Once pre-race favorite Drew Hunter cracked off a 4:31 opening mile on Saturday at the 2015 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, his 6.5 second lead on the field put any mystery about who would stand atop the prep running world on this day to rest.
His winning time of 14:55 is the fastest since 2011, and his 12-second margin of victory over runner-up Phillip Rocha (15:07) is the largest since 2009. This was a blowout that in no way exploited a weak field— Rocha’s time matched Grant Fisher’s 2013 winning time— but instead highlighted just how incredible of a talent Drew Hunter is, and even more so, will be in the future.
It was clear from the start that the future Oregon Duck was vastly superior to this field comprised of the best talent in the country, and the race for Hunter was purely between himself and the clock. By two-miles in 9:25 his lead over the West’s Rocha and the Midwest’s Ben Veatch had swelled to 17-seconds.
“Head down and keep plugging away,” said Hunter of his strategy in a post-race interview.
Even with victory in hand, plug away Hunter did, chasing the mystical 14:36 course record held by Reuben Reina since 1985. Conveniently, that year was also the last time that a boy from the South region was champion at this race.
That 30-year streak stopped today, but the 14:36 would live to see at least another year, and probably a lot more than that. If someone of Hunter’s caliber (4:02/8:42) can’t scare it, you have to wonder who in the future will.
His time is the fastest at Balboa Park since Edward Cheserek (heard of him?) busted off a 14:52 in 2011. Not to take anything away from King Ches, but that performance was helped along quite a bit by Futsum Zienasellassie pushing him to the brink— the current NAU star finished just a tick behind Cheserek in 2011 in 14:53, each propelling the other to a lightning quick time.
Hunter didn’t have the benefit of a challenger pushing him along today. All by himself, he navigated the course at a pace that he didn’t need to maintain, if only to punish the rest of the field and test himself along the way.
“I wanted to take the race out hard, and make it a real tough race for everyone, including myself. It’s really hard to do that,” Hunter said.
Doing all that work definitely is not easy, but after Hunter crashed Grant Fisher’s de facto swan song by beating the two-time Foot Locker champion at June’s Brooks PR Invitational, this scenario was destined to play out. Hunter mowed down one of the greatest preps of all-time there, and with no one else returning from the top-10 at Foot Locker in 2014, this race’s winner was not up for debate.
He could either bide his time with the likes of Rocha and Veatch and hang back, thus leaving it to a kick, or he could do what he did today— push the pedal to the floor and really test himself. Either decision would’ve resulted in him walking away as champion, but the honest pace was a way to really earn it.
That’s exactly what Hunter did, and with a full track season ahead of him, you have to wonder what kind of damage this kid will be capable of in the spring. Last year, Matthew Maton and Grant Fisher became the sixth and seventh high schoolers to break four in the mile, will Hunter join them by becoming #8?
That will certainly be a storyline to follow for 2016— Hunter has already run 4:02 and he’s shown the type of late race speed (55-second last lap at Brooks) to get it done. Fisher and Maton proved that finding the right race, namely, one with pros, helps tremendously. These opportunities will no doubt present themselves for Hunter like they did for his predecessors.
But all that can wait for a bit. December 12, 2015 was about Drew Hunter the cross country runner, and one of the most impressive Balboa performances in recent memory. He’ll head off to Eugene in the fall with all the pressure and expectations associated with a talent of his level, but he’s got some time to soak this one in before that.
“It’s surreal to finally win Foot Locker,” he said.
It was surreal to watch you win Foot Locker, Drew.
Fun Fact: It was two races, two wire-to-wire victories for Loudoun County, Virginia, as Hunter’s victory in the boys’ race came less than an hour after Weini Kelati won the girls’ race. It’s the first time that two Foot Locker champions have represented the same county, and just the second time that two champions have come from the same state. Leesburg, VA (Kelati) and Purcellville, VA (Hunter) lie just 10 miles apart.