Prior to his freshman season on Virginia Tech's outdoor track squad, Will Mulherin met with coach Ben Thomas to discuss goals. Thomas told Mulherin he could run 5,000 meters in 14:15.
"I thought to myself, 'No way that's going to happen,'" Mulherin said. "All I could think of was, I ran 15:25 in high school."
Improve your personal-best for 3.1 miles by 70 seconds? That's a quarter-mile, one lap around the track, faster.
Daunting, indeed, but a precursor for an accomplished career rooted in defying expectations.
A 2008 Tabb High graduate, Mulherin last month won his fourth individual ACC title, outdistancing a field of 110 at the league's cross country meet in Blacksburg. His time of 23:37.3 over 8,000 meters was a course record.
Cross country is "probably the hardest ACC title to get," Mulherin said Wednesday. "In track, there are four different distance races. Cross country is kind of the overall distance champion."
Capping the experience, Mulherin's performance led the Hokies to their first ACC cross country team title.
"You have to have five guys really have an amazing day and run the races of their lives," he said. "I think we were able to do that this year."
A redshirt senior and three-time ACC outdoor champion at 5,000 meters, Mulherin and his teammates head next to Charlotte, N.C., for Friday's NCAA Southeast Regionals. A top-two finish there will secure Tech a spot in the national meet Nov. 17 in Louisville, Ky.
Failing that, Mulherin expects to qualify as an individual — the formula is complex — as he did last season, when a 30th-place finish among 252 runners earned him All-America honors.
Not bad for a former walk-on whom Thomas recruited after seeing him race aggressively to third place in the Group AA state cross country meet as a Tabb senior.
Modest credentials notwithstanding, Mulherin wasted no time making an impression at Tech, finishing among the Hokies' top three in his cross country debut.
"It was really surprising how quickly I got into it," Mulherin said. "In high school I did a lot of low-mileage training so my expectation was I would come in here and struggle for a good amount of time getting used to the (extended) mileage."
His winning time was 14:15.54, just a fraction slower than Thomas' goal for him.
"I've never been more surprised or excited," said Mulherin, who's now on scholarship. "After the race I ran around the track hugging everyone I could find."
A year later, Mulherin defended his ACC title and finished fifth at the NCAA championships, setting a then-school record of 13:50.76 and earning his first All-America honors. Mulherin has since lowered the mark to 13:41.06.
Mulherin's other ACC 5,000 title, his record third, came last spring. The only runner between him and a four-peat was Florida State's Ciaran O'Lionaird, who won the event in 2011 and later represented his native Ireland in the 1,500 meters at the 2011 World Championships and 2012 Olympics.
Thomas attributes Mulherin's career arc to uncommon durability. Rarely does he miss a workout due to injury or sickness.
"I think I just got lucky," Mulherin said. "I did a lot less in high school than most (college runners). I think that's helped. I came into college pretty fresh. I wasn't banged up from high mileage."
Thomas often cites Mulherin's progress as an example to other runners.
"Will Mulherin is the most coachable athlete you could hope for," he said. "He sure has made me look good."
After cross country, Mulherin will conclude his collegiate career indoors. He's never made the NCAA indoor championships and believes he can in the 3,000 meters.
A mechanical engineering major, Mulherin is scheduled to graduate in May and marry his high school sweetheart, Tech student Laura Craig, in July. Naturally, they met through running.
Mulherin's father, Matthew, is president of Newport News Shipbuilding. But rather than work at the yard, Will is looking for employment in Northern Virginia, where Laura will attend graduate school.
"I always say I'm going to stop running for a year and then get back into it," Mulherin said. "I'll pretty much stop, and when I miss it, I'll go back to it. I kind of look forward to running some road races and winning some actual money."