James Donahue Is The Superstar You're Not Talking About

* James Donahue is given his introduction at the RunningLane Track Championships in '21

Photo Credit: Chris Wells/MileSplit

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"I've never been more hungry than that. I've done everything I can this winter to be the best athlete I can be."

By Brett Haffner - MileSplit Correspondent

    Running 4:02 in the mile as a high schooler is an achievement that should catch the eyes of the watchful distance running community. 

    However, in this era of powerhouse talents in boys high school distance running -- with athletes such as Colin Sahlman, Leo and Lex Young, Gary Martin, Gavin Sherry and Zane Bergen -- some miraculous performers are going to fly well under the radar. 

    Enter James Donahue, a senior from Belmont, Massachusetts. He ran 4:02 not just once but twice during the 2022 indoor season, finishing third in the star-studded New Balance Nationals mile behind Martin and Bergen. He was second to Sherry at the Millrose Games high school mile. 

    But even with performances like that under his belt, why isn't Donahue a name we've all come to know in the distance running community? 

    As he put it himself: "Many of the meets in my league are very low-key and not highly covered," Donahue said. "People don't really follow my league compared to the rest of the state." 

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    That's going to change at the RunningLane Track Championships. The Belmont Hill School senior and University of Virginia recruit heads into a star-studded boys mile field from May 27-28 in Huntsville, Alabama, with the chance to ...maybe break four

    Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. This story began long before Donahue's final few races in a high school jersey .

    Donahue runs for the Belmont Hill School, which competes in the Independent School League (ISL) in Massachusetts. Since they are an independently-run association, it does not compete in the MIAA state series like the rest of Massachusetts. 

    As a result, Donahue has found himself running many meets in the ISL solo, or even treating them as workouts, mainly due to the lack of national-level competition. 

    "Since my training is geared towards the postseason invites, I've been doing some of the ISL meets as workouts," Donahue said. "This past weekend I tripled in the 800m, 1,500m and 3,000m to help my team win [at the ISL Championship Meet]."

    You heard that right: the ISL is one of the rare leagues in the country that actually contest the metric distance races of the 1,500m and 3,000m. 

    Even though it's a little bit of an adjustment for Donahue to go back to the 1,600/mile or 3,200/2-mile for invitational races, his performances have clearly shown that his racing prowess shows no bounds for various race distances.

    He currently ranks U.S. No. 2 in the 1,500m with a time of 3:51.59, which he produced at the ISL Championship Meet -- a full 10 seconds in front of the second-place athlete. He's also run a top 100 time of 8:42.37 in the 3K -- but again, that was likely a workout, as he was 18 seconds faster than second-place. 

    Donahue has even run a U.S. No. 8 time of 14:40.35 in the 5K, has gone under 1:52 twice in the 800m and has split 49.75 in the open 400m. He's about as versatile as it comes. 

    His experience at those distances ultimately may help him transition quicker to the NCAA next year with Virginia. 

    But while he doesn't get much coverage or attention from his smaller meets in the ISL, ironically enough it was a small meet that caught the eye of Vin Lananna, the director of track and field at Virginia -- and long considered one of the fore-bearers of distance running development at the University of Stanford and Oregon.

    "Vin saw a video of me running a solo 1:52 at my home track," Donahue said. "He picked up on my potential from watching me run and my mechanics. And the rest is history."

    * Donahue's 4:02 mile indoors at Boston University

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    Ultimately, it was the power of a small meet that would start Donahue's journey to college.

    From that small sample size, it would lead him to ultimately commit to the University of Virginia to run under Lananna and Trevor Dunbar, the assistant coach of distance running with the Cavaliers. 

    As a special bonus, he'll be teammates with Martin, the recently-minted 14th athlete to break four minutes in the mile, and one of the country's breakout stars of the 2022 season. Martin also signed with the Cavaliers. 

    "I talked to Trevor Dunbar and Vin and right off the bat I liked the vision of the program," Donahue said. "Having those guys believing in me sparked the fire in me to get jump started with them. Coach Vin can get me to where I want to go in the sport, which is the highest level."

    "Vin saw a video of me running a solo 1:52 at my home track," Donahue said. "He picked up on my potential from watching me run and my mechanics. And the rest is history."

    As Donahue navigates the remainder of his high school career, he's earned high praise from Lananna for one particular aspect: Writing his own training.

    "I've been making my own training from what I've learned all throughout high school," Donahue said. "Since I'd be solo anyways for my workouts, I've learned exactly what I need when it comes to workouts."

    Compounded with that impressive facet, Donahue also was on the Nordic Ski team at Belmont Hill, which practiced nearly all the way up to New Balance Nationals during the indoor season.

    "I use Nordic skiing as a way to cross train for running," Donahue said. "It helped me mentally build fitness in a new and gritty way. I made sure to still do my track workouts, tempo runs, and long run as well, in addition to the nordic training."

    When not at Nordic skiing practice, Donahue would drive to Harvard or Boston University to get in track workouts, having to modify his schedule in a big way to fit all of his training in.

    Now, when you consider Donahue wrote his own training and was a dual-sport athlete throughout the winter, you have to give him credit: He really had his work cut out for him.

    Nevertheless, his success on the track in 2022 can be attributed to perseverance through many trials and tribulations. Still, he's crossed any bumps he's encountered along the way. 

    "I didn't have the cross country season I wanted, missing qualifying for Eastbay Nationals," Donahue said. "It just wasn't my day, but I've never been more hungry than that. I've done everything I can this winter to be the best athlete I can be."

    And so here with area.

    Just a few months later, Donahue's hard work, perseverance, and grit has transformed him into a whole different kind of athlete -- one who can compete against the nation's best.

    At the RunningLane Track Championships, Donahue will get his first chance to show the high school track and field community just what he's made of this outdoor season. 

    It will be his second appearance at the championships, which began last year for the first time. There, Donahue finished third in the mile with a time of 4:09.50. 

    Will this finally be his singular moment? 

    We're about to find out. 

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