BIDDEFORD – Chris Walton learned a great deal during his freshman cross country season last fall.
In most races, the Biddeford High runner would start hard the first mile, then slowed down in the middle of the race to save a finishing sprint for the end. The unfamiliarity of racing the distance of typical high school races led to some inconsistent results.
This season, though, the sophomore has developed a steady racing style. The strategy has paid off so far.
“Learning how to race has been the biggest thing,” said Biddeford cross country coach Chris Quint. “So what we’ve really tried to focus on is getting him more consistent.”
Developing that consistency has ascended Walton near the top of the SMAA conference. Walton boasts a season best of 16 minutes, 27.69 seconds for 5-kilometers, which is the ninth fastest time in the conference, and he appears headed to a high finish at the Class A championships in November.
Not bad for a runner who didn’t qualify for the meet last year.
“One thing I’m doing more this year is using my strength in the middle of the race,” Walton said. “I still have a really good kick, so I still use that.”
A productive summer of training jumpstarted Walton toward finding consistency. He was sidelined for three weeks after the spring season due to an iliotibial band issue, but Quint said the injury was almost “the best thing for Walton” because Quint feared the sophomore might have overworked himself had he not gotten injured.
Once recovered, Walton increased his workload to 45-50 miles a week. Accompanying him on some of those runs was Sam Mills, a senior on last year’s Biddeford team who’s now running collegiately at the University of Maine in Orono. Walton credited Mills as one of his mentors, and he leaned on the senior for guidance during much of his freshmen year. Walton also worked on gaining more strength, much to the delight of his head coach.
“He really put in a good summer of work,” Quint said. “He finally hit the gym a little bit, which is something we need to do a little more of. But I think the biggest thing for him was that he gained a lot of confidence from the outdoor track season.”
During the spring, Walton finished with personal-bests of 2:04.86 in the 800 meters and 4:45.42 in the 1,600. His time in the 800 was the fastest time for a freshman in the state. His times in the spring followed a strong cross country season last fall, where Walton finished with a 17:57 5k time. Walton set sights on breaking the 17:00 barrier this season, and it took him just two weeks into the season to do so.
“I wasn’t really expecting to break 17 so early in the season,” Walton said. “I think that summer training really helped.”
At the Southern Maine Classic in Gorham on Sept. 14, Walton shaved more than a minute off of his best time by running 16:44.30 to finish second in the underclassmen race and 15th overall in a field consisting of nearly 450 runners. With his goal already in his back pocket, Walton vowed to lower his time at the Festival of Champions in Belfast.
Competing in the largest cross country invitational in the state, the sophomore ran a lifetime best of 16:27.69 to finish 15th in a race that featured close to 1,000 high school runners.
“Running at Festival was awesome,” Walton said. “The competition was great there and to be able to run that time was amazing.”
His coach viewed Walton’s race as a breakthrough.
“My goal for him was to shoot for 16:36, 16:35,” Quint said. “If he were to do that, we would’ve been really happy. But when I saw him come through the two-mile mark … He looked so strong. I think it was a breakout race and a huge confidence boost for him.”
Now that Walton has cemented himself as one of the top runners in the conference, he has had to adjust his goals. Breaking 17 minutes was one thing but with his early-season success, placing high at postseason meets is now his top priority.
“My goal right now is to get top 10 at regionals,” Walton said. “I feel like I’m way more prepared than last year.”
During Quints’ short time at Biddeford – he took over head coaching duties in 2017 – he hasn’t coached an athlete who has had as much success as an underclassmen as Walton. Experiencing those triumphs early in his career bodes well for the Tigers’ future.
“The scary thing is that he hasn’t really scratched the surface,” Quint said. “I truly believe that if everything continues the way it is, then he’s going to be one of the top two distance runners in the state. And he’s committed to it … His confidence is growing every day.”