Paul Stafford remembers feeling like he was in over his head the last time he was on the Apalachee Regional Park course in Tallahassee, Florida.
At the time, it was juxtaposed with fear. Would he finish his junior season at state with the worst finish of his season?
There was a sense of panic, of nervousness, of defeatism, and it began to creep into his every thought. He knew he had fallen out of the most important meet of the year. He finished 37th overall.
"Basically, it was like I just climbed a mountain all season, I kept winning and then when I didn't reach the mountaintop, I fell off the edge," Stafford said. "So, yeah, that's how I looked at it."
Fast forward to 2017. He currently owns the fourth-fastest time in Florida with a mark of 15:28.90, and recently came away with a big win over Jacksonville Bolles School junior Charles Hicks at the Katie Caples Invitational on September 23.
"I almost took a wrong turn, but I got back on the course," Stafford said. "I think I ran a little extra distance, but I was proud of the result."
It's funny how failure creates motivation. Stafford is now back near the mountaintop as he heads back to Tallahassee on Saturday in the elite boys race of the FSU Pre-State Invitational.
"As far as entering the race, I wanted to run a meet with strong competition," he said. "And I also want to get another experience on the state course. So this kind of worked out."
If there's any differences between where Stafford finished his junior cross country season and where he's at now, it's in his legs.
Once that disappointment at state washed away, he began planning for the next year. He worked through the track season, in which he ran a PR of 4:20.93 in the 1600m and finished third at state. He also pushed for a fifth-place finish in the 3200m in 9:29.62.
Much of his training plan centered around that work in the 3200m. So the PB in the 1600m, he said, was the icing on the cake.
"I wasn't strong enough last year," Stafford said. "So ever since November of last year, we've been building. The track season was important for that. And that's what's great, we had a full year of XC and track to get better."
Stafford went from a peak of 55 miles in his junior season, he estimates, to roughly mileage in the 65-75 range now.
And if there's any one trick that's helped strengthen his overall mentality and physical ability, it's in the hills of Lake Wales.
That's right. According to Stafford, Florida has hills.
"All I can say is tell you is that I did a long run Sunday night, 15 miles, and I got over 500 feet of elevation in Babson Park," Stafford said. "It's not like there are crazy hills. But my area is the best in the state in hill running, if there's any place."
Stafford has been pretty consistent thus far, winning meets at the Jim Ryun Invitational on August 26 in 15:54.80 and at the George Whitmire Classic on September 2. In the latter race he set his career PB.
"We've gotten stronger," Stafford said. "My coach and I am are working through the right plan, not doing too much or too little."
Not surprisingly, though, Stafford's goals are much higher this year.
Not only does he want to win his first championship in Class 2A, but he has set his sights on qualifying for Foot Locker Nationals.
And there's a time goal, too.
"We set three main goals at the beginning of the season," he said. "And one of of them was to run under 15:10 and possibly sub-15. The other goal was to win a state title. Third and final ultimate goal was to qualify for Foot Locker Nationals. Those are three things."
Stafford certainly still has room to grow, but his improving resume is also starting to put him on the recruiting board of potential Division I programs.
The process toward deciding on a college isn't finalized yet, but the Lake Wales senior would like to visit Florida State. Other potential suitors may come calling if the talent continues to race even better in the ensuing months.
"After what happened with my junior season, it was kind of a setback on the process," he said. "I felt like I couldn't showcase all that I had to offer. I just want to get through the season and ultimately I want to show that I have to offer. I feel like I can do better."
Perhaps his redemption will begin at the FSU Pre-State Invitational on Saturday.