With a high octane engine, an iron will, and masterful race execution, Craig Forys burned up tracks and trails and shredded record books with a blood and guts style that electrified fans all across New Jersey and beyond its borders during his days at Colts Neck High School.
Forys raised the distance running bar in the state when he built a legendary legacy between 2003 and 2007, and his historic times and achievements triggered a new era in New Jersey distance running. I refer to it as the era of the broken record. Forys was responsible for ushering in this new era, showing younger runners that seemingly untouchable records could be broken, and giving them bigger goals to shoot for.
NJ MileSplit recently caught up with the NJ legend as part of a new series - "Where Are They Now,'' which chronicles the journey of many of NJ's biggest track and field / XC stars.
So lean all the way back on that big leather La-Z-Boy recliner or stretch out on your giant L-Shaped sectional sofa and enjoy our latest segment as we shine the spotlight on Forys in an depth, behind the scenes look that will relive his path to greatness, show his rise to a NJ high school icon, his stardom at Michigan, his pro career, his thoughts on his career, and his unexpected road to becoming a kindergarten teacher.
Let's start out with a jog down memory lane as we look back at some of the biggest highlights in the career of a NJ Legend.
FORYS BY THE NUMBERS
- Ran 15:16 at Holmdel Park and 12:10.7 at Van Cortlandt Park in 2006, both course records at the time.
- Won the Foot Locker NE Regional in 15:15 and placed second at the Foot Locker Nationals in 2006.
- Won the 2007 Nike Indoor National two-mile title by out-kicking 2016 Olympic 1500 gold medalist Matt Centrowitz.
- Placed second to Centrowitz at the Nike Outdoor Nationals in the two-mile in a then state record 8:44.53.
- Anchored the national championship DMR indoors in 2005
- Ran a 4:04.2 anchor on runner-up DMR at 2007 Penn Relays, the sixth fastest high school split in meet history
- Won a boys state record tying nine Meet of Champions titles (two in XC, three indoors, four outdoors)
- Big Ten champ and NCAA runner-up for Michigan in the steeplechase in 2012
- Two-time Olympic Trials finalist in the steeplechase (2012, 2016)
- Mile - 3:58.02
- 3000m - 7:52.39
- 5000m - 13:34.21
- 3000m steeple - 8:24.09
BORN TO RUN
Running is in Forys' blood.
Craig's dad, Chuck, was a great distance runner in high school and college, and he passed the baton to his three kids, Nicole, Matt, and Craig, who is the youngest.
"My dad ran for Team USA as a Junior in Sacramento, California, and ran at Syracuse University,'' said Forys, who will turn 31 in July. "So he was my first inspiration and motivator. Beyond that we are the type of family that does a Turkey Trot every year, my uncle, Mark French, carried the Olympic torch twice through upstate New York, my cousin Sean was a New York Federation champion, my brother Matt was a NCAA finalist in the steeplechase at Bucknell, and my sister ran sub a 2:20 in the 800m in high school. It was just something we always did and will do.''
When did Forys realize he had a special talent?
"I didn't realize I was good until Matt and I trained with a friend, Roger Jackucewiz and his daughters (Leisha and Briana),'' said Forys. "We ran everyday before and after school and it took us to a new level. A year later I started middle school and it was pretty clear that I had something going for me.''
Note: Leisha and Briana Jackucewicz also went on to run at Colts Neck High. Briana won the 5,000 at the 2004 National Scholastic Indoor Championships as a 7th grader and went on to an All-State career in high school.
Forys, who grew up in Howell but attended Colts Neck High due to the ROTC program and the opportunity to be coached by Jim Schlentz, wasted no time showing That he was destined to be a legend when he ran a then Holmdel Park freshman course record 16:21 in the fall of 2003. Then he turned the high school track and field world upside down when he smashed the national indoor freshman record in the 3200m when he ran 9:20.59 to finish second at the 2004 State Group 3 indoor championships at Jadwin Gym in Princeton.
"The immediate success was a direct result of his (Schlentz's) knowledge and ability,'' said Forys. "It was intense to line up and go toe to toe with 17-18 year old seniors as a scrawny freshman, but I just followed his directions and realized the power of a race strategy and preparedness. The indoor national record was mostly eye opening because it showed me I can beat people even if I think or others think I have no chance. I ended up losing that race by a hair (Jeremy Zagorski of Parsippany Hills finished first), but that mentality stayed with me for a long time.''
Forys, a member of the Shore Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame, said Schlentz is a huge reason for his success.
"He was an incredible coach and mentor,'' said Forys. "I obviously credit so much of my success as a runner and the knowledge I have today about the sport to him. He has a gift to learn and adapt training to specific runners based on their strengths and weaknesses. There are two very important lessons that stick out to me among the many. First, I learned about running form. He helped me clean up my form which not only helps in racing but also in staying healthy as I struggled mightily with injuries. Without us fixing form first it is likely I would have missed even more training and opportunities. The second is race strategy. Jim would study other runners and figure out the best way to beat them. He would come up with the plan and I would go out there and do my best to execute it. Even if it worked and I won the race, he still had advice on small tweaks for next time. He had a fantastic eye for seeing areas that could be improved on next time. And over four years we tweaked and tweaked and added and added until I had a pretty full racing strategy toolkit.''
NJ'S DISTANCE KING
After placing seventh in the 1600m as a freshman at the 2004 outdoor Meet of Champions, and then second at the cross-country Meet of Champions as a sophomore, Forys never lost another 1600m, 3200m or cross-country race to NJ runner for the rest of his high school career.
During that span, Forys racked up nine Meet of Champions titles in his career, which tied for the most in state history for a boy, won 12 State Group titles on the track, also tied for the boys state record.
He also broke the course records at both Holmdel Park and Van Cortlandt Park, smashed the state outdoor record in the 2-mile, beat an Olympic gold medalist to win a national title, anchored the DMR team that won the 2005 Indoor National title, placed second at the 2006 Foot Locker National XC Championships, ran one of the fastest 1600m splits in Penn Relays history, and earned All-American honors 11 times!
In the fall of 2006, Forys turned in one of the greatest cross-country seasons in state history, breaking course records on every course he ran on except one. At the Meet of Champions, he ran a then course record 15:16 to break Holmdel Park's 18 year old course record when he won his second straight title. Also that season, he won his race at the Manhattan Invitational in 12:10.7, a course record at the time on Van Cortlandt's old 2.5-mile layout, won the Foot Locker Northeast Regional, and was second at Foot Locker Nationals.
In March of 2007, Forys won his first national title when he out kicked his nemesis and 2016 Olympic 1500m gold medalist Matt Centrowitz of Broadneck High in Maryland to win the two-mile title at the Nike Indoor Nationals in Landover, Md.
Note: Forys finished his high school career with a 5-3 record vs. Centrowitz, including 3-0 in XC and 2-0 indoors.
During the 2007 outdoor season, Forys ran a breathtaking 4:04.2 as he came from way behind to anchor Colts Neck to a runner-up finish in the DMR at the Penn Relays. The 4:04.2 by Forys, who ran several huge DMR anchors in his career, is No. 6 on the Penn Relays all-time high school split list.
Forys also became just the second boy in state history to win the 1600m and 3200m at the same outdoor Meet of Champions when he won those races in 4:09.59, and a then meet record 8:52.58.
He capped off his legendary high school career with a runner-up finish behind Centrowitz in the stacked two-mile race at the Nike Outdoor Nationals in a then state record 8:44.53, chopping nearly eight seconds off the previous record of 8:52.0 that Charles "Buck'' Logan of Bernards set way back in 1979. Forys finsihed ahead of eventual Oympians Evan Jager and Hassan Mead in that race.
What does Forys consider his biggest high school accomplishment?
"I can instantly say that it's breaking the Holmdel Park Record,'' said Forys. "I say that because I can remember being a little peanut in middle school saying that was my goal, and if I do that I'll have arrived at something special. And it kicked off more special moments to come that year like winning the indoor 2-mile and those come-from-behind anchor legs. The other performance that ranks right with Holmdel was our DMR winning the indoor national title (2005) against CBA. I had a stress fracture that season and it was a defining moment as I cross trained all winter and came back just in time to be ready.''
Schlentz said Forys had the ability to always crank up the intensity when the gun went off, refused to ever back down from a challenge, and always ran his best when the stakes were highest.
"Craig was always a different animal when he raced,'' said Schlentz. "His workouts would look like someone ready to run 4:15 and he would run 4:05. He worked hard, but was always within himself. He never over trained and had a great ability to listen to his body and keep me informed when he had enough. In races, he just would not give up, right from freshman year on. He respected everyone, but was afraid of no one. He ran 17 Group Championship races in his career, 12 firsts and five seconds. Think about that! He had the innate ability to stay calm in a race and never panic. It allowed him to run fast and win even on days he did not feel his best. He would will himself.''
Forys went through nearly his entire high school career with a huge target on his back, but whether it was the late Ben Massam from Chatham or an up and coming star like Doug Smith from Gill St. Bernard's, he always answered the bell and responded to the challenge.
"I like to think I kept a level head as I improved,'' said Forys. "Bridget would say otherwise. The pressure was always on, but that's part of the whole racing strategy toolkit that Jim helped me understand. Some runners lose the race before the gun goes off. I just kept to the fou routine of staying calm, mentally imagining the race a day or two before, having my plan laid out, and trusting that I was prepared and looking for a challenge.''
After graduating from Colts Neck in 2007, Forys went on to become an multiple All-American at the University of Michigan where he won the Big Ten steeplechase in 2012, placed 2nd in the steeplechase at the 2012 NCAA Championships, and he was eighth in the steeplechase at the 2012 Olympic Trials.
"My best moment at Michigan was winning the Big Ten steeplechase title in my last season (2012) as a Wolverine,'' said Forys, who majored in Physical Education with a minor in Health and graduated in 2012..
"It was a long time coming and qualified me for the Olympic trials. It made me realize I can go on to the next level after graduation.
"When I graduated from Michigan I went home for the summer, but returned to Ann Arbor in August,'' said Forys. "I moved in with Christo Landry, who had been training professionally under Alex Gibby (who coached XC at Michigan and is now the head XC and T&F coach at Harvard) and Dan Lowry, a 5th year transfer from Brown University. Christo and I were our own little professional group and we blended with the Michigan squad from time to time. The problem with that situation was support. I didn't receive any shoe brand sponsorship, but I did sign to run for New York Athletic Club as my brother was training with them in New York and put me in contact with John Hricay and Curt Clausen. They sent me a check each month that covered rent and helped me to travel to meets. That situation was worked out right before my first professional race, which was the USATF 5K Cross-Country Championships. Chirsto had offered to pay for my flight because I had no money. He knew I would place high enough to pay him back. Before I could take him up on the offer, the NYAC came through.''
Forys wound up placing fifth and earning $1,000 in his pro debut.
"Things started off pretty good, but I could only make so much money racing and it costs a lot to be a professional athlete,'' said Forys. "After one year as professional in Ann Arbor, I came to the realization I needed more help. I had received a call or an email that year from Chris Neal at Furman University letting me know about this club (Furman Elite) they had set-up. Robert Gary was coaching, and Cory Leslie and Jeff See were training there, which was a crew I knew from Ohio State. So I reached back out to them to see if I could come down and check it out. At the same time my agent said there was a spot for me in Seattle to be a part of The Brooks Beasts. So I visited Furman Elite in Greenville, South Carolina and weighed my options, and I chose Furman and moved my life South.''
Forys had a solid pro career.
He represented the US in the Edinburgh Cross-Country Games in Scotland twice, both times helping the U.S. place first. In 2013, he was the No. 3 finisher for the U.S. and 8th overall, and in 2015 he was 7th overall. Forys also won the NCAC Cross-Country title to lead Team USA to the 2013 team title in Jamaica, and ran personal bests of 13:34.21 in the 5K, 8:24.09 in the steeplechase, 7:58.07 for 3K, 3:58.02 for the mile, and placed sixth in the steeplechase at the 2016 Olympic Trials.
Forys said his top moments as a pro have nothing to do with PR's.
"It was when my brother, Matt, and I ran together for team USA, both in Edinburgh and Jamaica,'' said Forys. "Who gets to do that kind of thing at all, let alone with their brother? It was surreal and definitely my favorite moment.''
COACH FORYSWhile Forys was training with Furman Elite, he got involved in coaching for the first time.
"I was a volunteer assistant coach for the men's and women's Cross Country and Track and Field programs at Furman,'' said Forys. "I mainly worked with the women under Rita Gary. My focus in that role was to assist in the running of daily workouts and practices and help the athletes navigate life as a student-athlete. It was an extremely rewarding position and I had a lot of fun with it. I realized I had a lot of knowledge and a way to connect with people.''
During his final months as an competitive athlete, Forys was searching and interviewing for coaching positions, and was offered a position at Quinnipiac University, but he and his girlfriend, Bridget, chose to stay in the South.
After spending the summer after graduation together, Craig went off to the University of Michigan and Conroy attend Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C.
They maintained a long distance relationship, and after the Olumpic Trials in 2016, Forys hung up his competitive spikes and made the move to Charlotte, N.C. to be with Bridget. After a brief stint as a salesman, Forys became the newest kindergarten teacher at Berewick Elementary in Charlotte, where Bridget also taught kindergarten.
After several months working together, Forys pulled off a suprise marriage proposal at school in March of 2017, which was covered by a local news station.
Forys and Conroy were married on June 30, 2018. Last summer, they moved to Greensboro, N.C. just a few miles from where Forys ran his final high school race at the University of North Carolia A&T. They were both hired at the same school, Reedy Fork Elementary in Greensboro. Forys teaches first grade at Reedy while Bridget teaches Kindergarten.
LIFE AFTER RUNNINGForys said life after running was a big adjustment, but he knew it was time.
"After the trials life went to a new normal that allowed me to prioritize other things besides my running journey,'' said Forys. "I started to try and make up for the times I missed family events, weddings, graduations, birthdays, holidays, and reconnecting with friends. Teaching became my new struggle to master and improve on instead of running. It was certainly an adjustment but one that I knew was coming. I was prepared for the next step in life knowing I had gone as far as I could with the sport, not everyone gets that chance.''
Forys said teaching kindergarten and first grade wasn't part of his original plan, but it's worked out great for him.
"My plan in college was to teach Physical Education and lifeguard on the beach,'' said Forys. "But plans obviously change as priorities change and I found myself in the very unexpected position of teaching young children. The best part of the job is building a positive relationship from the ground up with kids who have, or a lot of the time, do not have that at home. I can think of a few students I have had that I can safely say I changed their trajectory. The struggle is real, but so are the rewards."
Forys coached spring track last year at Kennedy Middle School in Charlotte.
"I did that for one season, and at this point I am sure I will get back into coaching, but in what role I haven't figured out just yet,'' said Forys.
After a long break from running, Forys is back at it, but said keeping up with Bridget is tough.
"I get out and run 5-6 times a week now after I took a long, long break from running,'' said Forys. "I needed to distance myself from running for a bit, and now I really enjoying being out there again without the pressure of performance. Bridget and I don't run together, she would probably drop me as she is legit fit. But lately we have been joining together for some core and yoga stuff.''
What does Forys miss the most about competing at the highest level.
"I miss my abs,'' said Forys. "Also, I miss the final kick in racing, that was always my favorite. It's all a long build up from the training, to the travel, and even 90% of the race, just waiting for that moment you can unleash.''
Forys said being a professional runner has helped him in the classroom.
"Going from runner to teacher is clearly very different but in one way I approach it the same,'' said Forys. "In both I look for results, positive results that come from doing repeated intentional practice. Competitive people will always find a way to push themselves in whatever they are doing.''
Forys is a very humble guy, so you'll never catch him patting himself on the back. And while he does love looking back on the great races and accomplishments that he and his teammates collected, he also enjoys remembering the great support he received during his journey.
"It's hard to consider myself a legend,'' said Forys. "I am mostly just grateful for all the help and support I received along the way. It took a lot of people to build me up to accomplish those titles and records. I think of the teammates and training partners I had and the family that attended every race or called with a congratulations. I think of doing interviews with you and laughing about the journey that took place.
Forys loved running in New Jersey , and is proud to have elevated the bar, smashing several long standing state, course, and national records, which have since been broken.
"New Jersey has a great running community,'' said Forys. "People would come up to me and introduce themselves and we would talk shop for a few minutes and that network just grew and grew. On top of that, each year it seemed like a new rivalry was born and that was always something I looked forward to. The talent level in New Jersey was ever present and has only grown since I was there. I like to think that I set a bar for people to chase, and now they have gone and raised it even higher for those after them.''
What would Forys say now if he could give the younger version of himself advice about running, racing, life etc?
"In running, the single most important factor is consistency,'' said Forys. "You must build days, weeks, months, seasons, and years on top of each other to reach your potential. It is a long road but consistency is the only way to get there. Make consistent choices about your training and about things outside of running. When adversity comes, which it will, just be prepared to face it head on. Work to find that balance in life where you can succeed athletically along with socially, emotionally, and academically. It is hard for them all to coexist, but you can find a way.''