The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The area’s best distance runner is a musician, gardener and Boy Scout

Centennial's Antonio Camacho is perhaps the best cross-country athlete in the area, and he's trying to develop his life outside running as well. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)

Antonio Camacho-Bucks wants you to know he has a life outside of running. The Centennial senior hopes to become an Eagle Scout before his 18th birthday in January. This past summer he spent 10 days living out of a sailboat alongside fellow scouts, and recently he reconstructed an entire campground for Cub Scouts when a storm flooded their tents.

He spends plenty of time camping out with others on Scout Troop 944, but he admits his attention is sometimes divided. By 6 a.m., he may need to head to cross-country practice.

“Everything that I pretty much do is aimed toward running. That’s pretty much every day of my life,” Camacho-Bucks said. “But it’s important to stay balanced. That’s something that my mom really encourages.”

Now in his senior season, the reigning boys’ cross-country All-Met Athlete of the Year has a state title, college coaches vying for his talent and a convincing claim as the best high school distance runner in the area. On Saturday, athletes from more than 100 schools across the Mid-Atlantic will race against Camacho-Bucks in the Oatlands Invitational. Many already know his name.

Camacho-Bucks has always been fast. It took time for people to figure out he was wired like this.

Jose Camacho and Christa Bucks-Camacho knew their son’s vigor had to go somewhere. And sure, Antonio was always a considerably better runner than his peers but not in the ways that would suggest he was destined for 75 miles a week. At soccer matches, when other kids would beg for substitutions, Camacho-Bucks would leave the field with more energy than when he arrived.

In fifth grade, amid a blizzard, it clicked.

“I was trying to make provisions for the electricity to go out, and my son is like, ‘Mom, I need to go on a run,’ ” Christa said. “He said, ‘I’ll be back in 30 minutes.’ So he runs, comes home and asks, ‘Mom, can I do it again?’ I was just like, ‘Antonio, I hate to tell you this, but you can’t run in a blizzard.’ ”

Later that year, he won a local 5K — not just in his age bracket but overall. At the start of his freshman year, Camacho-Bucks began to take the sport seriously.

“I was always one of the faster guys in class,” Camacho-Bucks said. “I thought I would give it a shot.”

Soon, he had a résumé that rivaled his elder peers, and he capped off his first cross-country season with a sixth-place finish at the Maryland 3A state meet (no other freshman boy in the 2010s finished in the top 10 of a 3A or 4A state meet).

“He is absolutely fantastic to work with, a fantastic student of the sport,” Centennial Coach Kevin McCoy said. “I myself am a massive running junkie … and he’s just along the same line as me. We just have fantastic conversations every Monday, and it’s not just about how we ran but about how some college meet went that he found a way of pirating off the internet.”

By his junior year, Camacho-Bucks appeared inevitable. He outpaced local runners in all but one cross-country meet, the 3A East region championship, and defeated that same competitor by almost 18 seconds for the state title later that month.

He credits his work ethic to his mom — “I always told him there’s a reason to get up in the morning,” she said — who works long hours for the Social Security Administration, and his dad, who runs a small landscaping business in Ellicott City.

But a willingness to embrace relationships and activities outside of running? It existed. But it wasn’t nearly this strong.

That changed in February, when his grandmother unexpectedly died. The senior had always been close with his grandparents, and he felt weighed down during the spring track season. When he drove to practice, the presence that often sat in the shotgun seat wasn’t there. When he got home from the YMCA, his grandmother’s enchiladas no longer filled his stomach. And the way she showed her love — rarely with words but with her presence — was absent.

“She was a big part of our family, coming to my races, coming to everything – that was a big hit to our family,” he said. “She was just a huge, big personality.”

Now Camacho-Bucks’s passions extend beyond the sport he so often dominates. Later this year, he will play the euphonium in a local performance, appearing alongside a 90-year-old who was friends with his grandmother. He plans to continue with the brass instrument through college. He recently took up gardening, helping create a drip irrigation system so his grandfather will have an easier time watering his plants. He continues making time for scouting.

And yet there are times when Camacho-Bucks can’t help himself. Cross-country remains a fixture in his mind. He admits his love of swimming allows him to “flush” the blood and gunk that build up in his legs during runs. When a flight was delayed last year, his father recalled, Camacho-Bucks went back through security and mapped a 10-mile run around the airport. Even watching movies with his dad has turned into an opportunity to improve.

“I made a little massage-stretch table in my living room, and yeah, I find myself watching Netflix and stretching and cupping,” Camacho-Bucks said. “I just like having no limitations, being able to push myself, see how great I can be.”