October 5, 2023 | SPORTS | By Veronica Bianco
The sounds of sneakers on the trail and light chatter accompanies James Settles ’24 and his teammates as they crest a ridge in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. The sun is bright, birds are calling, the air is thin, and Settles and his teammates are talking, laughing and urging each other on as they wind up, down and around the subalpine terrain. It’s days and moments like these that motivate Settles to keep running and striving to be his best.
Settles, a Claremont, Calif. native, became an All-American last year after an impressive fourth-place finish in the NCAA Division III 5k track and field championship race. He was also honored as an Academic All-American for track and cross-country, having maintained a 4.0 grade point average in his first three years at Colorado College as a computer science major.
His result is the best for CC in the 5k since a second-place finish in 2006, and he’s the school’s first male All-American runner since 2007.
Settles attributes his success to the relationships he has with his teammates as well as the way head coach Alex Nichols carefully and deliberately planned training so he would be at his best by the time nationals rolled around. Settles qualified for the national championships as an individual last year, but this go-around, he believes his team has all the tools they need to qualify collectively.
“A lot of our guys have just put in a lot of work and it’s gonna start to pay off,” he said.
Tennis was his family’s sport of choice growing up, and he played along for a number of years. That is, until his family got a dog, Hank, and the two started going on regular runs. Settles preferred running over tennis because of the simplicity it offered.
“Running is very mentally challenging, but it’s not necessarily complicated or frustrating in the same way that tennis is,” Settles said. The sport’s simple nature and the community he found among his teammates kept him running through middle and high school, when he started exploring the possibility of running in college.
Settles heard of CC at an information session about liberal arts colleges, and the school piqued his interest. When came to the school on a recruiting visit, Settles spent a weekend with runners on the team and found a welcoming atmosphere.
“I really loved my recruiting visit,” he said. “I really loved hanging out with the people on the team.”
Settles took the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference by storm his freshman year, winning the 5k and 10k races at the conference meet. He got faster during his sophomore year, but had taken two blocks off in the fall to pursue an internship, and in doing so, had made himself ineligible to compete in any championships for CC. He was eligible for other races, though, and continued to progress.
“I felt really happy about my improvement from freshman to sophomore year,” he said.
Settles kept things rolling his junior track season when, coming off an impressive cross-country fall, he broke the Colorado College’s school record in the 5k in his first official race of that year. The next time he ran the same event, he broke the record again.
“I ran 14:08,” he said. “If you had asked me two years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that I would ever run that.”
That race qualified Settles for the NCAA DIII national championships for the 5k. It was a particularly difficult year to land a bid – the time needed to make it through was the fastest it’s ever been.
Settles went into the championship race as the No. 17 fastest runner by personal best. “It was a really tough field and to finish as well as I did, I think I was frankly just surprised,” he said.
The race itself was far from orthodox. One of the fastest runners was disqualified for a false start, which, Settles said, is a rarity in distance races since the start isn’t as important as it is in shorter, faster events.
The shakeup meant that the first few laps were run conservatively, and as it progressed, three packs of runners developed.
“Towards the end of the race, I just dropped the middle pack and I felt really good at that point, and I just decided that I needed to speed up, and that I could speed up,” Settles says. He started catching runners who had spent the race with the front pack, and finished fast, running the final 400 meters in just over a minute, a full six seconds faster than his previous lap.
Settles finished fourth, less than a second after the third-place runner. His finish earned him All-American status, which is afforded to the top eight finishers in a given event.
“It was a little surreal to me,” he said.
Settles mainly attributes his success to two things: the coaching he received and his teammates’ support. “I think that my coach organized our season so that I would be at my peak of performance at the end of the season,” he said.
Settles also ascribes his successes to his teammates, saying, “They’re some of my best friends and we all just push each other. So, I would, yeah, I would say that a lot of my improvement has to do with that as well.”
Nichols, the head cross country coach and assistant track coach, says that Settles’ emphasis on consistency and recovery has helped him take his running to the next level.
“I don’t think he could be doing what he is without so much focus on recovery,” Nichols said. “When you combine consistent training and solid recovery, good things happen.”
Now a senior, Settles has already picked up where he left off, winning the Metro State Invitational and the Ted Castaneda Classic in September. CC was the only Division III team at both meets and placed fourth and second, respectively. He was named SCAC runner of the week after his win at Metro State.
This year, Settles has his sights set on the national championships once again. He’s hoping to qualify as a team for the national cross-country meet.
“I think we have a really great squad and I think that we have a good chance of qualifying as a team,” Settles said. Individually, he wants to finish among the top 10 or 20 runners at that meet.
For Settles, running is more to him than a sport. It is a community and serves as an outlet for him as well.
“Running is the time in my day when I don’t have to worry about anything else,” he said. “It’s kind of a stress reliever. I really love it.”