Lessons Have Taught Riku Sugie To Dig In When The Race Comes

* Riku Sugie is a two-time cross country champion hailing from Kentucky

Photo Credit: Jennifer Schoenegge

"Now I know: If I can compete with the nation's best, that fast time will come. So I'm not going to be thinking too much about time. I want to stick in that front pack and compete."

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By Cory Mull - MileSplit

Riku Sugie learned an important lesson last year at the RunningLane Cross Country Championships. 

By then, he was a first-time state champion and had come up just short of his goal of qualifying for Foot Locker Nationals by a mere two places.

A part of him got swept up by the idea of running fast in his last cross country race as a junior. He knew that it was possible. The year before, on a perfect day, the Thomas Nelson (KY) junior had run a personal best at John Hunt Park. 

But 2022 was different. Sugie struggled, sunk into the field and ultimately lumbered across the line in 55th-place, clocking a time of 15:52.50, his second-worst performance of the season. 

"It definitely got me mentally," Sugie said. "I was expecting it to be a fast race, like the prior years, and that really didn't go as planned. So that race was the turning point for me. I had to change my mindset going into races and meets." 

He did that, and then some, over the outdoor season, destroying competitors in Kentucky en route to 14 wins across the 800m, 1,600m and 3,200m. Sugie ran personal bests of 4:12.06 in the mile, 4:15.90 in the 1,600m and a season-best of 9:15.38 in the 3,200m. He won two more state titles outdoors. 

"Basically now, when I go into meets, I am thinking about things differently," he said. "Instead of thinking of splits or time goals, I'm thinking, 'What am I going to have to do when this moment happens, or when that move takes place?' I made sure to react during races. I wasn't afraid to take the lead if I had to." 

Sugie, 17, is now a runner reborn.

The son of an engineer and a nutritionist, he was born in Japan. His father's job took him to the U.S. when he was three, then there were pitstops in New Jersey and Indiana. Sugie's been in Bardstown, Kentucky, roughly 40 miles south of Louisville, for the last 10 years. 

Here in the Blue Grass State, Sugie, nicknamed 'Ricky' by his peers, has developed into one of Kentucky's best. 

"I started running my sixth grade track season," He said. "My friends kind of asked me to try it out. Ever since then, I've been running." 

Photo Credit: Jennifer Schoenegge/Kentucky MileSplit

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What's also helped has been opportunity. In Kentucky, middle-schoolers are qualified to compete at the highest levels, even the state championships.

Sugie ran in his first state championship as a seventh-grader in 2019, finishing 146th. The next year, he was 50th. His freshman season, he was fifth. 

And so, improvement has been the name of the game. But Sugie has also seen Thomas Nelson High School evolve as a track program. The school opened in 2012 -- though its first graduating class was in 2014 -- so its athletic programs haven't always been among the best in the state. 

Sugie thinks that's changing, though. Two years ago, the school had its first star, Lane Hoyes.

Hoyes broke the state record for 5,000 meters outdoors, clocking a time of 14:33.68 in 2022. He also holds the 1,600m (4:15.85), mile (4:11.04) and 3,200m (8:53.45) marks. 

But Sugie broke his 800m record last year, clocking a 1:59.03. He's got two more seasons to go after the 1,600m, mile and the 3,200m marks. After Sugie, more athletes might continue to lower those times -- "we have a really talented eighth-grader coming next year," he says. 

What's building his confidence right now, however, is his success.



The deadline to enter is Nov. 26


Photo Credit: Jennifer Schoenegge/Kentucky MileSplit

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In September, Sugie broke 15 minutes for the first time in his career, logging a fourth-place finish in a loaded Trinity/Valkyrie Invitational race. He finished in 14:51.92. 

"I was able to stay in it mentally," he said. "even when the front pack got away. I was able to stay in a position where I saw some the whole race." 

This past week, Sugie converted on his second straight Kentucky 2A title in cross country. He ran 15:40.02 and held off Brendan Nagle, who was on his shoulder for much of the race. 

With that behind him now, the next targets will be much bigger. 

Sugie has his sights on two things to end the season: Qualifying for Foot Locker Nationals, and giving the RunningLane XC Championships a much better run this time around. 

If all goes well, it will be his penultimate race of the season. 

"I just want to be able to compete with some of the nation's top runners," he said. "I've experienced a fast race and a slow race. One big difference this year, though, is my mindset. Last year I was trying to hit the sub-15 mark. I was thinking too much about time and not competing. 

"Now I know: If I can compete with the nation's best, that fast time will come. So I'm not going to be thinking too much about time. I want to stick in that front pack and compete." 

Related Links: 

The RunningLane Cross Country Championships