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Taking it in stride: two cross-country runners balance athletics and engineering

Cross country championship runners

Electrical engineering junior Brandon Garnica and mechanical engineering senior Conner Mantz know a thing or two about endurance. They’re both upperclassmen in demanding programs (a junior and senior, respectively), and they also competed in the most recent NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships, where Mantz defended his national title.

It takes mental and physical grit to manage either of these feats alone, so they shared how they manage the load.

“It’s kind of a balancing trick,” Garnica said. “There are days you’re there for the school and days you’re there for the sport.”

Garnica and Mantz spend about three hours a day running and several weekends traveling each semester. They also attend engineering classes, take exams, and do hands-on projects. Garnica loves both worlds and said he could never choose just one or the other.

He started running in eighth grade. He hails from a family of runners (his brothers run for USU), so he “correlates running with happy things.” He got competitive in high school, and he’s currently looking into running for Mexico in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

As for engineering, Garnica said he’s always had a thing for knowing how things work. He likes taking things apart and understanding the mechanics behind them—especially electronics. His favorite class has been Semiconductor Development with Dr. Hawkins, which he describes as a “very complex cooking class” with a lot of baking and etching “recipes.”

Mantz’s story revolved more heavily around running. “I knew I wanted to run more than I knew what I wanted to major in,” he said. When his college decision narrowed down to Princeton and BYU, he chose BYU for the superior running program (and the supportive religious environment).

He’s been running for over a decade and completed his first half-marathon when he was twelve years old, then ran cross country and track in high school.

Engineering came later. He initially rolled with the degree after his mom signed him up for a few engineering classes while he was still on his mission, but the more he did it, the more he liked it. “I don’t know if anything else would be as fulfilling to me personally,” he said.

But for both men, the balance comes with its challenges. Garnica said he has to exercise discipline in finishing his homework before he allows himself time for friends and fun. Mantz said he focused more on school for the first two years, but since signing to run professionally with Nike, he has had to put more focus on his running.

“There’s a lot of sacrifice on both sides,” Mantz said.

Mantz said he doesn’t have the time to finish every assignment or stretch as often as he should. Garnica said he likes to forget about schoolwork while working out or running, but his heavy workload often infiltrates his runs anyway.

Asking for help has been key. Garnica said he is lucky to have a ward member in his degree with him who can take notes for him when he’s gone, as well as professors who accommodate his unusual situation.

He and Mantz have also been able to support each other in their mixed lifestyle. “We understand what each other’s going through, and if either one of us has to miss a day of practice, we each know it’s for a good reason.”

“We bond over engineering; we bond over runs,” Mantz said.

They also bond over comparing their heights. While Garnica insists Mantz is the shorter of the two, Mantz maintains that that’s not true and that Garnica has never agreed to measure to see who’s taller.

Despite the challenges, the two agree that their lifestyle is worth its rewards. The most rewarding moments for Mantz are when his team does well or when he’e been able to apply what he’s learned in engineering. “Capstone has been super rewarding,” he said.

Garnica added that the travel has been a good experience. “Traveling through BYU, I get to visit parts of the US I never thought I’d visit,” he said.

Both intend to run professionally after graduation. Mantz said he plans on fifteen years (give or take), and he would like to go back to school after. Garnica said he hopes to follow Mantz wherever he goes to train, but he hopes that wherever he ends up, he’ll find an institution nearby where he can teach or help others. He wants to pursue his electrical engineering career when his professional running career ends.

In the meantime, they will continue doing both engineering and running at once.

“It’s enjoyable,” Mantz said. “I don’t think I’d have it any other way.”