For the cross-country runner, time can seem like the singular source of validation, a statistic on the surface devoid of any context, but Tyler Fox and his teammates sat in the shade on Lambert High School’s track at practice Monday learning otherwise.
Time was dwindling for Lambert’s promising season. It had already been filled with myriad successes. The Longhorns won multiple meets during the regular season and captured its second straight area championship. All that remained was the Class 7A state championship meet Friday, a race unlike any other both in pressure and procedure.
So Lambert head coach James Tigue talked through the strategy of the meet with Fox and his teammates. They listened as he pointed out opposing runners from Brookwood, Marietta and Milton by name. They listened as he asked them not to calculate their individual runs by minutes and seconds but by the number of opposing runners between them and the finish line.
“If you don’t think you’re a top-10 caliber runner, you’re wrong,” Tigue said.
“If you guys want it, you have the opportunity to run and earn it,” Tigue said.
“You don’t know what next year’s gonna be like,” Tigue said.
Fox could relate. Three years ago, he joined the Longhorns’ boys cross country team out of obligation. He played baseball and basketball then, and his parents told him to run cross country with his sister, Abby, to stay in shape.
Now, the junior is one of the top runners on one of the top teams in the state with a reputation for big performances when the stakes are the highest.
“I never thought about running,” Fox said. “My parents made me do it to get in shape for basketball. And it kind of went from there.”
The stakes won’t be any higher than Friday at the state meet. Lambert is among three or four teams with a realistic chance to contend for the Class 7A team championship, new territory for the young Longhorns program. They’re coming off a school-best fifth-place finish at last season’s state meet.
Fox served notice he’ll be a factor after placing third at the Area 3/4-7A championship this past Saturday in a season-best time of 15 minutes, 49 seconds.
“He looked like a different runner,” Tigue said. “His whole demeanor – he took off, he was one of the leaders in the race, and he didn’t fold.”
Fox doesn’t seem to be fazed by much. Tigue says the junior’s “poker face” is legendary on the team, that “you don’t know if he’s hurting. He won’t complain. He just comes in, and it’s all about getting better and competing.”
So it was hard to tell if he’d be fazed by his initiation to cross country three years ago. The only sports he’d competed in since he was 5 years old were baseball and basketball.
But he came out of his first summer workout with the Longhorns unmoved.
“It wasn’t terrible,” he said.
And it was hard to tell if he’d be fazed by his first varsity race, how he’d react to being in the swarm of runners.
But he finished 25th out of 140 runners at the Bob Blastow Early Bird meet in 2014 in 17:08, the second fastest time by a freshman and third on the team.
“I loved it,” Fox said, “and I wanted to do it again.”
So there was no question whether he’d be fazed by Lambert’s workouts the following summer, the running six days a week, sometimes as much as 10 miles a day at a race-like pace.
“A lot more work put in to it,” Fox said, “because I knew I wanted to do this now.”
Fox wasn’t even fazed by an ankle injury early this season that forced him to miss two races.
“He doesn’t sweat the small stuff,” Tigue said. “He understands that he doesn’t have to win the workout to win the race. He understands that it’s the cumulative effect of running every day that actually pays off.”
Maybe it will pay off Friday at the state meet. Fox knows there will be a point in the race where his body will tell his mind, ‘No more.’ He says those thoughts arise every race.
But it doesn’t faze Fox.
“You just have to put those to the side and push through it,” Fox said. “[Races are] not fun to do, but when you finish it feels good.”