John Bernhisel: Coaching running as a lifelong passion

David Peck

“If I had to pick one amazing outcome of my years of coaching, I’d say it is all the athletes that have continued to run into adulthood.”

— John Bernhisel

To say that John Bernhisel is passionate about running just might be the understatement of the century. To him, running isn’t just a sport, a hobby or an activity. It’s a way of life. And for the first time in 34 years, John Bernhisel is not Coach Bernhisel, having retired from coaching at the end of the 2022-23 school year.

He is still teaching, serving as the librarian at Rocky Mountain Middle/ High School, doing some technology work and teaching physics, multimedia and senior studies.

Bernhisel grew up in Fort Bragg, California, where he ran among the redwoods of Mendocino County, but he was first a varsity tennis player, only joining the cross country team his senior year, quitting the tennis team.

“My tennis coach was furious,” he recalled. “I took up running the summer before my senior year and realized I had a gift and loved it. But I really made my tennis coach mad.”

But in the cross country team Bernhisel found a band of brothers.

“I’ve never had a group of more bonded best friends than my high school cross country team,” he said. “Amazingly, we would meet on a Saturday and go for, like, eight-mile runs – no coach, just a bunch of guys. “I was, like, the third best on a really outstanding team, and so I didn’t realize how good I was until I went to BYU. I never thought about running in college, but I was the best runner in Provo that wasn’t on the team. I won every little 5K in town.

“I just have these great memories of running through the redwood forest and on trails. I love to go back home and relive those great memories.”

Bernhisell ran a personal record time of 16:04 in the 5K for a Class 2A (California) high school with around 1,000 students that went on to win the California sectional championship as the top “small school” team from the Bay Area north.

In California, the team had to compete with other sports to attract athletes, just like in schools across the country.
“Cross country wasn’t the cool sport,” he said. “We had only seven boys out. It’s the same thing I’ve dealt with my whole life, competing with football, and there we had swimming and tennis and all that.”

When he started running, something special was born in John Bernhisel.

“It’s the freedom, it’s pushing yourself,” he said. “It’s a time to think … Cross country is an individual sport. There’s the team bonding and all of that, but ultimately it’s you against yourself, and it was pretty clear that I was good, but I enjoyed it more than I was good.”

After graduating in 1982, Bernhisel enrolled at BYU, served a mission in Porto Alegre, Brazil, then returned to BYU, and after marrying Sally Despain of Lovell, he finished his degree in science education at Utah State University in 1988, later earning a master’s degree in computer education through Lesley University.

After considering job offers in multiple states, Bernhisel was visiting the Despain family in Lovell when he saw an ad in the Lovell Chronicle for a science teacher at Rocky Mountain High School. He applied, was hired and started teaching in the fall of 1989.

He coached track the following spring, then started the cross country program in the fall of 1990, only the second Class 2A school in Wyoming to have a cross country team.

“We really started the team around Jeanna Bair (now Merritt),” he said. “She ran for Cody her freshman year.”

Over his coaching career, he coached spring track for all but two years of his 34 years, including three years as head coach at different times, and led the cross country team for 33 consecutive years, winning state girls championships in 1992 and 2005 and boys state titles in 2021 and ’22. His teams also placed second at State two times, third two times and fourth 11 times – 19 top-four finishes in all. He also coached many conference team and individual champions.

Lovell athletes joined with Rocky Mountain for 15 years in cross country before Caleb Sanders – a former runner for Bernhisel — started the Lovell program in 2008, and Burlington runners have joined with the Grizzlies for 30 years, along with the occasional athlete from Greybull, Basin, Powell, Cody and various homeschooled students.

“I love the great tradition of families that consistently came out for cross country, sometimes over generations,” he said, noting the names Sanders, Bair, Zeller, Higgins, Barrett, Twomey and many more.

“Running is a culture,” he added. “It isn’t easy. When it’s part of a family dynamic it’s perpetual.” He also noted his assistant coaches Mark Cozzens, Mindy Mickelson, Tim Jones, Penny Tolman and Ryan Olson. “All of these great coaches were dedicated to the athletes, the sport and to reaching every single runner, no matter their ability,” he said.

Several of his runners have gone on to be coaches themselves, including Joshua and Caleb Sanders in Lovell and Matt Hoyt at the University of South Dakota.


During his 34 years as a coach, the thing that always pleased Bernhisel more that medals and trophies was individual improvement and the lifelong enjoyment of running.

“Placing is the worst indicator of an athlete’s success,” he said. “Time is the best indicator. I remember JC Bendixen doing the dance of joy because he broke 30 minutes in a 5K, and we were hugging each other. It’s just a memory that stands out … because he broke 30 minutes. Personal improvement, achieving a goal – that just means a ton.”

Another aspect of competing that has pleased Bernhisel is athletes learning to love running and continuing to run for many years afterward.

“If I had to pick one amazing outcome of my years of coaching, I’d say it is all the athletes that have continued to run into adulthood,” he said. “More than anything, I love to hear from my athletes that they ran a 5K or half marathon or they just started running a few days a week to lose some weight.

“I don’t know how many times – hundreds sounds like too many but – over and over I have people come up to me and say, hey, I just want you to know that I need to lose 20 pounds and I’m running again, and it’s because you taught me those skills and planted that seed.

“There’s nothing better.” For Bernhisel, being a runner and coaching runners go hand in hand.

“For years it was my goal to run at least a few minutes with every athlete at practice,” he said. “Until about 10 years ago, I was in good enough shape to do that with the very best. It allowed me to assess their running form but also to have a minute of one-onone to reach them on a personal level. It was a gift to me and, hopefully, to them, as well.

“It’s funny, I’ve always sort of thought that my own team’s success is a product of the shape I’m in. Until I was almost 50, I could always run
with my best runners for at least a few minutes, and that gets harder.”

And so the coach was able to practice what he preached and, in fact, has run some 10 marathons, including the Boston Marathon, and some 10 longer ultra-marathons, including a 50-mile race in South Dakota.

“It’s been a part of our lives for so long … so long,” wife Sally Bernhisel said, growing emotional. “When we first started dating he was running races, and I was so excited because he was always the first or second to come across the line, and that was fun. Running has meant more to John than most things, and giving that gift to other people has been one of the greatest joys I’ve seen in his life.

“It’s really been his lifelong joy, and now I’m glad he has time to just focus on himself, because he has been. This summer was good. He ran a lot.”

Facing his first fall in 33 years without running practices, Bernhisel said initially it seemed like a relief, not missing the stress of who will come out for the team and who won’t. But overall, he misses coaching and being with the team, longtime assistant and middle school coach Tim Jones now taking over the program.

“I’m sad,” Bernhisel said. “I see them running by past my house, and I go out and cheer for ‘em and yell for ‘em. I haven’t lost my passion for the sport at all, and like Sally was saying, I’m getting back in shape and it will be good for my own health. I’m hoping to run some races this spring. I even looked up what the qualifying time was for the Boston Marathon at age 60. I ran all summer.

“I’m excited. It’s actually hard to coach and be in shape, the kind of shape you want, because I’ve always tried to run with Dominic Twomey for 10 minutes, but I also wanted to run with JC Bendixen for a few minutes in practice, and that’s not the way to get in my own personal shape. I’m excited for some extra time to get in shape, and I’ve got lots of woodworking projects around the house.”

And in the end, Bernhisel can certainly know he has made a difference.

“Without the Rocky Mountain cross-country program, I probably never would have gotten into running,” Caleb Sanders said. “John created that program, and it helped meet a huge need for many kids.