Excerpt: A fight to the finish

The following is the story of my county championship race my junior year, which also stands as my current 5K personal record and possibly the best tactical race of my career.

Counties gave us a perfect opportunity to make a statement. We were total underdogs, as all of the media outlets covering our county as well as other runners from the county thought we had no shot at winning the title. Mocorunning predicted that we would finish eighth and didn’t even consider us county contenders. But inside our practice, all of our varsity guys were brimming with excitement because we knew that on our best day, no team could stop us. We were going for the win. Individually, I was aiming for top three, but given how incredibly stacked the boys championship race looked, top five was going to be a tough goal to achieve.

A lot of my focus prior to the county championships was my mental preparation. In my two years at counties, I had run my two season 5K personal records (16:44, 16:17). Both races were strong, but I felt like I could have done better my sophomore year and I didn’t want to fall behind early as I had in that race. To build my mental confidence, I typed up a list of quotes and points to build confidence. These points helped me to remember the magnitude of the moment and opportunity, to relax before the race, and to implement a positive mentality and mental fortitude. I also typed strategy points, which would serve as guidelines and tips from previous races. Counties was like a big juicy steak waiting for us to dig our teeth into.

The morning of counties couldn’t have been better. Our underclassmen boys and girls teams won their races easily and Wootton runners won both races. The weather was sunny but not too hot and the course seemed in perfect condition for a big day. Before we headed to our starting box on the outermost space on the right side, Coach Redmond reiterated that we had the opportunity to make a strong statement. We were poised to do just that.

At the start of the race, we wasted no time moving to the front. When the gun sounded, my teammates and I strided down the opening field, spectators cheering so loudly that we could barely hear anything. I made sure to move up as much as possible without overexerting myself, checking at times to see where I was in relation to the other top runners in the county. After that first straightaway, I was in seventh, perfect position for that point in the race.

My competitors weren’t waiting for anything. Mark Unger took the lead at the first turn, followed by Simeon Mussie from Einstein, Garrett Suhr, Adam Nakasaka, and Poolesville Ryan Lockett. I wanted to keep close behind them and let them use up their energy in front, so I wasn’t at all concerned when they were ahead. About a minute later, I noticed a few more familiar faces- Obsaa Feda from Northwood and Aaron Bratt- and a couple of confident guys that probably took it out too fast. I stayed relaxed and simply tried to stay in the top ten.

At a turn around a tree about three minutes into the race, I focused on sticking with the pack and moved up to ensure that I didn’t fall behind as I had the previous year. After that turn, Lockett, the prohibitive favorite entering the race, took the lead from Mark. We headed down a short hill and then up an incline and I kept close to the frontrunners in eighth place. I knew this race was shaping up to be special, but my focus was in the moment and sticking to the pack.

At the one mile mark, we hit just over five minutes, a somewhat conservative pace for such a competitive field, and Garrett took over the lead from Lockett. I didn’t expect it at all, but I realized that it could work to my advantage later in the race if Garrett faded. By that point, I could tell that the top pack had broken away from the field and it was a tight pack of 11 runners. All of the guys there were for real and the standings shifted every couple meters. Mentally, I stayed simple and relax- just hang on.

On the second big loop around the grassy and picturesque Bohrer Park, I surged past RM’s Joachim El-Masry and moved into ninth. I saw no need to make a definitive move until the last half-loop, around 800 meters long, so I was content as the caboose of the lead pack. But if anything happened, I would be ready.

Past the two mile mark, we rounded the team tents and headed towards a curving downhill. I focused on using the momentum to move up, but the front pack started to split in half and I was still the last guy in the back half. As we finished the downhill, I realized that there was only one half race left and I wasn’t out of it yet. Having nine guys so close at so fast a pace was incredible and this race was certain to be a classic. I knew I had another gear, and while I was saving it, I was able to move pack up to the first pack along with a couple other guys.

The pack continued to break at points with some of the frontrunners throwing in surges and us back guys trying to keep up. We rounded a pond and made a 90 degree turn with about 100 meters to go and the nine-man pack was still intact. Once we made that turn, I realized that I needed to start moving up and surged forward. I passed Einstein’s Noah Clifford early and then overtook Garrett, who I’d expected would be among the leaders. He passed me once more as we rounded another lake with around 800 meters to go, but I prepared myself for my big move, up a long incline leading up to a playground and the final straightaway.

Once we had rounded the lake and started going uphill, I went off. I surged past Garrett, then meters later Aaron, then another elite runner, Simeon, to move into fifth place. I was shocked that I was able to pass all of those guys but knowing that they were behind me kept me on alert. I could tell that Adam and Ryan were far ahead of the pack, but as I turned into the final stretch of about 300 meters, I set my sights on number four, Obsaa Feda, and cranked it into an all-out kick.

The end was in sight and a top five finish seemed within my grasp. I was making up ground on Obsaa with every stride and building confidence as the finish neared. My plan of a relaxed, controlled kick went out the window and I was fighting for every inch of ground. With 50 meters to go, Obsaa was still within striking distance, but I knew that the guys behind me were kicking hard too. My legs felt like they were about to give way and instead of pushing harder and risking it to go after Obsaa, I kept up the pace and leaned over the line in fifth place. If I was shocked then, I was even more shocked when I heard my time- 15:39, a 5K personal best by 25 seconds and a new official school record.

As I struggled to get up in the finish chute, I realized just how special the race turned out to be. Not only were the times impressive, but the field was historically great, the finish was exciting and my best of the season and I genuinely felt ecstatic about my performance. It was one of those rare and precious moments when performance totally exceeded expectations. But the surprises were far from over.

After I was able to get up, I focused on the finish chute to see where my teammates finished. Mitchell finished about a minute behind me in 18th place, higher than he ever expected and in a new personal record by 45 seconds. Joe Poho came in eight seconds later in 25th. Before my eyes, our dream of contending for the county championship was coming true. We were shocking the county and proving everyone wrong.

When the results came out, Whitman won first place, but only fifteen points behind were the Wootton Patriots. Our second place finish blew all of the county’s expectations out of the water and gave our varsity team two second place finishes on the day. Mitchell, Joe and I ran the best races we could and it came on a big stage. Finally, after a season full of ups and downs, Wootton Cross Country had established itself as a threat to be reckoned with.

The success of my counties race changed my perspective on the season. The performance gave me renewed confidence and momentum heading into the postseason. It also made me realize that I could stick with the top guys in the state and I recalibrated my goals accordingly. My eyes were set on winning the state championship.

Postscript: I did not win the state championship.

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