Kashon Harrison did something unusual when he crossed the line at the Foot Locker West Regional this past Saturday at the Mt. SAC Course in Walnut, California.
Instead of feeling euphoria or raising his hands in triumph after winning a regional championship and qualifying for Foot Locker Nationals for the first time his career, the Kirtland Central (NM) High junior turned his head to see how far his competition was behind him.
"When he feels ready, he can grind it out against the best," said Lenny Esson, who's coached Harrison since his 8th grade year. "That's part of his mantra; he's a big Prefontaine fan. He looks up to the quotes on how he ran and he likes to go out hard. That's something unique you don't get out of a kid often."
Harrison, who also won his first New Mexico Class 5A championship this season, crossed the line in 15:38.4, just three seconds ahead of Bellarmine College Prep (CA) senior Meika Beaudoin-rousseau. It came only a week after Harrison finished eighth at NXR Southwest, where he missed the qualifying cut for NXN by three places.
But Esson, who's in his fifth year leading Kirtland Central, said Harrison was planning for Foot Locker Nationals all along.
This might not be the end of Harrison's special season, either.
In November, the junior became the second member in his family to win a state cross country title in New Mexico. It came 18 years after his father, Vernon, won Kirtland Central's first state championship in 1999.
But Harrison will be the first in his family to go after a national title on Saturday at Balboa Park in San Diego. Can it be done?
Consider Timpview (UT) High senior Aidan Troutner's recent win at NXN. The BYU signee won NXR Southwest just two weeks before nationals and did so after coming from elevation.
It could be safe to assume that athletes who come from elevation might have an advantage dropping down to sea level. And that includes Harrison; Kirtland is at 5,200 feet. Along with that variable, Harrison also considers hills his strength.
While the junior doesn't have the resume of some athletes at Foot Locker Nationals -- nor the head-to-head matchups -- the athlete channels Steve Prefontaine often, and gets after races whether he's the favorite or not.
"A lot of our races here in New Mexico are above 5,000 elevation and close to 6,000," Esson said. "When you look at that, it shows we put the work in and we can go down to lower elevation and get some faster competition and are capable of running faster times."
Harrison has been impressive in 2017, too. He's run nine races over the the past three months, winning all but one contest -- NXR Southwest. His biggest win came at the Desert Twilight XC Festival in Arizona on September 29 in a career best 14:48.50.
And that was important, Esson said, because of what Kirtland had to give up to get there. The school, located in the upper northwest region of New Mexico, doesn't have many resources to travel out of state,. It had to give up another meet over the season to allow the varsity team to travel to Casa Grande, Arizona.
"We were thinking he could go somewhere in the 15:05 to 15:08 range," Esson said. "But to click off a 14:48 is amazing."
Esson said that meet also was key for Harrison to face larger competition. While Harrison faces solid talent in New Mexico, he's largely gone unbeaten in the state since his sophomore year -- he finished as a runner-up at state in 2016 because of bronchitis.
Harrison began running as an 8th grader, following in the footsteps of his father.
"I coached his father when he won a state championship," said Esson, who managed the workouts as an assistant for Kirtland Central from 1998-2000. "He had that experience going to local races as a kid."
As a 9th grader, Harrison was third at state and wore red face paint during the race, which he described at the time as "running warrior paint."
He's been battling, and concentrating solely on cross country and track and field, since then.
"When we got him as an 8th grader," Esson said. "We knew he would be special."
Following this season, Harrison will look to lower his track PRs under school records held by his father in the 1600m (4:22.48) and 3200m (9:32.75). That seems likely, considering the junior will transition off a breakthrough XC season and is just three and five seconds off, respectively, his father's best performances.
Harrison, though, is focusing on Foot Locker Nationals first.
And with the pride of New Mexico -- and his family -- on the line, expect him to get after it on Saturday in San Diego.
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