By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- Something wasn't right.
Skyline senior Thomas Madden knew it, even as he continued to win races in impressive fashion during the cross country season.
Hawks cross country coach Mike Tanner knew it, even if the famously-reticent Madden wouldn't make excuses for the occasionally baffling slow (by Madden's standards) times during meets.
There were signs, even at the beginning.
"This season, going in I had goals of making it to nationals again, of course, and then being an All-American there," Madden said. "Summer went well. I got some good miles in -- I was up to 65 miles per week, and that was like my peak mileage. Then I started workouts again. Most of them went OK. There were a few where I felt sluggish, but didn't really think much of it."
Madden, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2012 Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year, opened his campaign by winning the Judges Classic. He noticed that his winning time of 15 minutes, 55 seconds was eight seconds slower than his 2010 win, but Madden chalked that up to the early season.
A downright bad race followed at the Oatlands Invitational, where Madden's 16:04 helped him take third but still get "crushed" by Chantilly's Sean McGorty.
"I thought it was just a bad race on my part," Madden said. "I made a bad move and I just couldn't keep up."
Madden rebounded in his next big race, the Race of Champions at the Great American Cross Country Festival in Cary, N.C. He finished fourth in that star-studded race, but his time of 14:59.20 was plenty reassuring.
"I liked how I raced there," Madden said. "I'd never run under 15 [minutes] quite that early in the season. It was good, things were looking up."
He came in second to McGorty once more in the Oct. 13 Glory Days Grill Invitational in Manassas, but his time -- a solid 15:03 -- was no cause for alarm.
Madden opened his postseason in predictable fashion, winning the Northwestern District meet championship with a ho-hum 16:31 against an outclassed field.
Then came a shocker -- in the following week's Region II meet, Madden finished second, by 12 seconds, to winner Patrick Joseph of Loudoun County.
Still, Madden felt confident as he headed back to state competition in hopes of defending his Group AA state championship.
"I thought I would have a good run, actually," Madden said. "I was focused the week before and I was confident that I could run close to a course record or a course record because I knew I could run a course-record pace in the high 4:40s or 4:50. So I went out at that pace -- it was exactly 4:45, exactly what I wanted -- but then after that I just didn't have it. It just kept getting worse throughout the race."
Madden finished seventh in 16:07, nowhere near where he and Hawks coach Mike Tanner expected at The Plains.
Something was wrong.
Madden knew it, for certain, at around the two-mile mark.
"I was thinking, 'I should be beating these guys. They shouldn't be with me,'" Madden said. "Then when I got passed, I knew something wasn't right."
Tanner knew it, too.
"There was no reason for him to run those times," Tanner said. "Obviously, something was wrong."
The following week after the state meet, Madden had his blood tested for iron and vitamin deficiencies, looking for an answer. He soon got one -- low glucose levels.
"It's myself, really," Madden said. "I was just beating myself, not being healthy enough, so that's what kind of killed me. Now that I know what I'm up against, I'm taking care of it and focusing on being healthy.
" ... Getting this problem fixed with the glucose levels, changing my diet and putting more focus on that, I'm feeling a lot better. So I'm looking forward to this winter indoor season, and outdoor track coming up."
Madden had one more disappointment in store, as he geared up to try and return to the Foot Locker Nationals by finishing in the top 10 at the Foot Locker South Regional in Charlotte, N.C.
"Going into Foot Locker regionals, I felt pretty good -- I mean, I felt better than I did at regionals and states," Madden said. "I thought I would have a good run there, but I had a really bad start and everyone just caved in. There were just too many people to pass, so I never made it into the top 10."
Madden, who has committed to run cross country and track and field at the University of Virginia next year, is already looking ahead to the next challenge. He's gearing up to qualify for the state indoor track and field meet, and he's already focused on another big national cross country meet. Madden will run in the 2013 USA Cross Country Championships in St. Louis.
With the glucose issue discovered, Tanner expects Madden to rebound and be right back to his dominant self. And if he's not, it won't be for lack of effort.
"No one works harder than that boy," Tanner said. "I know that."
For Madden, the adversity of this past cross country season offered some hard lessons. He's already putting that knowledge to use, mile after mile, day after day.
"Things will happen and things will get in your way, but if you stay strong you'll get through it," Madden said.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>