Some kids are born lucky. Earlier this year, 10-year-old Zander Black ran a 17-minute, 45-second 5K in Phoenix, a pace of about 5:40 per mile. Closer to home, 9-year-old Elizabeth Lucason of Holland Patent, near Utica, ran a 19:31 at the Festival of Races in Syracuse last month.
Joe Northup of Waterloo did not grow up a running prodigy — he didn’t even run. He was a baseball player. What he liked best about baseball was the rush of adrenaline he got from stealing a base. He decided in seventh grade to find out what would happen if he kept running instead of stopping. He joined Waterloo’s modified cross country team and ran his first race.
Northup has yet to stop.
Two Saturdays ago, Northup, now a junior, became the fourth Waterloo boy to win a Section V championship in cross country, joining Bill Irland (1945, Nick Carr 1996, ’97 and ’98) and Evan Trumble (2002). Northup claimed the title by clocking a 17:02 on a muddy 5K course at Genesee Community College in Batavia.
When he first started running, Northup wasn’t a natural. His times were good, not great. But, he always got faster.
All one has to do is look at his performances in the sectionals, run at the same course every year in Batavia.
With each passing year, Northup takes about a minute off his time. In eighth grade, he finished 71st with a time of 20:20. A year later, he was 54th with a time of 19:25. His sophomore year saw his biggest improvement, finishing sixth with a time of 17:59 and just missing qualifying for the state championship. The top five qualify; Northup missed fifth place by less than a second.
During his sophomore year, Northup won his first race, a Wayne-Finger Lakes league meet, and finished 10th in the Wayne-Finger Lakes League Championship. This fall, he took the top spot in four of the six league meets.
His real breakthrough was at last month’s league championship.
Waterloo boss Ed Courtney, who has been coaching the sport for 50 years, says Northup is one of the hardest-working kids he has coached. Northup, Courtney says, “will run as hard as he can, as long as he can.”
However, Courtney knew that Northup is one of those kids who, to reach his full potential, has to be reined in a bit. He did not want Northup to run harder. He wanted him to run smarter.
To get ready for the league championship, the coach told his runner to cut back on his running, train his mind on the race, and, when racing, save something for the end.
Northup, hoping for a top-three finish, listened. It is not easy for someone used to running 40 miles a week to slack off, but he tapered. When he arrived at the race course at Bullis Park in Macedon, he walked it start to finish, studying its nooks and crannies.
When the race started, Northup hung back with his main rivals, Harley/Allendale-Columbia’s Aamir Zain and East Rochester’s Jacob Hanss. As the trio headed toward the homestretch, Northup possessed the most speed of the three. His final kick beat Zain and Hanss by seven and 10 seconds, respectively. It was the first time Northup beat either of his peers.
Northup followed the same protocol a week later at the sectionals, although his racing was not as tactical. After spending an hour alone walking the course and visualizing his race, Northup went out a little faster than he did in Macedon. He didn’t have to worry about Zain or Hanss; they were running in another class (Waterloo was in Class C).
Northup concentrated on holding his speed and, by the second mile, as he crested a hill, held a sizable lead. Waterloo Athletic Director Jeff Panek used three words to describe the sight of watching Northup barreling down the muddy hill all alone.
“Awesome, just awesome,” Panek said.
Northup bested runner-up Martin Beadle of Holley by 20 seconds.
Northup called the league and sectional double “a dream come true.”
At the Saturday’s state championships, Northup rolled his ankle halfway through the race in Queensbury, but managed to finish 32nd in 16:49.
While cross country is Northup’s favorite sport, he also runs indoor and outdoor track and field; his best time in the mile is 4:40. You also see him at many of the local 5K races in Seneca Falls, Naples, Geneva and Waterloo.
Northup loves the freedom of running and testing his limits. The colder the weather, the better. His dedication wears off on his brother, Brandon, who also runs for Waterloo. Brandon, a freshman, placed fourth for Waterloo at the sectionals (40th overall) with a time of 19:00, about 30 seconds faster than his older brother’s time when he was a freshman.
Courtney credits Northup’s inner self-discipline for his success.
“Joe has an amazing ability to block out distractions,” Courtney described.
I saw this firsthand, but it had nothing to do with running. Northup told me that he changed his diet about a year ago, dropping from 140 to 130 pounds. This included cutting out all sweets. As he said this, there were, not more than 50 feet from him, three jars of candy sitting atop a mantle in his living room.
Joe Northup may not be one of those kids to whom running is the most natural thing in the world, but he’s got something just as good, if not better: Grit. It will serve him well in the future.
Scott Porter’s “Going the Distance” appears on the second and fourth Mondays each month in the Finger Lakes Times. Contact Porter with ideas and input at email@example.com.