Spring track is back, and kids are sucking it up

In New Hampshire, the boys' distance events offer unusual possibilities

A perhaps-odd source of satisfaction for me is seeing early-season high-school meet results that demonstrate not just a deep, solid team, but evidence that kids—sometimes in batches—have been working hard in the off-season to prepare to run quickly in circles. This is probably a permanent carry-over from the surprising number of kids I raced against decades ago who did nothing at all in the summer besides blow-dry their hair and bemoan their virginity, yet were nevertheless pretty good at cross-country by November, leading me to wonder why so few of the kids who actually liked to train ever seemed to have the talent to match.

This “puke-your-way-through-September-into-shape” model largely faded with the proliferation of middle-school track and cross-country programs nationwide that began in the mid-1990s; it’s almost as rare for a ninth-grader to be running their first competitive race these days at bigger schools as it was in my day to see any 14-year-old with formal running experience.

My sense of vicarious warmth is magnified this year for a couple of reasons. The more obvious of these is that we* last saw spring track at the high-school level happening almost two years ago, and although things are still far from normal in terms of how meets are being conducted and regulated, I feel like a whole new element of my life has been re-opened. The less obvious reason is that I spend so much time mucking around in the Wokish stupidities and absurdities that have infected the running media in recent years that the more I focus on athletes whose overriding concern is improving as runners, the less I fall victim to selection bias of my own creation. More simply, despite being involved in the sport from other competitive and literary angles, it’s become easy for me to become unduly fatalistic about “running” per se. I’m not alone in this, but it’s an illusion worth continually trying to correct.

In New Hampshire, for now, kids have to wear masks while competing in most of the running events. I would describe various rumored ways of working around the inconvenience of this, but that might be perceived morally akin to posting a detailed recipe for bathtub methamphetamine; remember, for the Wokish, it’s not a matter of whether to mask while running but how many layers to strap over your respiratory apparatus. But one thing that might definitely make breathing easier through one of the medical-style masks is to simply strip out the middle layer, the result being the facial answer to buttless riding chaps. Or this:

I have a modicum of confidence that this dumbed-down level of capitulation to the strictly-for-show guidelines will be more than enough to satisfy any meet officials you encounter. They’re not the ones who made the rules, which no one likes anyway.

Concord High School, which gained national notoriety during my years there, had its season-opening meet against Bedford on Wednesday, and every one of the kids from the 2020 state-champion cross-country team ran in the 1,600 meters. Wearing masks customized to varying levels of borderline jocularity, CHS put five runners between 4:26 and 4:35, with that contingent averaging 4:31-high. That may not sound like much, but these are very fast times for the first half of April in New Hampshire, and you can look back through the archives to find Division I state meets where the 1,600-meter results were not markedly more impressive than what Concord put together in a de facto intra-squad race before Tax Day.

One of those Concord kids has his sights set on Guor Majak’s 2004 school record of 9:11.62, and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t do it. Not many Granite State kids have ever run faster than that, even the ones with granite heads; I think Eli Moskowitz, Aaron Watanabe, Cory Thorne, Dean Kimball and Alex McGrath are the only five to break 9:10, but I may find myself corrected on this soon. But this kid’s forte is long distance, and he came off Nordic ski season suddenly capable of a 52-second lap to open the 1,600-meter relay after running two other events, including the 3,200 meters. Eben Bragg is the best cross-country runner CHS has ever had; that much is indisputable. At last notice, he also owned one of its most outstanding verified mullets.

One of the things that may help Bragg under the record besides his own basic wheels is that a Division 2 school has at least one kid angling to go under nine minutes even. Aidan Cox, a Coe-Brown sophomore and the only runner to best Bragg at least fall’s cross-country Meet of Champions, ran 14:39 on the track for 5,000 meters after cross-country season ended, and his senior teammate Luke Tkaczyk, one place behind Bragg at the Meet of Champions, has been posted some impressive workouts on Strava throughout the winter. If nothing else, I think this will be the first season two New Hampshire boys break 9:10, and if two do it, so will a third. (I hope to be watching some of this occur in person, but over the past year I’ve become cynical when it comes to making travel plans for some reason.)

Coe-Brown’s meet scheduled for Friday (against Concord) was rained out, so neither Cox nor Tkaczyk has recorded any 2021 results yet.

Bragg and his teammate Brayden Kearns also both have an excellent chance to claim the Concord High 1,600-meter record, 4:15.5, which I saw Chris Basha set at Spaulding High School in 1988 as I awaited the 3,200 (I even have video somewhere). At the time, that was also considered a state record, and I won’t get into why a 4:12 by Rolf Sonnerup of Hanover wasn’t.

Stepping further down the distance ladder, Londonderry High has a senior, Matt Griffin, who has transformed himself into a low-middle-distance superstar by continuing to find racing opportunities throughout the pandemic. Over the winter, he ran 1:20.32 for 600 meters, 1:55.07 for 800 meters and 2:29.35 for 1,000 meters. The latter two times are congruent, but the 600-meter mark is superior and as close as anyone has come to one of the most remarkable standing Granite State records, Russell Brown’s 1:19.41 from 2003. That spring, Brown, whom you may have heard of, broke the 35-year-old state 800-meter record with a 1:50.85 in a race he won by almost five seconds, and then went on to win the 400-, 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs at the D-2 State Championship—one of the most incredible and enjoyable performances I’ve ever seen at that level.

Griffin seems to have a real chance at running under 1:50, not a great chance, but a good one. And 1:50.85 is, again, one of the state’s more lustrous records; it’s been broken by exactly one person in the past 52 seasons. (Brown ran 1:50.16 at the 2003 USATF Junior Nationals, but this doesn’t count as a state record.) Griffin’s one result this season is an encouraging 50.91 400 meters from Thursday.

Taking all of this together in mixing in random optimism I don’t feel moved to justify to any of you, this spring could see a sub-1:50, a sub-9:00 and a sub-4:10, possibly by three different boys. Actually, I’m going to level off the four-lapper at 4:12. But in a typical season, any one of those performances, or even a sub-1:52, would make it a season to remember for the massive contingent of sports fans worldwide who focus on the prep distance events in New Hampshire.

I almost forgot to mention that these kids are probably all running in Dragonflys, which reportedly provide a boost of up to six seconds per lap given the proper forward lean and footstrike. (Actually, I’ve heard the real difference for most is about two seconds a mile, which counts for a lot at the margins, but won’t turn a shitbird into an albatross.)

I’ll supply more of these updates as the season goes on, and as there won’t be any invitational action this spring, each week I’ll probably cobble together the best of what I’ve seen over the preceding seven days. Mostly I’m just happy to have other people’s racing as an antidote to whatever escapades I see the harpies have up to, and, soon enough, maybe even some of my own (always leave ‘em laughing).