"Race for the win. That's my plan."
That's what Sherwood's James Crabtree told me in the wake of his Pacific Conference Cross Country Championship win and a week prior to the Oregon 6A State Cross Country Championships at Lane Community College in Eugene.
And it worked.
Crabtree won the 5K event in a time of 15:04.5, narrowly besting Franklin's Charlie North. But while confident in his ability, with expectations to match, even the accomplished Bowmen senior was taken by the moment days after when the reality of his win hit home.
"I'm still in disbelief that I won the race," he said. "I was just so happy we had a state meet this year, that winning the thing wasn't even in my mind at the start of the season."
Crabtree was part of a dynamic Sherwood duo that included fellow senior Jeffery Rogers who finished second to his teammate at the Pacific Conference Championships and 10th at the state meet. Their coach, Tyrone Stammers, said the two train religiously together, but while competitive, it's a healthy competition that benefitted both throughout their high school cross country career.
"They're competitive, but there's nothing malicious about it," Stammers said. "They obviously want to win the race, but they're happy when their teammate is successful too because I think they realize that having quality athletes around you only makes you better."
Crabtree agreed with his coach's sentiment and attributed much of his success to Rogers.
"We really push each other because we've been running together for so long now, and I think that without Jeff I probably wouldn't be as good as I am right now," Crabtree said. "We made a mutual decision to really step up our game this past year and I think we've seen the results."
Crabtree â€“ while running a bit prior to high school â€“ said he didn't take the sport seriously until his freshman year, and it wasn't until a race earlier this past season that he truly saw his potential.
At the Nike Hole In The Wall XC Invitational in Lakewood, Wash., he dominated the field, winning the star-studded event by nearly 10 seconds and running a course record and personal best time of 14:45.5. Crabtree said it was in the wake of that result that his eyes opened a bit to just how good he could be, along with what he might be able to accomplish going forward.
"It was definitely a breakthrough for me because I didn't think I was that fit, honestly," he said. "But I ran a time that I didn't think was possible for me, which was exciting."
Stammers agreed that he believed a light went on after that race, giving Crabtree the confidence he ultimately needed as he progressed through the Oregon high school season.
"I think that was kind of an 'a ha' moment for him," the coach said. "I think it showed him that he was one of the top runners in the region and that he could compete with anyone."
Running distance isn't easy and running cross country may be even more difficult because of the "quiet" nature of the competition. There often aren't fans to cheer you on, courses often wind through trees and/or far-removed natural areas, and runners can find themselves alone to fight the mental and physical demons that endurance athletes inevitably face. Crabtree said that as part of his competitive maturation, he's learned to embrace those moments in the interest of optimizing his performance.
"I have those moments all the time in races when I just have to accept that it's going to hurt," he said. "I think the more I race, the more comfortable I get in those spots. It's really just pain management."
Since his state championship run, Crabtree placed fourth at an elite northwest showcase on that same Lakewood, Wash., course. He said he was still unsure of where he planned to both study and compete collegiately, but that he had heard from a handful of interested schools and was excited by the prospect of what might be next â€“ wherever and whatever that might be.
"I've been on a couple official visits, but nothing is set in stone for me yet," Crabtree said. "I thought about studying architecture, but that could change. We'll see what happens."
And whatever that might be, Stammers is confident in both Crabtree the athlete and the young man.
"He's stayed healthy, been committed and maintained a high academic standard," the coach said. "Nothing he's done has been surprising, and I expect more success for him going forward."
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