Behind One Of The Most Incredible Seasons In Georgia History

* Marietta's Kamari Miller at the GHSA Class 7A Championships in November

Photo Credit: Marc Logan/Georgia MileSplit

"For me, I'm like obsessed with wanting to be the best. I have this addiction to be the best version of myself. I'm always trying to push myself to my limits, whether it's in school or running. You practice how you play. You train hard, you get results." -- Kamari Miller

By Cory Mull - MileSplit

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To explain the momentous jump Kamari Miller made this fall as an elite distance runner -- to explain perhaps the most obvious story of a national-level boys athlete doing-good on the hopes of a dream season -- you have to go back to the end of his junior cross country season.

There, you can begin to explain what cultivated his desire to be the best in 2020.

"I was getting beat by guys I beat my freshman or sophomore year," Miller said. "I was getting killed by all these top guys. I told myself, 'I know I can hang.'"

Being beaten so often a year ago -- and in the manner in which he did -- drove Miller to reevaluate just what he was doing in practice, and in competitions.

No longer was it acceptable just to get miles in. No longer was it OK just to hang in races.

Every practice needed to have a purpose. Every in-race move had to be an offensive. Miller was dedicated to single-handedly turning the clock.

"For me, I'm like obsessed with wanting to be the best," Miller said. "I have this addiction to be the best version of myself. I'm always trying to push myself to my limits, whether it's in school or running. You practice how you play. You train hard, you get results."

That tunnel vision ultimately served the 17-year-old Miller well, as he produced the best season of his career this fall -- and maybe one of the best in Georgia history -- by winning eight straight races before finishing fifth overall at the RunningLane National Cross Country Championships on Nov. 21 in a career best 5K time of 14:37.19.

Even better, Miller, a Syracuse University signee, won his first GHSA Class 7A title in 15:29.72, which was a new course record at Carrollton and surpassed the former record of 15:33.32, which Graham Blanks set in 2019.

Only three Georgia runners have run faster on the course in history.

Even sweeter, Marietta won its first state team title.

"I told them our senior year we would come out on top," he said. "It's something I'll never forget."

But in turning his last season around, one fact held true: He never forgot of those moments of failure. They were what continued to push him forward.

"I felt like I let my team down my junior year," Miller said. "And not only did I let myself down, but I let my team and everyone who supports us down."

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Miller isn't quite sure what exactly went wrong in the fall of 2019.

His mileage was up, and he was training with the same can-do attitude as usual.

But Marietta was also going through a facilities makeover, and something felt off -- like the gears couldn't change when he wanted them.

Perhaps while other Class of 2021 peers were making sea-change improvements -- runners like Sully Shelton and Justin Wachtel -- Miller felt like he was in neutral.

He won just one race over the entire season, doing so in August at the Berry Clara Bowl Invitational in 16:05.89.

He lost to Sully Shelton three times over the course of the Georgia season at Cobb County, Wingfoot XC and the Georgia High School XC Meet of Champions.

Miller wasn't even in the picture with the leaders at Great American.

"Junior year was tough," he said.

Three months later, though, it got tougher when the spring season was shut down due to concerns around the early stages of the pandemic.

"March 12, I was going to race the next day at the Big Orange Relays," Miller said. "It was one of the most competitive races in the Southeast."

It was here, though, when Miller made a critical decision.

His coach gave him two options: Shut it down and began to build back up for a redemption year of cross country, or keep training through and find internal competitions like time trials and VO2 max workouts to gauge his improvement.

"I told him, 'I'm treating this like a track year.'"

So Miller kept charging ahead.

Late in the spring, his confidence started to blossom.

Meeting in Atlanta near the Atlanta Track Club's downtown headquarters, he lined up for an elite 1,600m time trial featuring Georgia's top high schoolers.

Once again, Shelton and Wachtel were in the mix.

But that didn't shake Miller.

"It was something I had to do."

A fast early pace saw Shelton run confidently up front. But Miller didn't let him go. Toward the end, with everything all out on the table, it was a sprint to the line.

Shelton would end up winning in 4:14.10. But the Marietta athlete wasn't far behind in 4:14.4. Wachtel and a group of others would follow in 4:18 and on.

"That showed me something," Miller said.

If nothing else, it showed Miller that his junior year's struggles were just a blip.

"If I'm in this shape," Miller remembers thinking, "I know I can open up with something huge."

Successful training looks different for everyone.

While Miller is taller and longer than most, he's got an easiness to his cadence, and a soft strike on the ground. Added mileage wasn't hard to add on. It ultimately made a difference.

Over the summer, he averaged in the 70s, with tempo runs building his fitness throughout the weeks.

Miller said his favorite workouts ultimately became tempo runs and five to six mile repeats at 85-percent effort with short rest.

He'd always cut down his repeats, usually starting at 5:10 and ending with a fast one around 4:55 or 4:50.

"A lot of times I ran faster and it felt comfortable without even trying," he said.

Two weeks before he went into his first race, a 3-mile effort at Bob Blastow in August, he ran a two-mile time trial in 9:13.

That was good enough evidence that he was ready to roll, he thought.

"If I'm in this shape," Miller remembers thinking, "I know I can open up with something huge."

And then he did.

Miller's win at the 3-mile Blastow race was so dominant, in fact, that it almost seemed shocking, maybe even incorrect. He beat Shelton by 44 seconds.

"I was like Wow," Miller said. "I didn't know I would run something crazy like that, but I was happy. I wasn't dying afterward, either. I could still walk and I felt good."

An ongoing theme throughout 2020, though, would be whether Miller would replicate that success elsewhere, and against Georgia's toughest competition.

He ultimately did.

In early September, he beat Shelton again at Cobb County, then he took down Cooper Bocko and Shelton on the state meet course just a week later.

By October, while Miller was revealing himself as an out-and-out revelation, there were still a few skeptics that weren't sure whether he was legit.

But at the Alexander/Asics Invitational, he tried to silence them the best he could. The week of the race, he committed privately, and then publicly, to Syracuse University -- joining a program, he said, that had a strong tradition of success.

Following that life-changing move, confidence seemed to follow. He dropped his first sub-15 minute 5K of the season in 14:55.02.

He made a devastating move at mile two that the field couldn't ultimately keep up with.

This time, Miller downed South Carolina's Sam Rich, Alabama's Woodrow Dean and Georgia standouts Andrew Jones and Justin Wachtel.

Finally, Miller thought, he felt he was beginning to prove himself.

But again, he still felt slightly discounted.

"I heard, 'Who is this new guy? Did Justin have a bad day?' I heard a lot of coaches say things like that," Miller remembered. "But that got me mad. They still didn't believe I was coming.

"And then Coach Wood happened," he continued. "I wanted to make a statement there."

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Miller's performance at the Coach Wood Invitational on Oct. 17 officially put him on the map as Georgia's frontrunner for Runner of the Year.

He dropped a then-season and state-leading time of 14:51.22, and once again defeated Wachtel in the process.

This field, however, was Miller's most distinguished, with Miles Alley, Cooper Atkins, Shelton, Jones, Jackson Danner and Noah Ward all in the championship section.

By then, Miller changed his focus.

"My next goal was to break the state record," he said.

In the lead up to the race, Miller tried to shake off any disappointments of the last year. He wanted to execute the best race of his season at Carrollton.

"I wanted to leave my high school running career with people saying Kamari was one of the best to run," he said. "I went into state with a clear mind and focused on my splits. I wanted to conquer and push through the pain."

A fast start made for a surprising first mile: Miller was through the mile split in 4:39.

"Everyone was screaming and cheering," Miller said.

After hitting the second mile in 9:40, he started to fall off the pace at 2.5.

"From there, I kind of gave it everything I got," he said. "I was practically sprinting."

You know those scenes in movies, where memories flash in front of the protagonist, right before a critical moment takes place?

"I wanted to leave my high school running career with people saying Kamari was one of the best to run," he said. "I went into state with a clear mind and focused on my splits. I wanted to conquer and push through the pain."

Didn't happen quite like that.

But there was definitely some nostalgia happening after his win.

"I was going through it," Miller said.

Midway through an interview, his teammates broke it up to announce, 'Kamari, we won state!'

"From there, I broke down," he said.

Tears would truly begin to tell his story from disappointment to full-on success.

While other things were harder to truly understand, with the entire year a constant circus of new worries to think about, few things truly represented his final declarative moment much like this state championship did.

"It was a minor setback for a major comeback," he said.

Coda: Miller would go on to race at the RunningLane XC National Championships in Huntsville, Alabama, on Nov. 21. A stellar race put together in haste by organizers in Alabama, it would ultimately serve as a quasi-replacement for Foot Locker Nationals, which canceled in October and forced national-level athletes to pick a particular postseason race of choice -- and many were available, including ones in Indiana, Florida, New Jersey, Texas and New York. Miller went on to make a major move early on, leading for wide swaths of the race before being passed late and finishing in fifth in 14:37.19, a new career PR for 5K. It wasn't a disappointment. "This race to me," Miller said, "it was a chance to prove myself amongst national competition and show that I can hang and compete with the best guys in the country. This race really meant a lot to me. I came in here with a positive mindset and just ready to compete." Miller finished the season ranked No. 4 in the MileSplit50 national cross country rankings.