Jonathan Laughlin didn't start the 2018 cross-country season with the kind of mileage base that portends front-of-the-pack success at the NCAA Division II level.
He had a credible excuse. The Minnesota Duluth freshman didn't lounge away his summer, but rather was deployed to an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia with the 148th Fighter Wing.
"I didn't get to run a ton, just because we were in the desert for about three months," said Laughlin, who enlisted in the Minnesota Air National Guard upon graduating from Duluth East High School in 2016. "You're pretty busy working 12-hour shifts six days a week. I got to run, but not nearly as much as I could have."
Whereas Laughlin was competing alongside runners who had spent the offseason cranking out upwards of 80-mile weeks, he was lucky to hit 25 or 30 - all on a treadmill. Basically, then, he was playing catch-up right from the opening gun.
It's a position he's becoming familiar with.
As UMD geared up for the outdoor track and field season last month, Laughlin's "prior commitment," as he calls it, again summoned him overseas. He spent three weeks on a training deployment to the Netherlands. There, the senior airman and his unit "joined German, Polish, French, Swiss and Dutch combat aircraft during the exercise, completing nearly 200 flight hours," according to a repost on the 148th's Facebook page.
Still, the wiry, forward-looking Laughlin doesn't bemoan the interruptions. Nor does he lament his 2016 enlistment that delayed college by two years. Laughlin, who turned 21 in December, knows his athletic career likely would have benefited from a more traditional path. But he also would have missed out on some really cool opportunities.
"It's definitely a 'What if?' " he said. "I feel like I probably would be a lot faster, but I wouldn't have half the life experience and knowledge that I have now. So I don't regret it at all."
Laughlin, the Section 7AA 3,200-meter champ as a prep senior, is an endurance guy, so the mileage buildup is crucial. His focus this spring is the 1,500, though he'd like to branch out and test his mettle in events like the 800 or steeplechase. Finding his niche, the 6-foot-3, 170-pounder says.
At East, Laughlin qualified for state meets in cross country and track, and was on the Greyhounds' Nordic ski team that finished second to Forest Lake at state in 2015. His junior year marked Laughlin's lone foray into Nordic because he wanted to focus on running. Both parents - Mike and Diane - are runners, and Laughlin completed his first half-marathon at the age of 12.
UMD coach Paul Nisius showed some recruiting interest in Laughlin while he was in high school. Laughlin had the kinds of times on his résumé - 4 minutes, 26.4 seconds in the 1,600 and 9:48 in the 3,200 - "that I am looking for in high school distance runners," Nisius wrote in an email.
Last summer, the coach reached out again, sending a text message to a deployed Laughlin asking if he still wanted to run. The answer was a resounding "yes."
"He said he'd save me a spot," Laughlin recalled.
Nisius has coached athletes that needed to miss meets for weekend drills, "but I've never had anyone deployed during the season or in the months leading up to a season."
Laughlin's goals for the remainder of his college career are simple - to get better and faster in every event. Beyond that, the finance major affectionately known as "skittles" or, simply, "skits," has things well mapped out. When his current six-year commitment with the 148th ends, he says, "I'll definitely re-up."
It's been a boon in more ways than one. For starters, 100 percent of his tuition at UMD is paid for, saving Laughlin tens of thousands of dollars. Then there is the chance to travel and see the world while learning life lessons in pressure-packed situations. And while the potential for combat always exists, he doesn't dwell on it, nor did it impact his decision to enlist.
Those elements, intangible as they may be, have shaped Laughlin, whose obligations include one weekend of drill each month plus a two-week stint in the summer. He might be a college freshman, but it sure doesn't feel like it. He's a little older and wiser than the typical first-year student.
"I guess you just notice how much more you know about, I guess, life," Laughlin said.
• The Bulldogs will host the NSIC outdoor championships May 10-11 at Malosky Stadium.