By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Jim McElhatton)
Anteneh Girma, the fastest runner on the T.C. Williams boys cross-country team, discovered the sport by chance.
He had just been cut from the basketball team but still wanted to get involved in sports somehow. So his parents suggested running.
Now a junior, Girma ranks among the top runners in Northern Virginia. He finished fourth in the conference championships at Lake Burke in Fairfax County last week, the lone Titan boy to earn the right to advance to the regional tournament.
Girma hopes for a berth in the state finals, which would be a first for him. He’s come close but says he’s cramped up at the worst times in regionals.
“I’ve always wanted to go to states,” he said, still huffing a few minutes after his impressive showing at conference.
He finished fourth among nearly 50 runners, covering the hilly 2.98-mile course in 15:43.
“I cramped up a little last year; it was just bad luck,” Girma said.
His strategy in the conference meet was simple: try to stick with Lake Braddock’s Alex Corbett. Girma said he tailed Corbett right up until mile 2 but then lost him going up a hill. Corbett easily won with a time of 15:14.
While neither the boys nor girls team advanced to regionals, two T.C. girls qualified individually: Sydney Schaedel, who finished eighth in 18:49, and Hannah Smythe — the last individual qualifier — who placed 15th at 19:16. The regionals took place after the Times’ deadline Wednesday.
Despite the intense competition, cross-country is a sport where the outcome is shaped months earlier on lonely summer days. That’s when runners put in long miles to build endurance and lay down a solid foundation.
Girma trained during breaks from his summer job. He also made a point of running with faster partners.
With the season only lasting nine weeks, runners who begin the year out of shape stand little chance against those who have logged 40 or 50 miles a week in the heat of summer.
“That’s what kills you in a season like this,” said T.C. coach Michael Hughes, who has developed young distance runners for more than 20 years. “If you take most of the season just to get in shape, you really don’t have any time to learn how to race.”
The starting line in the conference race saw dozens of runners jammed tightly, but the sport is a solitary experience. And within minutes, runners spread out and found themselves alone or in small packs.
“… You’re constantly jostling for position, so that can be stressful,” said Schaedel.
A senior, Schaedel got involved in cross-country after playing other sports. She remembers being told how she was better at just getting up and down the field. But she prefers to run alone.
“[When] you’re by yourself, you can concentrate on things and think about your stride and what you need to do,” she said.