Feb. 19, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. -
Thomas Graham can't wait to put on USA gear for the first time.
The Stanford freshman is preparing for the IAAF World Junior Men’s Cross Country Championship in Bydgoszcz, Poland, on March 24, after having finished fifth in the U.S. junior nationals in St. Louis on Feb. 2. Graham, 18, clocked 24:52.2 on the 8-kilometer (4.97-mile) course at Forest Park to earn the spot and joins former Stanford stars Chris Derrick and Elliot Heath at the meet.
Derrick, the U.S. champion, and Heath will run in the senior race over 12K (7.46 miles), and Graham will run 8K.
Graham, from Raleigh, was the first four-time state cross country champion in North Carolina history. He also won five track and field state championships, recorded the 15th-fastest high school 5,000-meter time in U.S. history (14:11.66), and is regarded as the greatest high school male cross-country runner North Carolina has ever produced.
Graham competed in two meets for Stanford during the cross-country season while on the fringe of the top seven, and is redshirting the indoor and outdoor track seasons, but is on track for an outstanding collegiate career.
Q: Was top six a legitimate goal for you at nationals?
A: Based on results from races against guys who I competed against in national meets while in high school, I felt like I should be top six, but I tried not to go in with that mindset.
I was pretty nervous. It’s always hard at qualifying meets because it’s do or die. It’ll be better at worlds because that’s not a really pressure situation. Just stick your nose in and try to do as well as you can.
I was a little disappointed with the result. I thought that there were some things in the race I could have done a little bit better. Maybe I could have won or come in second.
Q: It was a pretty tight finish, with runners from second through sixth finishing within 1.4 seconds of each other?
A: I was never really in danger of not qualifying, because the race only broke open with about 800 meters to go, and only six of us actually broke away. So, coming up the stretch, I knew that I was on the team. It was just a matter of how many of those guys I could beat.
It was a really good learning experience, especially coming in to big track races in the next couple of years. I never led the race, which is a bad thing to do in qualifying races generally, because you don’t have as much control over what happens, but I was always right there in the front, kind of like breaking the wind for other guys and not conserving energy as well as I could have.
All the other guys that ended up finishing right in front of me were sitting somewhere between 10th to 15th place for most of the race. So, I think they did a lot better job of conserving energy in the end. Those couple tenths of a second cost me, and probably correlated with the amount of energy they saved and I didn’t.
It was really good to make the team – I’m happy about that – but it’s not like an end-all be-all type of thing. Especially because it’s just my freshman year and I have so much down the road.
Q: It’s tough to crack the Stanford top seven. And when you’re not racing that often, how do you stay sharp?
A: In practice, our workouts are generally a lot harder than we did in high school. So, if you’re running with your workout group and running the paces you’re given in practice, you’re going to be very sharp.
I did a 3,000-meter tuneup in Seattle (finishing 10th in the invitational section of the indoor UW Invitational on Jan. 26, in a fast 8:09.68). It was against lot of guys who had run better times than me, but it was good to stick your nose in there and work on racing tactics, preserving energy, and then competing hard to the end. I was really happy with the result. If you compare it to two-mile times I’ve run in the past, it was a PR.
Q: Are you doing your own workouts because your goals are different than your teammates?
A: Not really. Actually, not at all. I work with the guys who are going to run the 5K for us. I haven’t actually had to do any workouts on my own. It’s nice.
Q: Is that going to change in the next few weeks?
A: I’m not actually sure. I’m going to have to sit down with Coach (Chris Miltenberg) and talk about what we’re going to actually do. I think it’ll be a little bit different, but our focus is on outdoors. The indoor season is going to continue to be a strength-base building sort of period. So, even those guys who are getting ready to run nationals indoors will still be doing a lot of strength-oriented work, which is what you need for cross country. So, I probably won’t be working on my own too much.
Q: Have you ever worn a U.S. singlet before?
A: No, I’m really excited. I filled out the form today. Apparently, I’m going to be getting a nice box of USA gear, and there’s so much stuff in there. It’ll be cool.
When I came to Stanford, it was a lot different putting on that jersey. You get a sense that it means a lot more than putting on your high school’s jersey because there’s more tradition behind it. I think it’ll be magnified wearing this jersey.
Q: What’s it like to have won numerous state championships and then come here where so many others have done the same thing?
A: It’s awesome. That was one of the big selling points of Stanford as opposed to going to a smaller school where you come in as the No. 1 or No. 2 guy. I wanted to get my butt kicked for a couple of years. I get dropped in workouts – not too much, but usually on the last one. We have really good guys on the team right now. That was a big draw for me, just coming in and running with these guys.
I remember, when I was a freshman in high school, that was a big thing, trying to keep up with the older guys. So, it’s the exact same thing now. Plus, when you’re in a group of people, you generally push yourself as a group to run a lot faster. You can do more work without feeling like you’re doing more work, which is really cool.
Q: Are you going to run in the outdoor season?
A: No, I think I’m going to redshirt outdoors also, just because I think in the long run, I’ll be a 5K-10K guy and just another year of strength helps a lot in order to be competitive in that.
Q: The 5,000 may have been your best race last year – you were running some really good times at that distance.
A: Yeah, I think that helped me compete. Running a couple of 5K’s in collegiate races helped me to be able to compete better in high school championship races.
The good thing about redshirting at Stanford is you get to run the Stanford Invite and Payton Jordan still, which everybody comes to run good times anyways. You can just walk over from your dorm to run unattached.
Q: On a questionnaire, you wrote that you wanted to become a park ranger someday?
A: I thought that would be a pretty cool career. I like being outside a lot. I don’t know, I worked in a doctor’s office over the summer a little bit and I just dreaded going every day. So, I feel like I’d rather do something active outdoors rather than just being in an office. I’m not sure, I just kind of put it down.
Q: Are you more of trail runner?
A: I like running on trails a lot. I’m from Raleigh, North Carolina. There’s an awesome park there called Umstead Park. Umstead is awesome to go running. It’s not super practical to do workouts, but I do all my easy runs on those trails because it’s cool to be lost in the woods. That was definitely the original draw of running for me.
Here, I really like running in the neighborhoods in Los Altos Hills, because they have the soft-surface trails next to the roads, so you’re not on pavement the whole time. That’s actually where we ran today. It sucks because all the really nice parks are just far enough away that you can’t quite run there without driving.
Have you ever been to Foothills Park? It’s actually not all that great for running because it’s all uphill, but the views are so cool. Also, the bridges got so wet that the last time I was there, I fell on, like, three different bridges. I was just trying to baby step and still fell.
Q: Is there anything you’ve gotten from Coach Milt, maybe an emphasis on something that he’s pushed you toward, or something that’s been really beneficial to you?
A: He’s emphasized two things that have really helped me out. The first is that you’re always in a race to compete and to stick your nose in it no matter who you’re running against. You want to hang in there as long as you can. You want to be there with a lap to go.
You want to be up there with the people you want to beat, whether or not you’re fit enough to be able to beat them in that last little bit. But you want to always put yourself in position to compete, because then times and places will take care of themselves as long as you’re up in the race, which is cool because then you have fewer things to focus on.
It’s a more all-encompassing thing to focus on, being at all times present during the race. And I think it’s really cool to have someone just tell you, this is what you need to do, you need to be up there. You need to be in tow and whether or not you’re going to be able to beat those people right now, you’re going to beat them once you get enough fitness.
Another thing we do in training is that a lot of stuff is progressive. So, in high school, I guess a lot of times you’d run 10 quarters in the best average you could. But we generally start slow and we progress and almost always finish in mile pace, which you try and do in races. And I think that’s helped out a lot too.
Another thing is most of our training is strength-oriented because if you’re strong enough, once you get in a race, no matter how the race plays out – whether it’s a from-the-gun type of race, or a sit-and-kick race – if you’re strong enough, you’re going to be able to adapt and handle any kind of situation. You’ll be confident that you can be in there or hang around and finish well if you need to, or run away early if you need to.
Q: When you go to Poland, will you take a week of school?
A: I’m not actually sure how it’s going to work. As far as I know, the trip will overlap with finals week. But I hope they can make accommodations for that. I’m sure it will work out in some way or another, whether I’ll have to leave late and take exams or I can take them on the road.
I have some other friends who have made worlds and done the trip – in particular a runner from N.C. State named Andrew Colley (a two-time All-America from North Carolina State) – and he said the experience was awesome. It’s really cool competing against people who, first of all, are from other countries and as good as you are, but also way better than you.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics