Is it the water? The coach? Coincidence? No one knows. But for the second year in a row, an eight-year-old boy from the Fairfax Police Youth Club has won the national cross-country championship, and he becomes the third racing prodigy to emerge from Northern Virginia in the last year.
The newest champion is Caleb Hymans, a third-grader at Wakefield Forest Elementary School who lives in the Annandale area. On Dec. 14, at the USA Track and Field Championship in San Antonio, Caleb won the eight-and-under cross-country race (2 kilometers, or about 1.2 miles) in 7:31.04, which translates to a pace of about 6:02 per mile. And that is a pace many adults will never match.
Hymans trains with Rheinhardt Harrison, who won the same race last year and moved up in age group this year. Both are coached by Rheinhardt’s father, Dennis Harrison, and they are FPYC teammates of Rachael Wilson, who won the 400-meter indoor championship last year and broke the national record for eight-year-olds by more than five seconds. This team, sponsored by the Fairfax City police department, is starting to turn heads in the youth running world.
Caleb’s mother, Lynda Hymans, is a former distance runner in college and a physical therapist at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. But after Caleb came in seventh out of 550 kids in a 5K race last summer, “I just had to ride my bike alongside the race,” she said. “That’s when we started looking around for running clubs.” They found the Harrisons at FPYC and “Coach Harrison’s been great.”
By the fall, Caleb was running competitive 2Ks and winning. As with his friend Rheinhardt, he likes running at the head of the pack from the start. This is particularly useful, his father Geoff Hymans said, when the packs are so large that if you get stuck in a mass of bodies, even eight-year-old bodies, it’s tough to emerge.
“I like to run,” Caleb said the other day. “I like the breeze blowing against my face. I like going to the track and training. And I like traveling.”
And here is a secret that may be the key to Caleb’s success: a quiet mantra he repeats to himself. “N-ER-G,” he confided. “I start off saying it to myself. And it helps me run faster.”
The FPYC team runs at Van Dyck Park in Fairfax City and Woodson High School just outside the city. In November, Caleb ran two qualifying races in order to reach the national meet, and won them both, his times steadily dropping, including his first sub-eight minute run at a regional race on Nov. 9. Two weeks later, he ran in the Cross Country Coaches Association national championship in Louisville, in cold and windy weather, and finished fifth. Rheinhardt Harrison won that race last year too.
But then on Dec. 14 at the Track and Field Championship, Caleb burst into the lead and always looked back. He can’t help it, he says, even as his parents holler at him, “Don’t look back!” He grinned and said, “I like to look back.”
Caleb recounted that “I was a bit nervous, but I got out really quickly.” He had one rival who, “at the end, he started sprinting as fast as he could,” Caleb said. “Except I was sprinting the whole way, so I knew I could hold him off. And I did hold him off.”
And when he broke the tape, he had run 24 seconds better than his previous personal best, and less than 0.7 seconds behind the meet record set last year by Harrison. “Even though I was super tired,” Caleb said, “I kept going all the way. I didn’t stop.”
Dennis Harrison said that Caleb “is very similar to Rheinhardt in that they are both ‘all-out’ front-runners. It’s ‘all they’ve got or why bother’.” He said Caleb was “one of the best in the nation, and we’re looking forward to having him run up with Rheinhardt next year in the 9-10 year age group.” He noted that he didn’t know of any other team with two national champions in the same event. He said Rheinhardt, now running 3Ks in the older age group, wasn’t always able to be a front-runner, but still earned two “All American” titles in 2013.
Caleb isn’t focused only on running. He plays Wii (“Super Mario Bros”) and chess, as well as soccer, basketball and swimming. He has read the first five Harry Potters. He has a six-year-old sister, Sarah, and a four-and-a-half-year-old sister, Aubrey. And asked about his plans to continue running, he chirped, “I certainly do. I’d like to keep running my hardest, hanging out with my friends, and be able to run with them.”