(Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
Most people dread running. Something about middle school P.E. teachers cruelly dubbing a mile-and-a-half trudge across school property a “fun run” just ruins it for most folks.
Rex Shields, on the other hand, lives to run.
Shields, a 6-foot-one senior captain of the BYU men’s cross country team, regularly runs up to 90 miles a week. That equals 60 of those despicable fun runs. Every week.
“I’ve learned throughout life, and especially on my mission, that working hard produces results,” Shields said. “If you’re dedicated to something, you’ll put forth the effort and you’ll see the results.”
Shields knows what he’s talking about. His hard work paid off last year as he finished 22nd at the NCAA Cross Country Championship, earning him All-American honors.
It was a little league football coach who first recognized Shields’ running ability. After seeing him repeatedly outpace the other kids, the coach urged Shields’ father, Greg, to get his son into track.
“The coach mentioned to my dad how fast I was and told him he should put me in track meets,” Shields said. “I started running and did well, so I started to really enjoy it.”
Sometimes on weekends, Greg Shields would take his son to Kiwanis Park in Provo for youth cross country races. It was during those races that Shields first became acquainted with his current teammate and friend Jared Rohatinsky.
“He used to beat me all the time,” Shields recalls. “It’s kind of funny because now we’re on the same team and we’re such good friends.”
Rohatinsky said he remembers Shields better from their time competing against each other in high school than from those early days at Kiwanis Park. According to Rohatinsky, Shields was an intense competitor who was more focused on putting forth his best effort than becoming chummy with his rivals.
“He wasn’t rude or standoffish, he was just very focused on competing well,” Rohatinsky said.
According to Rohatinsky, Shields’ intensity must run in his blood. Last year, the two teammates went to Spanish Fork to go shooting at a rifle range. They met up with Shields’ cousin to drive out to the range together. When Rohatinsky climbed into the cousin’s car and introduced himself, Shields’ cousin spun around in his seat with his mouth wide open.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” he said. “I wanted to break your little legs when you guys were in high school!”
Rohatinsky laughs when he thinks back on the experience.
“Apparently Rex’s family and friends shared his intensity when we were rivals in high school,” he said. “When I compare our relationship then to the friendship we have now it makes me laugh.”
It was during those years of high school rivalry that Shields came into his own as a runner. As a freshman and sophomore runner for the Springville Red Devils, Shields displayed potential, but his junior season was when he really began to shine.
“When the success started coming, he started to love running more,” said Jeff Wales, Shields’ high school coach. “He turned into a student of running and got excited about strategy and learning how to win.”
Wales recalls the moment in Shields’ junior year when he began to evolve as an athlete. According to Wales, after winning the junior boys race at the Foot Locker Cross Country West Regional Championships, Shields became a new runner.
“That was his defining moment,” Wales said. “That was the moment where he learned he could win.”
With his increased abilities as a runner came a deeper love for the sport. Shields admits it was hard at times, but his dedication to becoming the best he could be pushed him past any obstacles in his way.
“Some days you just don’t want to go,” he said. “But you keep at it because you know the work pays off.”
The effort Shields puts into his training has been met with results, both in his athletic career and in his personal life. Shields doesn’t hesitate to say most of his closest friendships have resulted from being a member of the BYU cross country team.
“There’s a closer team aspect to cross country than to track,” Shields said. “Track is a team sport, but it’s a huge team and you’ve got all sorts of events. With cross country it’s just the distance guys and you’re a lot closer. It makes it really fun.”
Shields said he and his teammates like to get together for almost any reason. Sometimes they take girls out on group dates, other times they’ll gather at someone’s apartment to watch a Utah Jazz game.
“We really are best friends,” Shields said. “When we travel, we do things for fun like go to movies, go out to eat or go swimming. I’m going to miss it after this year.”
The tight knit relationships formed on the team aren’t exclusive to the students either. Shields said the team’s coach is very much a part of the group. As a former BYU athlete, national champion and professional runner, Coach Ed Eyestone is somebody who Shields and his teammates look up to.
“He really is just like one of us,” Shields said. “He’ll play games with us a lot, he’s fun to be around and he’s just a great coach.”
Seeing how comfortable Shields is at BYU and considering the success he’s had, it’s funny to think his career as a Cougar almost ended before it began.
Growing up, Shields was always a BYU fan. His parents are both alumni and he said his family would watch every football game. As he made his way through his senior year of high school, Shields said he kept waiting to hear from the coaches at BYU. After all, he had a considerable amount of success, placing second in the cross country state championships and winning the two-mile in track, and was being recruited by every other school in the state.
With the school year winding down and still no word from BYU, Shields committed to Southern Utah University. It wasn’t long after that Coach Eyestone finally called.
“I was like, ‘Why didn’t you call me earlier?’” Shields recalls, laughing. “It was alright though. I had fun my freshman year at SUU, but I decided to transfer to BYU while I was on my mission. In the end, I’m really happy I ended up here.”
As his collegiate career is winding down, Shields said he still has a few things he’d like to accomplish. The team finished fourth at the national championships last year, and Shields said he looks to build on the accomplishment.
“I want to win nationals, or at least improve from last year,” he said. “A lot of the other guys on the team feel the same way, we want to win it. If we fall short, that’s alright, just as long as we go for it.”
As for individual goals, Shields said he’d like to finish in the top five. A post-nationals ranking last season had him ranked seventh among returning athletes.
If he’s going to have the impact he hopes to have this year, it will be because of his tremendous dedication to his sport and to his team.
“Rex is one of the few guys who you can look at during practice and say he’s truly giving 100 percent effort,” Rohatinsky said. “I consider myself a better runner and a better person for having been his teammate these last few years.”