Somewhere in the hills of Northern Arizona, Brian Shrader is running.
He's running because he has to. He's running because Sinagua (Flagstaff, Ariz.) head coach Bo Reed told him to run until he felt pain, and then start the workout. He's running because somewhere his competitors are running. He thinks about that for a moment. He picks up his pace.
Shrader is running because he's nervous. Expectations are high this season for the senior. He was the Gatorade State Boys' Cross Country Runner of the Year last fall after winning the Class 4A-II state title (the fastest and most competitive of the six state championship meets) and finishing 11th at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, second among underclassmen. Shrader is running because this season he's trying for a national title.
"This is a pretty different season for me," he says. "I'm a heavy favorite. I'm taking it a lot more seriously than I have in the past. I try to do every little thing as best as I can -- that might be the difference between first and second."
It's hard to believe it was just two years ago that Shrader picked up the sport of cross country. First he tried football as a freshman, but it didn't last long. "I realized you have to have muscles to play football," he jokes.
That spring, Shrader decided to compete for the track team, where his coach at the time had him run the 400- and 800-meter races. He liked the 800 and wanted to try longer distances, but he never got the chance. So at a Junior Olympic regional event over the summer, Shrader tried the mile on his own and finished well.
If I take this more seriously, he thought,
I wonder what I could do?
The next fall, Shrader was the state cross country champion, winning a battle with fellow sophomore Sherod Hardt of Queen Creek by 17 seconds. The following track season, coach Reed took the reins of the track and cross country programs.
"I was told I had a special kid," Reed says. "But he was doing stuff I had trouble doing as a collegian. I thought he was going to be good. He turned out to be great."
That could have been the end of it: a coach inheriting a supremely talented athlete and reaping the rewards. But Reed wasn't satisfied. He pushed Shrader to maximize his talent, developing specific workouts to push him "in the tank" -- to the brink of exhaustion -- before the workout really picks up.
"It's the mental aspect," Reed says. "The body is in pain and wants to shut down, but the mental side says no."
"He says he wants me to find the pain," Shrader says. "He says I'll like the pain. I don't know about that. But I'll get used to it."
Shrader has never worked so hard in his life as he has since beginning the new training regimen. But there's no doubt it's paid dividends. When a much deeper crowd of runners came to the state cross country meet last fall, Shrader was ready. The only thing left to battle was nerves. "I couldn't sleep," he says. "I kept visualizing the race over and over again, every possible scenario."
Hardt and Mingus then-senior Tim Freriks pushed the pace early, but it was Shrader who pulled away late for a five-second win in a blistering time of 15:15.
Reed and Shrader had accomplished their goal -- a second state title. But they hadn't planned any further than that.
Shrader went to the Foot Locker West Regional without a sound strategy. Not knowing how hard to run, he went for the win and ended up second, just four seconds behind then-senior Chris Schwartz of California. But the race took its toll.
One week later, at the national meet in San Diego, Shrader said his legs felt heavy and he could tell it wasn't going to be his day. But when he came off the last hill and heard how he was doing, he put his head down and ran hard, finishing 11th.
Don't expect a similar problem this year. Shrader's No. 1 goal is a third state title, but he plans to train in hopes of being in his best shape for the national race, though he stops short of expecting to win it.
"I don't want to put any more pressure on myself," he says. "I'd like to be a first team All-American (a top five finish). Anything more would be icing on the cake."
Reed acknowledges his runner's remarkable potential but knows his excellence goes far beyond his talent.
"Brian is the only guy I know of, boy or girl, who finishes the race and runs back onto the course to cheer on his teammates," the coach says. "Some races he doesn't run to win. He runs them to help out a teammate and pull him along. His presence inspires other runners to come out and run really well."
Northern Arizona is not known as a cross country hotbed, and Shrader enjoys being the region's poster athlete for success. But being nationally known is still a bit foreign to him.
At the Foot Locker national meet last year, Shrader checked into his hotel room and met his roommate, then-senior Andrew Berbick from Colorado. "Hey," Berbick exclaimed. "You're Brian Shrader! From Arizona!" The reaction surprised Shrader -- he didn't realize other athletes knew who he was.
Even now, having ascended to national prominence, he says he's not used to seeing his name on the same websites he used to look at when he first started running.
So he runs. He runs to live up to the hype. He runs for his teammates. He runs to keep pushing himself. He runs because the hills are steep, the roads are long and winding, and the pain is just a few more strides away.
Christopher Parish covers high school sports ESPN RISE Magazine.