It's an unspoken truth in cross country that every race isn't equal.
From runner to runner and course to course and event to event, variables are constantly evolving and the factors to win in each race are changing. That is especially true for high school athletes.
The Lake Wales (FL) High senior, who won the FSU Pre-State Invitational elite boys field in 15:29.20, flourished on a course that offered its fair share of fast terrain, sneaky drawbacks and one massive hill which ultimately broke quite a few runners.
Here's a step-by-step guide on how Stafford made it all work.
Step 1: Execute Position And Contain From The Start
The biggest mistake a high school athlete can make on the ARP course, which is home to Florida State University -- and it will host the 2021 NCAA Championships -- is to open beyond what their fitness level dictates.
The first mile of the ARP is sneaky dangerous. It's a net downhill grade and the first half-mile grabs you fast. Runners fly. On Saturday, Paul Stafford (far right) chose to stay within his race plan early on.
Step 2: Know When You're Approaching Key Sections
It's not uncommon for high school athletes to nail first mile times in the 4:45-4:50 range at the ARP, and in this case that happened.
The lead pack went into the first mile around 4:52-53, while Stafford logged a first mile time of 4:54.30.
But in this clip, we're at the 1500m mark, and the field is navigating the first sneaky section of the course. "The Dip" is subtle, but its quick decline and sharp ascent can force runners to bleed energy early on. It's what some describe as a "rhythm breaker."
Stafford enters the frame in sixth place, well aware that a pack-leading pace would not set a great precedent in the distance to come.
Step 3: Break The Field
Stafford knows full well 'The Wall' appears at a vulnerable moment.
It's right after the first mile and an extremely fast early pace has produced a confident early field. So this moment is crucial. Stafford is thinking about, as are all his competitors. Will your preseason training lead to gains? Will that mileage you slogged through over the offseason give you strength in this critical juncture? Will all those hills you've run to prepare for courses like this actually help?
Stafford takes the outside lane again and decides to find the answer to this question. He begins to nudge the field along ever so slightly, and now he's fully invested in taking command.
Step 4: Make Your Biggest Move
Once Stafford knew the race was for the taking, he decided to pounce and take over pacing duties from the front at about the 2K mark.
But he did so at a juncture where the race was turning back over to the fastest sections on the course. Stafford understood that to really make a big dent at the ARP, he needed to do so in the most ideal of scenarios. He decided to build his gap on pristinely rolled grass.
Step 5: HAMMER
When you are alone in a big race, YOU MUST HAMMER!
In the absence of practice -- or sometimes in replace of it -- coaches sometime use race efforts as VO2 Max training. Here, Stafford is focused, productive, and hitting the ground with purpose.
While the pace has slowed considerably behind him, he's still going for a big performance. He's just past the two-mile mark.
Step 6: Never Take Anything For Granted
You can do everything right and still fall apart in the final moments.
But Stafford doesn't, because he doesn't take 'The Wall' for granted the second time. He makes sure to roll up the incline with the same consistent pace he's been hammering at for some time now, and once he makes the turn to the final 300 meters, he takes one last look back to determine his position.
This is everything right in one small glimpse.
He doesn't step off the gas and he identifies his competition right before closing toward the finish. Every great runner needs to leave a little extra in the tank for the finish.
Stafford has done so, and now he can complete his race.
Step 7: Finish Fast, Close Hard, And CELEBRATE
When you've done everything you've trained for and executed to precision, there's only one thing you can do: CELEBRATE YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENT.
In this case, Stafford ends with an emphatic fist pump. And in reality, it's the biggest win on the senior's resume.
In about a month, the athlete will head back to the same course for the state championships and hope to repeat his dominating performance from FSU Pre-State.
All he needs to review are a few easy steps.
Watch the Full Elite Boys Race Here: