Photos By Hillary Ehlen
As high school seniors, Tim Heikkila and Alex Bartholomay were never on North Dakota State’s radar. In fact, if you ask them, they maybe had no business trying to run for the Bison. Neither won a state championship in high school. Bartholomay’s highest finish at the North Dakota state cross country meet was seventh, Heikkila’s highest Wisconsin state meet finish was fourth.
For whatever was working against them in high school, both showed up at North Dakota State and choose to walk-on to the cross country program. When discussing the pair, Bison cross country coach Andrew Carlson said it best “they just showed up, no visits, nothing. And now, they’re two of our best people.”
Indeed Heikkila and Bartholomay have become two of NDSU’s top distance runners heading into their junior seasons. However, it was never easy for the two. Joining the team as a walk-on meant there was no guarantee of anything. Heikkila and Bartholomay had to earn their spots.
“When I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to run in college, but I didn’t know where yet. I also wanted to run at a college where I knew I could contribute and have a role on the team, but not go to such a small school that I wouldn’t be challenged,” Heikkila said. “NDSU has filled that spot for me. I was able to walk on and have my work cut out for me and learn the program and the guys. Alex and I, we both kind of dove in headfirst and did what we had to do and now we’re here.”
Heikkila hails from Brule, Wisconsin, a town of just 663 people in the northern part of the state. Upon coming to Fargo, Heikkila’s top time in the mile run was four minutes and 33 seconds. In 2018, Heikkila ran a season-best 4:08.75 in the mile, almost a 30-second improvement on his time from high school. For those unfamiliar with that progress, NDSU sports information director for cross country Wes Offerman aptly described it as “inhuman”.
“Being an underdeveloped kid from a really tiny town and not running a lot to tripling your mileage,” said Heikkila on the steps he has taken to improve throughout his NDSU career. “Going from maybe running four days out of the week and not really being that committed and dedicated to running to getting to college and really bulking on the mileage, doing hard workout and running with people who will challenge me.”
A similar yarn can be spun for that of Bartholomay, who admits he did not have Division I caliber times in high school. Yet, he knew of NDSU and was a fan of the school growing up. That alone piqued his interest in attending school in Fargo.
“As long as I can remember, I was a Bison fan. Watching Bison football every Saturday, so I was a big Bison fan. Right away when I started the recruiting process, I knew I didn’t have that quick of times for a Division I program. I was looking at Division II and some of those smaller schools. My mom just said ‘hey, reach out to them [NDSU]’ and they brought me in and I had an unofficial visit,” Bartholomay said. “They said they can guarantee me a spot on the cross country roster as a walk-on, but after that, they couldn’t guarantee anything. That was good enough for me because I wanted to be a Bison. It was a pretty easy decision once they told me that.”
In most cases, a walk-on spot with no guarantee of making the team would steer a kid to other schools. Not for the Bowman, North Dakota, native, who became an impact runner for the cross country program as a redshirt freshman. Last year, Bartholomay was a top-five finisher for NDSU in all six meets. He was also the Summit League runner-up in the mile run during the indoor track & field season.
Much like Heikkila, it was the quantity of running that helped Bartholomay improve so quickly. “It’s just a steady build-up. For me, I did about 20 miles in high school so I can’t just come into college and run 80 miles a week,” he said. “I had to slowly build up and let my body mature too because I was a young senior in high school, I’m young for my age. Each year, I ran more and more miles so that will probably continue and hopefully see quicker times still.”
Out of their circumstances came a very close friendship between Heikkila and Bartholomay. Much of this is thanks to both joining the Bison at the same time as walk-ons, but it also has to do with their personalities. They agree that they have similar demeanors with coaches and teammates deeming them as a “goofy” duo.
“Dynamic,” is how Heikkila describes his relationship with Bartholomay. “We both have similar personalities in a sense, he’s quieter than I am, but I think that’s why we get along so well. We both have the same objectives in mind and like to goof off and have fun, but in the same breath, we both like to work hard.”
Bartholomay, who is the quieter of the two enjoys his friendship with Heikkila in part, because of the entertainment value it provides. The two live together during the school year in Fargo. “It’s entertaining, that’s for sure,” Bartholomay said of their relationship. “He keeps me on my toes, I couldn’t imagine not having him around because he’s always the idea guy. He keeps me busy throughout the school year, it’s fun.”
Coming into this cross country season, the Bison have been picked to finish second behind rival South Dakota State. Bartholomay was named a Summit League preseason Athlete To Watch for a Bison team that returns all but two runners from last year’s conference runner-up team.
“It’s pretty cool. Coming from a small town, you never think you can make it this far, but it’s just preseason stuff,” Bartholomay said about the recognition. “You got to come out and show it, but I saw that and it helped me pushed through summer miles a bit too. It kept me motivated, it gets you a little bit more hungry.”
Another thing keeping this Bison team hungry is being selected behind the Jackrabbits in the preseason poll. As two of the team leaders, Heikkila and Bartholomay are poised to succeed this fall.
“I have a pretty good base coming into this season. I feel like this has been one of my better summers training. So I think coming in a little bit sharper and ready to be molded compared to still having some work to do in that first week,” said Heikkila of his offseason work and preparation for this season. “I’m coming in more prepared and ready to take off and help the younger generation. We just want to work hard and have the same goal in mind of winning a conference championship.”
Bartholomay says the Bison have taken on the underdog role this season. He feels that takes some pressure off the team, but is not an excuse to coast in races and in training. “We can’t worry about it. You get on the line to start a race, you don’t think about it, you just get out there and run,” he said of the preseason poll. “We’re actually the underdogs, we’re coming in ranked second and we want to win it. There’s no pressure on the team, we just go out there and race and push each other in practice.”
Tim Heikkila and Alex Bartholomay went unnoticed over the course of their high school careers. However, both believed in themselves enough to walk-on and compete at North Dakota State. Their decisions have resulted in otherworldly outcomes with both improving at an astronomical rate each day.
Perhaps what is most important is the real friendship that has blossomed between the two. That will certainly prove more valuable than a conference championship as life goes on. However, for the time being, a Summit League cross country title will do.