By Jeff Nations - email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- Skyline's Thomas Madden remembers that he was just itching to compete in the two-mile run earlier this month at the University of Virginia's Lanigan Field.
Warren County's Seumas O'Reilly remembers just itching -- a lot.
Cross-town rivals, and occasional training partners, Madden and O'Reilly were part of an elite field running in the Virginia Challenge on May 12 in Charlottesville. Just how elite can be discerned by checking the current DyeStat Elite rankings on the Internet. Madden's winning run of 8 minutes, 59.62 seconds ranks No. 1 in the nation for the two-mile event so far this year. O'Reilly, who finished fourth in 9:05.07, also ranks fourth in the nation in that event which is only rarely run at the high school level. Millbrook's Crystal Nelson, who won the girls race in 10:39.97 at the Virginia Challenge, ranks No. 1 nationally in the two-mile race among female prep runners.
O'Reilly, a senior, wasn't even sure he was up for running in the race.
"I started really slow in the race," O'Reilly said. "I was covered, head to toe, with poison ivy. It was a terrible day. I didn't think I was going to do well at all. I went through the first mile at the back of the pack."
Madden, meanwhile, was stalking the pace as Albemarle's Ryan Thomas, the race's "rabbit," set a blistering pace through the first mile. A junior, Madden had already claimed a nationally prestigious race earlier this track season when he won the 3,000 meters at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. Now he was shooting for something different.
"I had sub-9:00 in my head," Madden said. "I didn't know if we were going to actually run that, but I just wanted to have a good race and hopefully win, so that's what I tried to do. The pace was fast, so it played out for me to run a fast time like that."
Madden started moving up as he began the second mile, finally overtaking Albemarle's Adam Visokay with two laps to go. He wasn't in the clear yet, though, as Michael Marsella of Chariho, R.I., caught Madden in the final lap and passed him for the lead.
With time running out, Madden knew what he had to do -- "stay focused and try to outkick him."
He did just that, overtaking Marsella in the last few hundred yards to win by just more than a second. Marsella (No. 2 in the nation) clocked in with a 9:00.90, followed by Visokay (9:05.07) and the rapidly-closing O'Reilly (9:05.72).
"I'd been having good training and good racing leading up to that race, so I knew it was going to be a good one," Madden said. "I just knew it was probably going to be something special if I really put my heart into it."
Although he wasn't exactly sure where his familiar rival from Warren County was during much of the race, Madden suspected O'Reilly wasn't far off the pace.
"He was near me for most of the time, I know," Madden said. "I wasn't sure if he was behind me, but I just pictured him behind me and all the other people behind me trying to overtake me."
O'Reilly was wondering whether he even belonged on the track at the start. The poison ivy, which "blew up the night before the meet," had O'Reilly feeling completely miserable before the race -- hardly the ideal mental state he hoped for in Charlottesville.
"I started to feel good, and I was kind of like, 'Screw it.' I just went and I was able to kick really hard the last two laps," O'Reilly said of his second mile. "At that point, Madden was too far ahead for me to catch him, but I still turned out a decent time so I was happy for the conditions I ran in."
The race also served as a preview of sorts for the Group AA state meet, coming up next week in Harrisonburg. Both Madden and O'Reilly are slated to run in Friday night's 3,200-meter run, and both are on pace to shatter the current Group AA state record in that event (9:10.03) set by Western Albemarle's Tyler Stutzman in 2009. A sub-9:00 run in the 3,200 would even surpass the all-classes state mark in the 3,200 held by Dwight Stephens of T.C. Williams (9:01.4, set in 1980).
Both runners think they can clock times under nine minutes at the state meet.
"I wanted to break nine minutes [at the Virginia Challenge], but for the 3,200 I came in with about a 9:02," O'Reilly said of the converted time. "So I was close. I figure if I can come in with a 9:05 in the two miles, covered with poison ivy from head to toe, I think I can break nine minutes."
Madden and O'Reilly were slated to go head-to-head in Wednesday's Region II meet, just not in the 3,200. That race will have to wait for Harrisonburg.
"It's like it always is -- we're head to head," O'Reilly said of his rivalry with Madden. "He makes me a great runner. He pushes me. I couldn't ask for more."
"It's great for the running community and both schools," Madden said. "We push each other and it helps us get faster times and have better races. It benefits us both."
As for owning the nation's top prep two-mile time, Madden is pleased but preoccupied with bigger goals.
"Other people have ran faster for 3,200, so it's not really the top," Madden said. "But yeah, it's pretty cool to see my name up there. It's just rankings; it's not really anything. I'm just trying to win the state meet in a couple weeks, then hopefully go on to nationals and hopefully get All-American there."
O'Reilly will do all he can to beat his longtime rival, same as always.
"I think they help each other more, competition-wise, at least on Seumas's part," Warren County distance coach Jeremy Burnworth said. "You see somebody so great, and they're that close and you hear about them every day and that kind of thing, it gives him that motivation to get better."