was back there.
"I knew I'd passed Andrew but there were other runners and the kid who finished second (Ainsworth's Zachary Welch) ran a strong race and it felt like he was right there." And he was. Sort of. Turns out Welch finished 15 long seconds behind your 2014 Class C state champion.
"I'd poured all I had into that last mile and by the time I got within sight of the finish line I was just hoping to finish, period," he says with a chuckle. "I was in shock, really. Just five minutes earlier I'd basically given up and now my whole life was different. I was the champion."
All this winning hasn't come without a cost, a physical cost. Epp has suffered a series of terribly painful injuries in his career, ranging from a stress fracture in his foot to tendinitis in his ankle to a Plantar Wart on the bottom of his foot (think about that foot pounding the track every other step) - yet he's been completely healthy for his senior year.
That's all behind him now. What's immediately ahead is the Kansas Relays, a chance to compete against many of the best distance runners within 500 miles of Lawrence, Kan. "It's going to be fun to compete knowing that I am not expected to win but just to push myself to do the best I can," says Epp. Don't believe him - he always runs to win.