More than just the athletes exercised Friday night during the track and field 6A regional at Free State High.
Searching for Firebirds senior Kain Anderson on the infield of the track was an exercise as well — an exercise in frustration. Shifting the search party to the track itself made far more sense.
Anderson’s bottomless gas tank fueled him through four events in which he showcased his versatility, earned a spot in the state meet in all four and threw more kindling wood on a couple of burning questions.
Are we watching an athlete who will cross the barrier of what for more than a half-century has been the sport’s most recognizable milestone? Will he one day run a sub-four-minute mile?
If the answer is yes, then so too will be the response to another: Did Kansas University make a mistake in taking Anderson’s free books away from him?
Anderson wanted to run for his hometown university. When he ran the mile in the KU Relays he was thrilled with more than his performance. He felt honored because the man who shot the starter gun for the race was none other than the event’s most famous runner of all-time, KU’s own Jim Ryun.
Other track programs offered to pay for more than just his books, but that’s all it took for Anderson to make up his mind that he would pursue his dream of wearing the uniform Ryun, Wes Santee, Billy Mills, and Glenn Cunningham wore.
Anderson went about informing interested parties the right way. He called the Wichita State coach and let him know that he greatly appreciated the offer, but he wouldn’t be able to accept it because he had chosen to stay at home and run for the school so rich in mile history. And then he called the Kansas coach to let him know he was ready to crack those free books and hit the track hard every day. That, Anderson said, is when he learned the money that had been set aside for his books had allocated elsewhere.
Anderson said he would need a few days to think about it. He had to weigh whether he still wanted to join a program that didn’t appear to want him as badly as he wanted to be a part of it.
“That’s when the Wichita coach actually called me back,” Anderson said, “and was like, ‘Hey, I see you haven’t signed anywhere. What’s the deal? ... We’re still interested. We still have scholarship money for you. What do you say?’”
It wasn’t a full scholarship. With so many athletes needed for so many events and so little money to spread around, full rides are rare in track and field. But it was more than just books.
“I thought, ‘The money’s nice. I love the guys on the team there. I love the coach.’ I didn’t see anything wrong with it,” Anderson said. “I’m excited. Wichita’s going to be a very good place for me. It actually worked out to be better, and I’m excited.”
It got even better for Anderson when he ran a 4:16.70 mile, after which the Shockers coach called and told him he had just added $1,000 to the scholarship.
“It’s the fastest time in the state right now,” Anderson said. “I can’t even tell you what that’s been like for me to do. It’s a really cool thing to be able to do, to have the fastest mile time in the state.”
He knows he’s in for stiff competition at the state meet in Wichita. Jeremy Bryan of Blue Valley West (4:17.35), Sam Guinn of Blue Valley Northwest (4:17.88) and Shawnee Mission West’s Jonah Heng (4:18.43) all are right there with Anderson.
Anderson, like Ryun, finishes races with a trademark kick and has received tips from Free State coach Steve Heffernan, a former KU miler, on when to put the pedal to the metal.
“Heff’s always said, 300, go, that’s always been his thing,” Anderson said. “That’s what he’s taught us, and that’s what I’ve always kept in my head. That, and when I’m feeling good, go for it.”
When an athlete breaks from the norm and performs better than ever, it’s usually a sign of how well he knows himself, how confident he has become, and it often signals a beginning of strong improvement, rather than an end.
That’s what Anderson did when he ran the mile faster than any Kansas prep runner has this season.
“When I ran that 4:16, actually I led the whole thing,” Anderson said. “That’s something I’ve never done. I’m always one to hang back in the pack and in the last second I have that kick.”
With so much speed in the state mile, it’s nice for Anderson to know that he has shown more than one way to approach the four laps with success.
“In the state, I think it’s going to be fast from the start,” Anderson said. “I think I’m going to have to hang in there from the start. We’re all going to have to do that. I’m going to have to be kicking from the start. It’s just going to be that fast.”
In qualifying in state in the metric versions of the quarter mile (a leg in a relay), the half-mile, the mile and the two-mile, Anderson showcased all the necessary ingredients, from speed to strength and stamina to competitive drive, required to make a realistic run at sub-four mile at some point in his college career. With each second pared from a personal best, the next second becomes tougher to clip, but with just a sliver more than four seconds of improvement for each lap needed, Anderson has entered the realm where it has become a tough but realistic goal.
“I’m not going to lie,” Anderson said, “I’ve definitely thought about it. It’s becoming more like, ‘Hey, anything’s possible.’ The faster I run, the more I feel like, ‘A 4:16, hey, the four-minute mile is around the corner.’ I’m excited to run at Wichita State next year and see where that takes me. I know I’m going to get faster.”
Getting faster in her races, higher or longer on her jumps, is a path from which Free State sophomore Alexa Harmon-Thomas never veers, a path that in time could lead her all the way to competing in the Olympic Games in the heptathlon.
Nothing about the way Harmon-Thomas interacts with teammates and carries herself from one event to the next indicates she thinks she’s better than the rest, even though, in fact, she is. Her polish and poise belie her youth, as do her times and distances. She floats into the long-jump pit and over the hurdles, so precisely repeating her steps between them, and explodes over the high-jump bar. For an athlete with such quiet body language, she draws the attention of an audience that naturally zeroes in on her powerful and relentless pursuits.
Nothing about the regional meet ranked as more predictable than the objects thrown by Lawrence High senior Blake Hocking waving goodbye to the divots other competitors made. Hocking, of course, obliterated all comers in the shot put and discus, thanks to his sweat in the weight room, attention to detail in practicing technique and natural strength.
As long as Jack Hood coaches track and field at Lawrence High, the Lions will have accomplished throwers, although Hood might never coach another as good as Hocking.
The city showcased serious speed, too, with Gari Jones of LHS winning the 100, DayShawn Berndt of Free State the 200 and 400.
For the Firebirds, Bailey Sullivan looked comfortable running both longer and shorter events than the 800, thus far her best event, and showed the difference between a talented freshman and a sophomore who has shaken any tentativeness and drives hard for the finish line.
The night also served as a reminder that the city did the right thing in building on-campus stadiums that have a cozy, retro feel to them, rather than a district stadium that might have amounted to a concrete monument to keeping up with the Joneses.