Friends, competitors and teammates: Luke Tewalt, Zach Facioni and a National Championship run

Two runners to race for the last time as teammates in NCAA 5K national championship Friday night


Photo courtesy of Wake Forest Athletics

Luke Tewalt (left) and Zach Facioni (right) complete one last workout before Friday night’s 10:55 EDT 5K National Championship race in Austin, Texas.

Cooper Sullivan, Sports Editor

According to coach John Hayes, Zach Facioni is already the best distance runner to ever don a Wake Forest bib. 

Ten times all-conference and four times all-American. Five overall meet wins and 16 podium finishes. Three current school records and a few others once held at other times. The numbers speak for themselves — and these aren’t even all the accolades. 

He’s also not even done racing.

On Friday night, Facioni will have one last chance to capture what he’s been running after since moving across the world to Winston-Salem in 2018 — a national championship. 

For the third year in a row, the poised veteran will line up next to 23 of the country’s most promising athletes. He will be standing next to familiar faces from previous meets and pages of record books. The gun will go off, and he and his opponents will circle the track 12 and a half times.

Then it’ll be over. Just like that. A 5,000-meter race finished within 15 minutes. A five-year career finished in the blink of an eye. 

It hasn’t completely sunk in for Facioni that this will be his final collegiate race, but that’s not something he necessarily wants to process beforehand. He doesn’t even want to think about the stakes, the attention or the prestige of this “normal” meet in Austin, Texas. 

“You can’t let the magnitude of it sink in,” Facioni said. “You have to approach it like anything else. Because if you start thinking about it like ‘holy sh–, this is my last collegiate race ever,’ you just put it on a pedestal. Then you put too much stress on yourself, and you’ll be done before the race even starts.”

Seems like an easy thing to say when it’s not your first time on one of track and field’s biggest stages. Facioni is one of three runners, along with Casey Clinger of BYU and Dylan Jacobs of Tennessee, to qualify for the national championship 5K race three straight times. This is the first time, however, Facioni will be running with, or racing against, rather, a fellow teammate. 

Double the Demon Deacons, Double the Fun

Luke Tewalt has never been to an NCAA track and field national championship meet — or Texas for that matter — so it’s fitting that he’s making his first trip with a coach and a teammate that are experienced with both. By the way he speaks about the upcoming trip — so nonchalantly yet filled with a drive where it’s clear that anything short of greatness is unacceptable — you can tell he’s been hanging around the like-minded Facioni.

“It’s going to be my first nationals, I’ll have two more to go,” the junior says. “Like it’s going to be about the experience, but I’m not going to be happy if I walk away without a medal.”

There isn’t much else to do. Everyone else is home for the summer. After training, playing video games and completing chores around the house, sitting around and talking with Facioni is pretty much all that is left on the to-do list. 

Tewalt says he’s asked Facioni for a bit of advice about taking in the moment and performing his best against guys he’s heard about since high school. 

“It’s just like any other race,” Tewalt recalled Facioni telling him. “But it’s intimidating when you get on that line and see ‘oh yeah, this guy won last year’ or ‘that guy was third’ or ‘that guy, that guy…’”

Tewalt snaps out of his retelling, but before he does, a new side of him briefly flashes by. The always positive, always-smiling, consistent joke-telling Tewalt seems just a smidge rattled. He quietly questions if he can match up against these other “national-caliber runners,” if he is at a running disadvantage, if he deserves to be standing next to these runners. 

He chuckles before he says it, half-jokingly, half-not.

“At the end of the day, they’re just runners. Like when I think about myself I’m not like, ‘oh I’m a runner,’” he says laughing. “I’m just a dude. I see myself as a good athlete — and these other guys are really good athletes — but I see them as runners.” 

He laughs again, the word “runners” has become a punchline. “I just got to remember that these kids are runners, and I’m an athlete.” 

He struggles to get the last few words out in between the laughs. His smile returns.

Friends and Competitors

The two runners have been training partners and close friends ever since the spring semester of Tewalt’s freshman year, when Facioni returned stateside after spending the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic at home in Australia. 

They tried to figure out how much total time they have spent together. Tewalt comes up with around 1,300 hours, while Facioni thinks at least 70 miles worth of training a week for the past two years. They both did the math in their heads, and it shows because the correct answer is simply “a lot.” Facioni jokes that it’s “too much” although their relationship could have started much earlier.

When Tewalt was being recruited to run at Wake Forest during the fall of 2019 and it came down to setting up the campus visit, the Washington, D.C. resident asked for Brent Bailey to be assigned as his host. The two had mutual friends through the DMV (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) running community and had spoken about the recruitment process before. When Tewalt arrived on campus and received his itinerary, he saw that Bailey was not supposed to be his host initially but rather the reigning ACC Freshman of the Year. 

“He was really upset that he had requested someone else,” Facioni recalls. 

Facioni was back home in Sydney during Tewalt’s first cross-country season, but he could tell early on that Tewalt was going to be a valuable addition to the team. Although he wasn’t so sure if the young 17-year-old knew that for himself. 

“Obviously he was super talented, as well, so I knew he would be really good,” Facioni said. “I think part of that first, kind of six months to a year was getting him to believe that…Because [Coach John] Hayes believed it, as well. Hayes saw it from day one. I think watching that kind of develop and grow — because you can tell when someone’s really good — it’s just watching them realize that. It’s a cool thing to watch and develop.”

At the beginning of 2022, around the middle of the indoor track season, something in Tewalt just switched. A combination of dedicated training, a determination to win, guidance from older teammates and a bit of confidence sent the sophomore on something Hayes called a “meteoric” rise. 

First, came the American under-20 3,000-meter record (7:56.26) in January. Weeks later came the first sub-four-minute mile (3:59.94) in Wake Forest history. Over the summer, Tewalt traveled with Hayes to Cali, Colombia to represent the United States at the u20 World Championships. When he got back to campus in the fall, the junior was an integral part of the cross country team to win the first conference championship since 1994 (fourth place, named All-ACC) and the highest-scoring team at the 10K National Championship meet (Wake Forest earned fifth while Tewalt placed 22nd and was named All-American).

Both runners had rough patches during their 2023 indoor and outdoor seasons, complete with in-race shoe mishaps, collisions and falls and injuries. Tewalt was out with a “demoralizing” case of achilles tendonitis in February, and Facioni recently suffered “a knee scare.” Only a few days before the ultimate race, Hayes said that “both are as good as they’ve been in their career” and he “expect[s] great races from both.”

And so do they. 

The End of an Era

They have tried to leave the elephant in the room for as long as possible, but it is hard to ignore. For Tewalt, it has been especially tough saying goodbye to the teammates he considered his brothers. 

“These are the people I’ve looked up to, who guided me through college running and college. It’s weird knowing that I’m going to be the old guy. That sucks. I just loved those guys, Thomas [Vanoppen], [Facioni], Joaquin [Martinez de Pinillos], Aaron [Las Heras], those were the guys.”

Facioni has already graduated from Wake Forest, earning his MBA this May. If he wanted to, he could get a cushy financial job in the big city, but that’s not what he wants. He wants to keep running. After the race on June 9, he will come back to Winston-Salem, pack up and head back home to Australia to run professionally with a newly formed group. He’s ready to move on and beyond excited to begin the next phase of his life and career, but he knows he will be leaving behind something irreplaceable in North Carolina.

“When you have to get up at 5:45 every morning in the fall and go and train with them every day of the week, you just build a different kind of connection,” Facioni said. “When you see them and you grow with them over five years, it’s just something that you don’t really get anywhere else.”

One Final Race

On June 9, at 10:55 p.m. EDT, for the first time, Wake Forest teammates will line up next to some of the country’s most promising athletes. They will be standing next to familiar faces from their team, previous meets and the pages of record books. The gun will go off, and they will circle the track 12 and a half times.

Then it’ll be over. Just like that. A 5,000-meter race finished within the next 15 minutes. Facioni has done this routine before. Event organizers will soon be setting up for the next race. The meet will continue. But this time, it will continue without him. And so will the Wake Forest running program. But that’s okay. The baton he once held onto for five years will be in the trusted hands of his teammate, who is eager to continue the culture and exhibit the qualities by which he’s been surrounded since joining in 2020. 

Facioni is proud to pass it over to Tewalt. Both of them are ready for it. But not until this race is finished.