By Jeff Nations
STRASBURG -- Max Middleton wasn't trying to aim low when he set his ultimate goal for the cross country season, it just turned out that way.
The Strasburg High School sophomore expected to be running at the front of the pack with junior Nic Campbell following the graduation losses of former standouts Anthony Wallis and Nick Colson. Middleton expected to do well, even -- well enough to qualify for the Class 2A state cross country championships for the first time.
Middleton did that, and then some -- his 12th-place finish with a personal-best time of 16 minutes, 51 seconds made him an all-state performer and earned a spot on the champions podium at Great Meadow.
"I felt really good this year," Middleton said. "My goal was just to go to states. I didn't think I'd get 12th. That's a really good accomplishment."
Middleton worked hard to get to this point, of course. But the start of the season didn't exactly seem like a payoff for all the hours he'd put into conditioning and training for the upcoming season.
"My very first meet, I had to bag out because my knee hurt really bad," Middleton said. "So I didn't think it was going to be a good season. But once County kicked in, I knew it was going to be a good season."
That was the Shenandoah County Meet, where Middleton bested his top rivals from Central and Stonewall Jackson to win the championship. That was confidence builder, but there was much more to come.
Already, Rams coach Jeff Rudy could plainly see Middleton's calm and collected nature when he ran. Refusing to rise to the bait of front-runners and slack off for a slow pace, Middleton nearly always ran his race.
"We have him for two more years to watch him grow and develop, gain more knowledge as an athlete," Rudy said. "His race tactics and ability to run a 5K and pace himself is just fantastic. You'll see him go out understanding the length of the race and the effort he needs to put out and be successful.
"So many young runners I think get sucked into running someone else's race. Max's ability to run within himself, yet with speed to create these accomplishments, says a lot about his ability to focus and understand the complexities of a 5K race."
That focus was all too apparent for the start of "championship season," the Bull Run District meet hosted by Rappahannock County
Facing solid competition from the likes of George Mason, Central and Clarke County, Middleton did what he always does -- ran his race -- and produced a PR of 17:09 to claim the championship.
"I think everyone PRs there -- I don't know how, because there's so many hills and stuff," Middleton said. "But I guess it's more downhill than uphill. It was a lot of fun."
Middleton was in peak form, and it showed the following week at the Conference 35 meet held at New Market Battlefield. Again refusing to try and keep pace with the leaders, Middleton settled in to his own comfort zone. He began to reel in his rivals over the final mile, and picked off the last -- George Mason's Truman Custer -- coming down the final hill and into the stretch to win by 10 seconds in 18:10.
"I had to make up some ground at the conference meet," Middleton said. "I was chasing pretty much everyone. I'm just trying to run my pace until the end. I had a lot left."
So far, Middleton was two-for-two in championship season.
"Fantastic -- stepping up in the championship season and really making his mark against great competition," Rudy said.
The competition kept getting better, and the following week at Panorama Farms was a rare off-day for Middleton. Struggling with windy conditions that blew straight on into his face for parts of the race, he finished eighth in 17:13.
"That was a bad day," Middleton said.
Middleton had only one more day coming, and his efforts helped the Rams qualify for the state competition a team as well. On race day, Rudy pointed out that based on his seed times Middleton should be an all-state performer. That was just on paper, though -- he still had to go out and do it on the course.
"As soon as coach told me what place I should get, I was really happy," Middleton said. "I knew I couldn't disappoint him."
Not a chance -- Middleton ran the best race of his career, dropping under 17 minutes to finish in 16:51 for 12th place and that spot on the podium as an all-state performer.
"To be a sophomore and break 17, and really holding his best race for last at the state meet and be an all-state athlete is quite an accomplishment, especially for such a young runner," Rudy said. "Our excitement for what he can do and will do in the future with two more cross country seasons to contend with is something very, very special."
Rudy had been keeping an eye on Middleton since middle school, where he'd set the next school record at Signal Knob Middle School for the one-mile run. Rudy watched him gain maturity and experience as a freshman running No. 4 for the Rams, enough so that he was confident Middleton would be up to the challenge for leading the team this year.
"Usually you don't think of such a young runner to be able to fill the shoes, that void left from such talented runners," Rudy said. "For Max to come in as a sophomore and be running such fantastic times and he has such great aspirations of what he wants to accomplish as a runner here at Strasburg High School."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>