ADRIAN –– Every runner has an approach.
For some, it’s getting impossibly psyched up before a race and embracing competition as the enemy. Getting in a near-trance, laser-focused on the task and stakes at hand. Curating a feeling of high drama on the Tartan track.
All that? That’s not really Jake Eagling.
“I kind of try not to focus too much on the race,” he said. “I view the race as more, I’m out here because I enjoy the sport and I enjoy doing it. I take away the competitive aspect until, of course, I’m racing.”
That approach has helped make Eagling the Lenawee County Boys Track Athlete of the Year as selected by The Daily Telegram after helping lead Adrian to one of its strongest years in recent memory as a junior middle distance runner.
Eagling earned county titles in the 800-meter dash (2:05) and 4×400 relay (3:32) and finished second in the 800 at the Division 2 regional meet (2:00) while serving as an anchor for the new school record and county title-holding 4×800 relay with Aiden Smith, Bryce Soule and Ben Schefka.
Adrian head coach Tammy Francis attested to the reliability and innate qualities he brings to the team to make him a leader for the Maples on and off the track.
“Jake is someone that I can always, always count on,” she said. “He’s very self-disciplined. His work ethic is phenomenal. He’s mentally tough. I never have to go to him and say, ‘come on, you can do this.’”
Taking up track in the seventh grade as a miler and two-miler, Eagling soon settled in as a middle distance runner as a sophomore in high school. Despite its rigors, he developed an aptitude for one of the hardest events in all of track and field, the 800.
“I like the quickness of it,” he said. “You have to put yourself in a good position to compete well but you also have to strategize a little bit. It’s not just full-on focus on speed but it’s also not just completely strategy.”
Embracing the combination allowed Eagling to shine in the 4×800 and, eventually, adopt a new template for greatness in the event.
Jim Miller, currently an assistant coach with Adrian, was a member of the original school record-holding relay in 1987. As Eagling recalled, Miller told them the story of that relay “two or three times,” just enough to provide the frame of mind it would take to break the school record again.
How it all went down for the 1987 relay according to Eagling: “I don’t remember what their regional time was,” he said, “but it was slow enough to place them in the first heat, the slow heat, and they just kind of went out to run against the clock.
“They didn’t really worry about the other teams, they didn’t worry that they were in the slow heat.”
That approach led to an 8:02, a mark that stood for years until Eagling and his relay mates started to knock on the door. Whittling their time down from an 8:36 to an 8:12 by the end of April, the possibility of one perfect race to break the record loomed in the background.
“I think (Miller’s) known that we had the ability to break (the record),” Eagling said. “And I think he was ready for it to be broken. I think he was just telling us no matter where we get placed or anything like that, it’s kind of just how we do it.”
The evening before the state finals and one last crack at the 4×800, Francis felt good about her relay’s prospects of running it in eight minutes flat. But after returning to her room for the night, she admitted to feeling a little doubt about their prospects.
“I said, ‘man, eight flat, that’s gonna be really tough to get,’” she said. “But on the same token, I said, if anyone can do it, it’s gonna be this relay team.”
Eagling admitted to a little uncertainty, too.
“I wasn’t even expecting to go out and get anywhere near eight (minutes),” he said. “My goal actually going into the race was to go for top eight, go for All-State.”
All of that took a backseat that Saturday as the relay commenced at Forest Hills Eastern with a curt shot from the starting pistol. Smith, a runner who Eagling said gets pushed to run faster by competition, churned out a first-leg 1:58 against some of the strongest runners in Division 2, nearly ten seconds better than his best open 800 time this season.
Smith handed it off to Soule, running his only race of the day. He ran up to pace and managed a second-leg 2:01, putting the Maples’ relay at 3:59 halfway through.
The significance of those two laps wasn’t lost on Eagling or Francis.
“I was just sitting there watching the clock,” Eagling said. “And after those two, I was like, ‘OK, this is reachable, our school record’s reachable now.’”
“I was shedding some tears midway through that relay at the state meet,” Francis said. “I said ‘oh my gosh, they’re doing it, they’re doing it.’”
Schefka got the baton from Soule and rattled off a third-leg 1:59 to put Eagling right in the top four for a “fair race.” The final leg would be all Eagling with their loftiest goals firmly ahead of them.
If Francis was overcome with emotion watching it all play out, Eagling felt, not much of anything as Schefka made his way down the final stretch for the last handoff.
“The only feeling I had was this little tingle in my hands and my fingers,” he said. “I definitely had a little bit of adrenaline but I was just completely relaxed.”
With shades of the approach that defined the 1987 relay, Eagling took off and carried the relaxation of a pressure-filled moment with him for the first 500 meters. Only then did he start to feel something more but powered through to the final 100 where familiar end-of-race struggles greeted him.
With the end in sight, a new feeling, too.
“When I went through the finish line, there was the clock on the side,” he said. “I looked to the left (at the clock) and it said 7:56 and…(I was) mind-blown.”
That 7:56 was good for third in the state meet, finishing behind only Chelsea and Pinckney, and, of course, a new school record. For Francis, the emotions of the moment still run high when recounting it all.
“It couldn’t have happened any prettier than how it did at the state meet,” she said. “I get chills every time I talk about it.”
As for Eagling? Just like his approach, he describes the thrill of the moment simply.
“It was unreal,” he said.
Heading into his senior season, Eagling said he’s focused on setting new personal records in individual events and relays with the goal of possibly running at the collegiate level in his sights.
But looking back on a successful season, Eagling said he’ll remember the patience he and his teammates showed as they worked to a glorious finish at Forest Hills Eastern more than anything else.
“I would talk to Miller and say, ‘our times are gonna drop, we’re not peaking early,’” he said. “We all just had patience and I think that’s what’s important.”