During last year’s Class 7A cross country championships, Forsyth Central’s Calan Gizelbach could taste a top 5 finish. Perhaps even a top 3.
He was out of reach of region rival Milton’s top two frontrunners that went on to finish first and second by a wide margin, but still had East Coweta’s Kyle Harkabus, Archer’s James Cragin, Peachtree Ridge’s Chase Condra and Lambert’s Tyler Fox in his crosshairs. At the second mile, those four and Gizelbach were still in the same pack.
“Other than the people who were in first and second, it was anyone's race. I realized, ‘I've just got to go with it. I can't fall now.’”
He didn’t fall out of the top 10, securing a seventh place boys finish. He completed the course in 16:26, just two seconds behind Fox and six behind Harkabus, the race’s fastest non-senior. On one hand, he was exhilarated – finishing in the top 10 at state was a prime goal for him heading into the 2017 season. Still, being so close to more left him with a hunger for something greater, especially since he had beaten Fox and Cragin earlier in the year.
“Accomplishing that goal was awesome – it felt great to do that and to be up there,” Gizelbach said. “As far as disappointment goes, (it) was knowing I could have finished higher and how close of a race it was.”
Gizelbach, who has been a key leader for the Bulldogs, has his sights on a better position on the state podium for his senior season. His presence has helped Central adjust to the transition to Class 7A in the last few years, as head coach Shannon Hays has witnessed firsthand.
“I walk in (to my room) and he's having a conversation with the team like, 'OK, this is where we are and this is where we want to be. How are we going to get there?’” Hays said. “He's like another coach on the team. He's really the one that I can go to and I know that things will get done.
“He's definitely a goal-setter, more than any other athlete I've ever coached. He's like, OK, I'm going to figure out exactly how I'm going to map this out to where I can get this done. That's the trademark of an excellent athlete and an excellent leader.”
Gizelbach didn’t run competitively until middle school: He was more into soccer growing up, and he’s continued playing that sport for Central. His first exposure to cross country came in seventh grade, when his older brother Cole, then a senior with the Bulldogs, took him out to a practice.
“I think I ran two miles in about 40 minutes,” Gizelbach said. “It was brutal (and) it was hot. I was like, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I here?’ I ended up just loving the team. Everyone cares and everyone's trying to lift each other up, because it is a hard sport.”
As he made progress in his new sport, Gizelbach eventually had to make a choice on what he was going to prioritize when he reached high school. The conflict between club soccer and cross country, as well as the success he had running in middle school, helped him make the decision.
“I knew the (cross country) team was supposed to win a state championship that year, or we had a good shot at least,” Gizelbach said. “So I was like, ‘Why not? I want to help out I want to see what I can do. I want to see how fast I can be.’”
The Bulldogs fell just short of a state title that year, finishing as state runners-up in Class 5A. Despite that, his love for the team and the sport’s individualistic nature kept him on board. As he went through high school, his personal best came down to 15:37, which set last year at the Region 5-7A meet. Last season, the Atlanta Track Club selected him as an All-Metro team selection, and he helped the Bulldogs to a fifth-place team finish at last year’s state meet.
With some of last year’s top state finishers having graduated, the door appears to be open for Gizelbach to end his high school cross country career on top. The return of Harkabus and Condra give him clear rivals for the individual title, but Gizelbach has this season all mapped out already. He’s planning to place less emphasis on invitationals and hopes to peak around the end of the year.
“I'll get to race them two or three times before the state championship and I'll see where I'm at, but I'm not letting it get to me,” Gizelbach said. “We've got to run the race. There's a reason you run it and it's not based on what's on paper.”