By Carl Little
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 14, 2008
SAN DIEGO, Dec. 13 -- From the moment Solomon Haile's plane began its descent into this city, he knew it would agree with him. His eyes widened as he looked down on California for the first time from 15,000 feet. After he emerged from San Diego International Airport, the palm trees seemed to be waving hello to him as they swayed in the breeze. The sun was warm against the Ethiopian's skin.
"I might not go back," Haile joked Thursday.
Haile will return home to Silver Spring and to Sherwood High School for the rest of his senior year, and he'll do so as the winner of the Foot Locker Nationals. The 18-year-old phenom, who deftly established himself as the nation's most dominant scholastic distance runner, became the first boy from the Washington area to capture the national crown since the meet began in 1979.
Haile worked his way to the front of the pack after a cannon shot signaled the start of the five-kilometer race. He traded the lead with Trevor Dunbar of Kodiak High (Alaska) and Jakub Zivec of Grand Rapids (Minn.) for the first two miles, but shook free in the final mile and broke the tape in 15 minutes 15 seconds, seven seconds ahead of Dunbar.
The quiet, unassuming Haile was put in a tough spot for the first time Saturday when race officials whisked him to the winner's circle and he was mobbed by camera crews and reporters. After Reuben Reina, the course record holder and 1985 Foot Locker champion, placed a garland atop his head, Haile held an embarrassed smile for more than a minute as he posed next to Jordan Hasay, the repeat girls' champion from Mission College Prep in Arroyo Grande, Calif., and bulbs flashed from every direction.
"I really thought he had a chance of winning this whole thing," Reina said of Haile. "Of everybody, I thought he could be the one to break the course record."
The record time -- 14:36 on Balboa Park's hilly course -- is still intact. In fact, Saturday's race was the first time this fall that Haile didn't break one. Entering the Foot Locker Nationals, he had run eight masterful races -- including two at historic Van Cortlandt Park in New York -- and collected eight course records.
"I don't know, today the weather or something was a little bit hard," Haile said of the nippy morning air. "I took first place, and that's all I can do.
"No question I'm so excited," added Haile, who qualified for this race by winning the Northeast region meet. "This is one of my big, big goals for this season."
Two other Washington area runners also thrived. Mountain View senior Thomas Porter, just the area's second three-time Foot Locker finalist, was third in 15:26. Edison senior Leoule Degfae also earned all-American honors, placing 12th in 15:46.
Haile had coveted this meet since August, but in some ways he began his preparation nearly two years ago. He flew through four time zones in January 2007, from Ethiopia to Thailand, to win the Khon Kean half marathon. Nine months later, he went from Ethiopia to Austria and placed 10th in another half marathon.
The experience he gained from those races came to bear today.
"It's greater than that of many kids who travel five hours by plane and then need a day to acclimate and train," Sherwood Coach Dan Reeks said last week. "He probably has a slight advantage."
After completing the first mile in a blistering 4:47, Haile opened up more than just a slight advantage. With about 800 meters to go, after powering up the course's steepest hill, Haile took a peek over his shoulder and discovered what most of the spectators watching on the Jumbotron had known for some time: There was no one there.
"We've got a great race for second," the public-address announcer declared.
After a full year of nonstop running -- he set meet records in the 5K at Nike Indoor Nationals in March and Nike Outdoor Nationals in June and has now put together a perfect cross-country season -- Haile hinted at feeling exhausted and said he plans to run just a few races this indoor season. But he glowed while talking about becoming the 30th Foot Locker champion and being the first boy to bring the D.C. area a national championship.
"I came here just to put my region and my state in the top," Haile said. "I'm so happy for that."