Many people around the Minnesota Duluth campus know Sam Rivard as a record-setting runner, but few realize she could gobble up the competition in another sport.
Don’t let her 5-foot-3, 105-pound frame fool you.
This girl is a monster.
While Rivard has gotten more serious as a runner, even hoping to pursue distance running professionally one day, she hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a kid, or at least, kid at heart.
“Part of being a good athlete is having balance,” Rivard said. “When you take yourself too seriously, and you go out there and try to make everything perfect, it’s just going to flop on you. You just have to enjoy the season and the success that comes with it.”
So while the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference women’s cross country preseason runner of the year adds more miles on the course, she delights in another course: eating spicy food incredibly fast.
Rivard’s self-professed pastime is discovering new restaurants, but on Sunday, she challenged her teammates to an old standby: Buffalo Wild Wings. There were no takers.
Just about anybody who has been to “B-dubs,” as Rivard calls it, knows at least something about the “Blazin’ Challenge,” where you have to chow down on 12 - 12 - of the restaurant’s hottest wings in under 6 minutes, without water, silverware or napkins.
Rivard previously has eaten 12 wings in a blistering - literally blistering - 90 seconds. The feat is even listed on her online bio.
“That’s my PR,” Rivard said.
Try even one blazin’ wing and you quickly realize how ridiculously spicy they are, especially for a northern clime.
Rivard’s mouth blistered. She accidentally snorted the spices and her nose started bleeding.
“It’s was a mess,” Rivard said of her record run. “This stuff will eat away at your flesh. It eats at your fingers just from holding it. Just smelling it brings tears to your eyes.”
When Rivard sets her mind to something, look out.
She wasn’t always that way. She ran track in high school because she had to participate in a sport because “that was always a rule in the Rivard house.”
She made it to the state track meet in the mile as a ninth grader at St. Francis (Minn. ) High School and finished last. That was it. She never made it again.
“I think in high school I was more into having fun,” she said. “Maybe I did the vice versa thing because in college, I started taking it super seriously. People change, I guess.”
Rivard always knew she had the talent but never applied it. She had a bit of that rebel attitude. That can drive coaches crazy, but it also makes Rivard an engaging personality. She is the Salted Nut Roll of distance running: sweet and salty all at the same time.
Rivard first went to Bemidji State, where she ran but never competed. She then transferred to UMD.
Now, at 22, she is a junior in school but only a sophomore in terms of athletic eligibility.
“I’m an oldie,” she said. “I’m on that five-year plan.”
Once she started competing at UMD, it didn’t take Rivard long to get noticed. Last fall she earned All-American honors in her first year racing cross country competitively at the college level, finishing eighth at the NCAA Division II national meet.
“It’s a matter of deciding what’s important to you, and what you want to go after,” Rivard said. “I was having fun with it. If you have talent in something, you don’t want to waste it. To be able to compete at a level like this, to earn an athletic scholarship, to get a chance to travel every weekend, and to just bond and hang out with my teammates, it’s a great opportunity. It’d be stupid to waste it.”
Rivard followed her collegiate debut by winning the DII national indoor track title in the 1,600 meters last winter after posting a school-record time of 4 minutes, 50.31 seconds. She went to longer distances during the spring outdoor season, finishing second in the 5,000 and 10th in the 10,000 at nationals.
What is even more impressive is that Rivard was often confined to training inside because of a seemingly endless winter.
“It was horrible,” UMD cross country and track coach Joanna Warmington said. “Sam literally ran on the treadmill all winter and spring and did swim work. It’s pretty amazing she and the rest of our team did as well as we did. We had to be creative.”
Besides the indoor mile, Rivard has Bulldog records in the 3,000 indoor (9:40.02) and 5,000 outdoor (16:29.73).
Warmington said the sky is the limit for her.
“It’s a blessing to have a runner like Sam,” Warmington said. “From cross country all the way through the outdoor season, she just kept getting better and better and better, so it’s fun and exciting to see what she can do next.”
Rivard’s future could be in the longer distances, perhaps half or even full marathons. She ran her first Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon this summer in 1:19.23, or6:04 per mile.
Rivard ran about 80 miles per week this summer, up about 25 miles from the previous summer, but Warmington stresses the need to focus on the season at hand. Women’s cross country races are generally about 6K, or about 3.7 miles.
UMD opened the 2014 season with a victory at the 16-team St. Olaf College Invitational on Saturday in Northfield, Minn., with Rivard taking individual honors in a meet record 21:35.6.
“Sam is testing the waters,” Warmington said. “She is trying to figure herself out, what distance is best for her. She wants to run professionally, that’s her dream and goal. But I’m trying to hold her back a bit, because marathon training is a little different than 6K training.”
Warmington then laughed and said, “She needs to listen to me a little bit on that. Sam likes to see how much she can hurt. She loves a challenge, and she loves pain. It’s fun to coach those types of athletes because she’s not afraid to just put it out there. She’ll go until she pukes.”
Which brings us back to food, another area Rivard excels.
Rivard has repeatedly smoked the Blazin’ Challenge even while her mouth is smoking. She has accomplished the feat without her feet - a rarity for her - but there is just one problem.
To the victor go the spoils, which in this case is a free T-shirt with your name listed on the Buffalo Wild Wings Hall of Fame slide show.
None of the shirts at Buffalo Wild Wings, however, are ever close to fitting Rivard.
“All they ever have is extra larges, so I always have to give them away,” she said. “They need to order some extra smalls.”
Just like everything Rivard does, the Blazin’ Challenge is a little out of the ordinary.
“They make you sign a waiver,” Rivard said. “I think they try to scare you, but it’s not so bad.”
Sam Rivard file:
Status: UMD junior
Hometown: Oak Grove, Minn. (St. Francis High School)
Family: Father, Mike; mother, Lisa; sister, Tanisha, 26; brother, Macarthur, 23; sister, Taylor, 18
Post-graduation plans: Run professionally
Cross country meet: Roy Griak Invitational in Falcon Heights, Minn.
Athlete: The late Steve Prefontaine
Professional team: Nike Oregon Project
Restaurant: Tavern on the Hill (adding she loves trying new places)
Food: Barbecue sauce and ice cream
GETTING TO KNOW HER
Why I chose UMD: “I wanted to get out and adventure, and Duluth is a great place to do that. I’ve always loved Duluth.”
Why she likes cross country: “With track you work more as individuals, but with cross country you work more as a team. It’s definitely more of a team sport. It’s nice to have teammates. I relish running with the pack.”
Race-day superstition: “None. I don’t sleep with my shoes under my pillow or anything.”
Sport she might try: Skydiving (her parents bought her skydiving passes for her 22nd birthday)
Her prized possession: My teammates