A week or so before the high school cross country season opener, the Woodward Relays in mid-September, Whitman senior Eric Meleney bruised the big toe on his right foot, a potentially debilitating injury for a runner.
The bruise was so painful that it marred Meleney's opening-day performance and it appeared Meleney was going to duplicate his 1983 season, when he failed to perform up to his expectations despite being the highest-scoring junior at the state Class AA cross country championships, finishing within the top 10. And, at the 1983 outdoor state meet, he ran sixth in the 3,200-meter run.
But more had been expected because the summer before his junior year, Meleney embarked on an ambitious training program aimed at propelling him to the top of his team and, he hoped, the state. There was only one problem: Meleney trained too hard.
From June through August, Meleney put in 10 to 15 miles a day, every day. That was simply too much, too fast for a young runner completing his third year in the sport. He hadn't developed the physical attributes to withstand such a rigorous schedule.
This year, Meleney stands 5 foot 9 and weighs 120 pounds. And that's a good deal larger than a year ago.
"Eric just put in too much work that summer," said Coach Tom Nawrocki. "And last year, he knew we had a good team, which probably motivated him to work hard, too hard, during the year."
Instead of benefiting from his summer labors that year, Meleney struggled while he watched a teammate run away from himself and the rest of the state. Kris Herdt, now running for the University of Wisconsin, won the state cross country meet, the indoor state two-mile, the Penn Relays high school boys 3,000-meter run and doubled in the outdoor state meet, taking the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs.
Chasing after Herdt's year-old marks has been the initiative behind Meleney's winning record thus far this season. He has been helped by a more realistic summer training schedule.
"I wasn't really worried about my times at Woodward," Meleney said the following week at Johns Hopkins' Spiked Shoe Invitational. "They were the same as Kris' were last year and faster than mine were last year. That spurred me on."
Running after his former teammate's performances has pushed Meleney to a meet and course record at Johns Hopkins, a second-place finish in the seeded section at Pallotti against area-leading Duncan Schloss from St. Albans and, most recently, a Montgomery County championship -- by 24 seconds.
In every meet this fall, he has surpassed every other Class AA competitor in the race and, at this point in the season, that amounts to just about everyone Meleney will have to contend with on Nov. 10 at Hereford High School for the state championship.
"Eric knew he was good last year; it's just that Kris was better," Nawrocki said during the Johns Hopkins meet last month.
"Last year, I was looking forward to and getting up for the meets, but in a different way because I knew I wouldn't win them," Meleney said. "This year I can win, so I approach each one with more confidence . . . I know more about the sport and what I have to do to improve.
"My goal is to win the state. After that, I'm not sure. First I want to get that under my belt."