Athletes put in their hardest work before the sun rises

Madison Mooney












The UW–Madison women’s rowing team runs warm-up drills at Porter Boathouse before starting morning practice at 6:15 a.m.

Photography by Kalli Anderson

Champions are made when no one is watching.

And there truly is no one watching when the sun isn’t up.

Footsteps crunch against the leaves that fell to the ground overnight, a quick and steady movement. With every sharp breath taken, a puff of air can be seen in the cold, morning weather. The bike path is lit up with singular street lights spaced about a hundred meters apart, but otherwise it is completely dark.

During the light of day, the bike path will be filled with walkers, runners and bikers, but this early, it’s only Rowen Ellenberg, a member of the men’s cross-country team at UW–Madison, and the darkness ahead of him. He is doing the necessary work to become a champion.

The sports teams at UW–Madison pride themselves on being among the best in the NCAA. The success of major revenue-making sports is often widely publicized. At the same time, athletes in smaller sports, such as rowing, cross-country, wrestling and softball, dedicate much of their energy and time to their respective sports, yet compete outside the glow of the bright stadium lights.

Four of those athletes shared with Curb their experiences with morning workouts and explained why the morning grind is worth the effort.

Grace Belson, 20

Stevens Point, Wisconsin

Junior, women’s rowing

Early mornings are routine for the rowing team. The rowers are one of the first teams to start practice on the UW–Madison campus, practicing Monday through Saturday and moving their boats into the water by 6:15 a.m. every weekday.

Belson rows with her teammates away from the light shining out of the practice building and into the complete darkness of Lake Mendota. Belson joined the rowing team her freshman year of college, after originally being a runner in high school.

There are lights at the bow and stern of the boats. This is a safety requirement the rowing team has to use to ensure they aren’t hit by another boater out on the water. Before the sun rises, the little red lights are the only thing to be seen of the rowers on the water.

The team will practice this early year-round, and the rowers try to stay out on the water as long as possible. This is usually until mid November, when the lake starts to freeze.

The winter months can often be the hardest for them to get up and stay motivated for practice. Once they can’t go on the water, the women will use ergometer machines to simulate the rowing motion.

“It’s freezing cold outside, pitch black, the whole practice,” Belson says. “It’s just in the dead of winter when you don’t want to get up and you know you’re not going to be on the water. You know that you’re going to be inside on the ergs. And it’s always just really hard practices during the winter, too. So people start to get really tired of it. The morale is definitely really low in the winter.”

The long, winter mornings are hard, but the women’s rowing team is determined to do well at the NCAA Championships at the end of the school year. The rowers hope to qualify for the AB race, making them one of the top eight teams in the nation.

“I mean, it’s definitely a challenge, but I like being able to have the bulk of my workouts for the day done,” Belson says. “A lot of people ask me, how do you do it? How do you stay up so early? But after a while, you just realize that it makes sense to do it then.”

“A lot of people ask me, how do you do it? How do you stay up so early? But after a while, you just realize that it makes sense to do it then.”

— Grace Belson

Rowen Ellenberg, 21

Appleton, Wisconsin

Junior, men’s cross-country

Morning practice looks different for the men’s cross-country team. Ellenberg finds himself getting up in the mornings, often alone, for runs.

Official practice takes place in the afternoon, but the men need to run several times a day to get in all of the miles they need. For Ellenberg, that’s a total ranging from 80 to 95 miles across nine runs every week.

As the school year goes on, morning runs get colder and colder.

“If it’s below zero, I have to throw on a running jacket and have three or four layers on,” Ellenberg says.

The darkness also means Ellenberg has to choose wisely where he runs. He avoids trails in forested areas with lots of roots and instead runs on the bike path, a concrete path that goes through the UW–Madison campus toward Verona. The path is lit up by street lights and is completely flat, perfect for running with limited lighting.

Once while running early at home in Appleton in northeast Wisconsin, Ellenberg had a strange encounter. His music stopped and started playing a siren noise, quickly followed by his watch, phone and earbuds all dying at the same time. In the darkness, a large mass flew up out of the open field, and zoomed off.

“I don’t know what it was,” Ellenberg says. “Well, it looked like a UFO, but it could have been birds, but it was scary​ because something weird happened.”

Most mornings aren’t that eventful, but even the strange morning runs have a purpose. The extra miles help create more strength in the runners, so they can race at a faster pace.

The men’s cross-country team has a standard to uphold. It has won the past three Big Ten championships and will be going for its 52nd team title in program history this year. 

Ellenberg says the team’s goal is to win the Big Ten title and perform well at the national championships.

“We have had trouble really saying specifically what that means, but definitely top 10 and the high goal is top five,” he says. “Our goal is to race together and feel like we really accomplished something.”

“Our goal is to race together and feel like we really accomplished something.”

— Rowen Ellenberg

Ethan Rotondo, 22

Vancouver, Washington

Senior, men’s wrestling

Rotondo has trekked to wrestling practice in the dark for four years at UW–Madison. He gets up with his teammates and runs, then follows it with a morning lift.

Rotondo lives with his teammates in a house near their practice facility. He relies on his moped to get to practice. It shortens the travel time compared to walking, and he squeezes his roommate on the back with him.

Waking up early requires dedication from the athletes to get to bed earlier, so they can still function well throughout the school day. Some wrestlers use naps to compensate for loss of sleep. 

“I feel like after morning practice if I don’t have class, I’m taking a nap,” Rotondo says.

“I nap and then I do homework and I have practice and it’s just, there’s not a lot of time to be social when you’re getting up so early and trying to go to bed at a good time.”

The social life of the typical college student is often nonexistent for athletes. Going out on the weekends and staying up late is not practical for the wrestlers when they have to wake up so early to get their workouts in.

The altered sleep schedule and less-active social life is all worth it when going after their dreams. 

“I want to be an All-American,” he says. “So just keeping that in mind and just knowing that getting up early, doing what I need to do to be ready for practice is just important to me.”

The wrestling team hopes to have as many All-Americans as possible this year and perform well in the Big Ten Conference meet, one of the most competitive conferences for wrestling in the NCAA.

“Practices are hard and obviously your coaches are gonna get on you, but they have [the] best intentions. So being around those people right away in the morning just kind of sparks your day.”

— Ally Miklesh

Ally Miklesh, 20 

Stevens Point, Wisconsin

Senior, women’s softball

The women’s softball team’s practices start at 6:15 a.m. and go until 10:30 a.m. In this time, players complete a lift session from 6:15 to 7:30 a.m and practice and individual meetings with coaches from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m.

Miklesh, a senior, loves the grind. She treats mornings in the darkness with a positive attitude.

“It’s a really good start to my day,” Miklesh says. “And then I’m prepared and ready to go for the rest of my day. Practices are hard and obviously your coaches are gonna get on you, but they have [the] best intentions. So being around those people right away in the morning just kind of sparks your day.”

Miklesh relies on making sure she has good nutrition to keep herself awake and energized throughout the rest of the day. Coffee is also an essential part of her daily productivity after practice.

Her days are kept busy between softball practice and school, so she has adjusted her social life to fit that schedule, leaving social activities for their off days on Tuesdays.

Naps help to catch up on the missed sleep.

“I try to fill in some naps here and there, especially when I feel bogged down,” she says. “Having later classes in the day can be a struggle sometimes being awake.”

The softball team hopes to be top 16 in the NCAA this year, which would allow them to host a regional tournament. The work they do in the early mornings of the fall and winter will help them achieve this goal come the spring season.

The team collectively brings positive energy to the cold and lonely mornings when they are out on the field before the sun rises.

“I think that the reason why we’re really ready to go in the morning is just due to respect of our team, respect to our alums, just the culture that our coaches and our alums have built here,” Miklesh says. “So the fact that we’re energized, ready to go in the morning is just a tribute to them.”

DAWN page photo credit: Two UW rowers make their way across Lake Mendota during a morning practice in October. Photography by Kalli Anderson