Robyn Walsh immediately knew why her coach was upset. And why her mom was disappointed. It wasn’t because she ran a slower-than-expected time in the 3200-meter run at the Region VI-4A meet.
No, the ultra-fast runner had pulled a fast one five days earlier.
North Myrtle Beach’s 7th grade distance phenom — after initially being told by her mom that she shouldn’t run a half marathon during track season and especially not just prior to the region meet — did what most kids do.
She went to dad.
The 12-year-old impressed at the Sunset Beach 13.1-mile race on April 30, running it in 1:29:12, a ridiculous average mile pace of 6 minutes, 48 seconds. Walsh finished as the top overall female and behind only one male, a 38-year old who snuck in less than 90 seconds prior.
It was evidence of the running prodigy’s extreme abilities and the constant grappling associated with the fact that her long-term goals require not always rushing to put one foot in front of the other.
“I definitely get told that a lot. All the time,” said Walsh, who will be among the favorites in the 3200 and 1600 at Saturday’s Lower State Track and Field Championships at Wilson High School in Florence. “After my injury, I got told that more. I try to have at least one rest day [per week] to recover. Plus, I’m not going hard every time I work out. I learned that I need to recover and take care of my body.”
Walsh had already started to soak in that realization back in the fall, when a stress fracture that cost her a chance at Class 4A cross country accolades was chalked up to overuse and extensive training. Her personal best in the 5K, an 18:51 she put up in her third high school meet, would have been the third-fastest time in the state meet.
But she wasn’t able to compete.
Walsh’s mind flashed back to the unfinished fall season during the region track meet last week. Instead of hitting another PR in a meet she planned to win, she ran four seconds slower than her top time and finished second to South Florence junior Caelin Sloan.
“I’ve definitely learned from that,” Walsh said. “I think even the [region meet], when I didn’t PR, you could blame it on running in a half marathon and doing it before a bigger meet and not being able to recover from it. I definitely won’t do that again.”
The typical curiosity about Walsh isn’t about what she won’t do.
It’s about what she will.
NEED FOR SPEED
Rachel and Harry Walsh named their twin girls Robyn and Ravyn.
Ravyn is the “party girl,” as Rachel calls her. She’s extremely social, clearly an above-average runner and a budding star in the pool, where Rachel was an exceptional swimmer in her native western Ireland during her early years. Older sister Abby is 21 and months away from a psych degree from North Carolina State. Grades have never been an issue for any of the three Walsh daughters.
Robyn Walsh doesn’t know what earning a B feels like. Like her running, she always thinks her school work can be better. North Myrtle Beach cross country and co-track head coach Alex Booth said her teachers routinely talk about the extra time she puts into her tests and referred to his star as a perfectionist.
When describing her daughter, mom toes the line between her cultural roots and the forced reality.
“She’s an overachiever. Across the board, she’s got it all going on, the athletic and the academics. She’s got it all,” Rachel Walsh said.
“Being Irish, we don’t pat the kids on the back every time they do something great and tell them how awesome they are. I’m kind of like ‘Yeah, well done.’ And move on to the next one.”
When it comes to running, Robyn Walsh has been hearing all of that for some time.
While she may have burst warp speed into high school running back in the fall, the area’s amateur running scene got its introduction to her skill set on October 12, 2019.
That day, she showed up to The Hulk (a.k.a. The Horry County Bike & Run Park) for the Don’t Fall Trail Classic 5K/10K combo. She was all of 10 years old. Despite having never run a trail race and that she was lining up against adults who regularly train at The Hulk, Walsh went out and won the 5K. After about 40 minutes of rest, she turned around and took care of business in the 10k, too.
The post-race interview that circulated via the Horry County Parks & Rec Facebook page looked like something out of The Onion. There was no way this miniature human beat all those developed runners.
Except this was no joke.
She had finished Top 20 in prior 5Ks, but that October 2019 performance opened the door.
“When I first started getting into running in third grade, my school had a girls team and a stride team for the boys,” Robyn Walsh said. “We were training to do our first 5K. That’s when I first started enjoying it. I noticed I worked a lot harder and wanted to be more competitive than the other girls. So I focused on being better than the boys. It didn’t matter if it was a boy or a girl. I wanted to be better either way.”
Walsh’s stack of overall, gender or age group medals from all those 5Ks could now decorate a Christmas tree; she added another on a little after a month after having to sit out the state cross country meet when she earned top female finisher at Conway’s Reindeer Run 5K in December.
It didn’t matter that Booth had a good idea of the type of runner he was about to have on his team. Walsh occasionally trained alongside the parent of another North Myrtle Beach runner.
Still, the reality was better than the lead up to the start of her career.
“I’ve known about her for a few years. I knew she was coming,” Booth said. “Even when I knew what was coming, this was not what I was expecting. To see someone her size run those times and never get tired, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
CATCHING THEM OFF-GUARD
Walsh is an anomaly in the flesh.
She isn’t some tall, long-striding distance runner. She’s 4-foot-10 and, well, looks like a 12-year old. She refers to her P.E. class as recess, probably because it’s extremely easy for her. All of it fits into her M.O.
Maturity masked in youth.
“I like surprising people,” she said. “We’ll get up on the line for a cross country or track race and even in pictures you can see the massive height difference. I definitely have some of the smallest legs out there and people are shocked when someone my size can go out there and beat them. Even spectators and other adults will shout from the side ‘How are your lungs even big enough.’”
According to S.C. Runners/MileSplit, Walsh has the third-fastest 3200-meter time documented by a 7th grader in South Carolina since the web site launched and began tracking runners throughout the state.
It all comes back to her motor.
Unlike most distance runners, Walsh rarely references a watch during a race. She’s worried that even taking a split second to look at it could throw off her stride, if she could even read it mid-run.
Walsh is all about tempo.
“She knows before a race, if she feels it, she says ‘This is it.’ Her pacing is unreal,” Booth said. “She knows exactly what she’s running and will run every lap at the same pace. She’ll tell us what she’s going to do beforehand and goes out and does it. She loves to call her shot.”
In that region meet last week – the eye opener, if you will – every one of Walsh’s eight laps during the 3200 were within four seconds of each other. That’s something that elite runners do; not 12-year-olds who are still going on rhythm and feel.
North Myrtle Beach co-coach Rashad Graham joked that he always asks her before a race if it’s a conditioning day or a warp speed day. Depending on how she answers, the team is either watching her or really watching her.
Either way, she isn’t counting strides or ticking off seconds in her head. She’s just doing what seems right at the moment.
“When I start at a certain speed, I focus on not slowing down,” Walsh said. “When I start, I stay there. It’s why I don’t find success at short sprinting. I can find a pace and hold it. I don’t have a certain way of tracking it. I’ll hear my coach yelling out the 400 splits. I guess I just kind of know, too. I can tell when I’m slowing down. I don’t have a problem going too fast.”
WHAT WILL SHE DO?
The talks about what’s after the high school she hasn’t yet started have already begun.
North Carolina State’s cross country and track programs are high on the list. Booth even believes Walsh could develop into a professional marathoner down the line. After all, the longer the distance, the better she seems to perform — even when she probably isn’t supposed to be competing.
As ridiculous as it might be to say about a 12-year old, the chances of her racking up multiple state championships are feasible. What’s more, the development track has her inner circle believing she could eventually challenge the cross country state finals record of 17:36, set by Spring Valley’s Kate Niehaus in 2003 during the midst of her four consecutive individual championships.
Walsh wants that record, and others.
Her mom would be OK if her daughter would just take it all in stride.
“We don’t want Robyn to injure herself and overtrain,” Rachel Walsh said. “I’m worried that she’s peaking too early. I peaked too early. I was exceptional until I was 12. Then I just got burned out. You hate the sport. I don’t want that to happen to her. … People say ‘She needs a nutritionist,’ ‘She needs a [personal] coach.’ Alex is doing a great job. I need her to be a kid and enjoy life.”
Enjoying life to Robyn Walsh means competing. On Saturday, she believes she has her best 3200 time in her. Maybe even her best 1600, too.
She can’t enter a meet without believing that, even when she knows in the moments leading up to each run whether or not she has enough in the tank to crank it up a notch. The mentality toward being the best contradicts her youth.
Actually being among the best at 12 has also led to doubt, mostly from folks who are waiting for her to run out of steam.
She hasn’t yet.
“I’ve been doing competitive and focused running for about three years now,” Walsh said. “Ever since I started, people told me I was going to burn out. But I think I’m different. I think I know my potential and if I can stick with it I could be really successful in the future.”
Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236