On the boys side, the irrepressible Patrick Koon waited calmly for the gun to go off. And once again, he lived up to the high expectations of coaches, family, teammates, pundits and friends by capturing another state title, this time by running a 14:56.70 to win the 5K State 3A Cross Country Championship.
For the girls race, there was no clear favorite. Leon High School’s Lillee Tang was not ranked in the top 10 plus runners and was not picked to win her first state title by anyone. And yet at the 2-mile mark she was 1 of 3 runners in the lead pack looking for a magical day.
Q. How long have you run cross country? Where did you start?
A. I started running cross country for fun in the 4th grade. At that time, I attended elementary school at Cornerstone which is a very small private school. Being able to participate in the middle school sports programs was my motivation at that time. I ran off and on during my middle school years with Cornerstone and later with Trinity Catholic. But my primary focus was ballet at that time.
Q. What got you interested in the sport?
A. As a company ballet dancer at the Tallahassee Ballet Company, I used running as a cross training activity. It helped increase my endurance for long performances and was a great way for me to relieve stress. Going for a run was enjoyable because I was outside with nature, and it helped me unwind. But after I started high school and joined the Leon XC Team, I was running at the varsity level and training — not just going for a jog.
I tried to run and continue my ballet training and commitment to dance for the Ballet Company, but it put a lot of stress on my body to run and also keep dancing at that level. I was going from running practice and races to hours of ballet practice and rehearsals during nights and weekends.
With that schedule, I had no time to let my body recover and was never able to get enough sleep. At the end of my 10th grade year, I decided to focus on running because I liked being part of the team and felt like running was something I could see myself continuing in college. So, I decided to put all of my focus and effort into running as I started my junior year of high school.
Q. What does it feel like to be a state champion? Tell me a little about the journey that got you there?
A. It is an unbelievable feeling. My goal was and always is to improve. I strive to run better each year and winning the State Championship race my senior year was simply amazing. It has been a long but rewarding journey to get here. I practiced rain or shine, cross trained, and remained focused and dedicated to improving. I also did my best to stay healthy by eating well and getting enough sleep.
Q. Did you have any expectation that you would win this year? What has your experience at state been? How about your team which finished 4th, right?
A. I didn’t necessarily have an expectation to win – my goal has always been to do better with each race and push myself to always do my personal best. It was very helpful to be running alongside other great runners at the state championship race, and they helped motivate me to push myself even more.
I am proud to be part of the amazing team at Leon. I’ve been with most of my team members for all 4 years of high school and we made it to the state championships every year. We encourage each other to do our best, run as a team, and finish strong.
Q. What did it mean to run the championship at the Apalachee Regional Park (ARP) and how many times have you raced at the ARP?
A. The ARP is a well-known and challenging course, so it feels like a great achievement to have my PR and first sub-18 time from that course, and to win the championship there. I have raced at the ARP 12 times during high school (5k course), and 1 time during middle school (2 mile course).
Q. Tell us about the race? When did you take the lead? And did you know Ashley Fitzgerald was closing the gap as you both ran down the hill to the finish?
A. My goal was to stay with the front pack of runners during the race so that I would be able to place within the top 15 and earn a medal. At the time I was running, I didn’t realize that the front pack became myself and 2 other runners (Ashley and Malinda). At the 2-mile mark, I was feeling good and confident that I would be able to speed up and get ahead, so I went for it. All along, I knew that Ashley Fitzgerald was right behind me because I know she is a very strong and motivated runner who does not give up. I could also hear her footsteps and breathing as we were running down the hill, and that motivated me to go faster!
Q. Have you run at state meets before? If so what’s your previous highest finish?
A. Yes, I ran at the State Meet in 10th and 11th grades. I finished in a time of 19:12 in 10th, and18:52 in 11th. I placed in the top 15 both years — 10th grade (13th place) and 11th grade (10th place).
Q. What has running on a team meant to you?
A. Being part of a team is one of the reasons why I chose to keep running. Being part of a strong team is motivation to improve and be accountable, not only to myself but to my team.
Q. Do you plan to run any postseason cross country meets?
A. I will be running at the Nike race in Cary, North Carolina on Nov. 26.
Q. Do you plan to run in college?
A. Yes, I will be running in college. I have currently narrowed my options to a few universities, including a Service Academy.
Q. What would you tell a middle school runner who wanted your advice how to make it in high school?
A. Know your achievable goals, remain focused to achieve those goals, and then push beyond your goals when you can. Consistency with practice and cross training is critical to improvement.
That is good advice from someone who stepped up in their biggest moment to break 18:00 minutes for the first time (17:53.70) and win a state championship.
David Yon is addicted to running. In his spare time, he is an attorney with the Radey Law Firm.
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