For eight-year-olds, “distance” means either 2K (about 1.2 miles) or the 1500 meters (a little less than one mile). And in back-to-back weekends, Rheinhardt won two national cross-country championships at 2K, setting event records in both races. On the track, he won the National Junior Olympics’ 800 meters, and at the Amateur Athletic Union’s national championships he won both the 800 and 1500 meters and set another event record in the 1500.
Rheinhardt is in Dawn England’s third-grade class at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Falls Church, which rocks, he wants you to know, and he is a big fan of the literary works “Big Nate,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “The Hobbit.” He has a 6-year-old sister, Ella. Like most 8-year-olds, he cannot sit still, he plays sports, he likes hot chocolate, he spills hot chocolate, he cleans up hot chocolate, he plays video games and “I’m awesome.”
And he loves to run. Fast. From the very start. And then tries not to look back.
Rheinhardt runs for the Fairfax Police Youth Club track team, coached by Gary Sidor with some help from Dennis Harrison, Rheinhardt's father. Harrison was a high school runner while growing up in Las Vegas and ran a 4:16 mile back in the day, but he had given up running for a number of years until diving back in a few years ago with his wife, Heidi Johannesen.
He was three.
Rheinhardt recalls that when he was just a lad of six, he raced through a “fun run” after the Crystal City 5K and realized that he really liked running. He runs both cross-country and track, but prefers the gritty challenges of cross-country.
“You’re like jumping over all this stuff,” he said, “you’re getting muddy, you can even bleed.”
The training at this age is nothing too intense, his father said, focusing on form and stretching and no more than 10 miles of running per week, with a mix of short and long runs. There is no energy shortage. “He’ll go run around the block a lot,” Dennis Harrison said. “Running is a great outlet. It definitely channels his energy in the right direction.”
And stopwatches don’t lie. There is clearly some significant raw talent here. Here are his personal bests, which will put many an adult to shame:
400 meters: 1:10.96
800 meters: 2:39.01
1500 meters: 5:28.41
A mile in 5:51? At eight years old? You try it.
For strategy, Rheinhardt is an unabashed front-runner. “I like getting out fast, relaxing and just running,” he said. He doesn’t like shorter races because “it’s over quickly.”
During the track season in the spring, Rheinhardt won both the 800 meters and the 1500 meters at the AAU Primary National Championships in Orlando, setting the event record in the 1500. Then at the USATF National Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships at Morgan State University in Baltimore, he surprised himself by winning the 800 meters but not winning the 1500.
That led to this fall’s remarkable back-to-back championships. On Dec. 1, at the Cross Country Coaches National Youth Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., Rheinhardt led the field of more than 100 boys in the “sub-bantam” division from start to finish and won the 2K in 7:35.8, an event record.
Then Rheinhardt and his dad traveled to Albuquerque for the USA Track and Field National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships on Dec. 8. He had to qualify for that meet by running in both local and then regional events.
At Albuquerque, Rheinhardt got out to his customary start — “All out!” — but when he got to the first hill, “that’s when I slowed down.” And he learned that a local boy, Jamin Harlin, was a crowd favorite. The spectators started chanting Jamin’s name.
“I got furious,” Rheinhardt said. “I got mad.”
He said Jamin moved ahead, then he caught Jamin, then Jamin moved ahead again. But Rheinhardt reeled him in and won by seven seconds, in a time of 7:30.37 that was five seconds faster than his time from the previous weekend. It was also another event record and was run at 5,300 feet. His father estimates that a comparable 2K time at lower elevation would have been around 7:10, or a 5:46 mile pace.
For the year, Rheinhardt won five national titles, was named All-American six times and set three national event records. He also got to travel around the country, where he has particularly enjoyed “exploring in the hotels.”
He is planning on running “until I get to the Olympics,” which he estimated would happen “probably when I’m 22.” He is targeting the 800 and 1500 meters.
“I try not to look back,” Rheinhardt said of his racing style, “But it’s too hard not to.”
He can look back. The rest of us will be looking ahead.