PHILADELPHIA — Andrew Hunter has the complexion, shaggy blond hair and blue braces that befit the most common of 16-year-olds, but the Loudoun Valley sophomore was running in the Penn Relays 3,000-meter championship of America on Friday because he has grasped what most teenagers can’t. He has fully accepted his mother, Joan Hunter, as his high school coach. He has put himself on a strict sleeping schedule ever since he started running last year. And his diet is prodigious, according to his mother, who watched him wake up Friday and proceed to eat a planned meal of fresh vegetables, hummus, ham slices and gluten-free granola.
“He does all the little things,” Joan Hunter said. “Which is unusual. I’ve been a high school coach for a long time.”
Something else that was unusual Friday was Hunter taking the last turn of the title race and blocking out the noise of a boisterous crowd, instead taking a rush of memory to the head. He thought about the unconventional way in which he lives the running life, and on the final stretch, “all this hard work was flashing before me,” Hunter said.
Then he found another wind, holding off a surge from Toronto’s Justyn Knight to win the 3,000 meter championship in 8 minutes 16.31 seconds, the second-best all-time to headline the second day of the Penn Relays.
Hunter gave up basketball last year to focus on his new primary sport, one in which he announced himself a star on Friday. His mother has honed his raw ability with a approach made for stamina, steering clear of sets of fast and aerobic type work. Hunter ran some threshold miles on Monday, his last heavy training of the week.
Four days later he had to outclass a neck-and-neck field, which didn’t thin out until the final two laps. Knight (8:17.63) looked as if he was going to take over on the final 600 meters, but Hunter never wavered until the final feet of the race, when he staggered to the win.
“You can’t expect to do well unless you really do enjoy the process,” Hunter said. “I thought I could win if the race went perfectly, which it did.”
Friday was moving day for many of the area’s relay teams, with a number dazzling a crowd of nearly 40,000 in the process. The reward for doing so was a chance to do it again on Saturday in front of an even larger crowd, with both Bowie (42.28 seconds) and DeMatha (42.72) qualifying for Saturday’s 4x100 large school championship.
And then there was T.C. Williams, which posted a 42.07 in the event and will join Long Beach Poly (Calif.) and six Jamaican schools in the 4x100 Championship of America race — traditionally one of the most highly anticipated of the weekend.
The Titans’ quartet — Phil Tyler, Tyrie Henry and brothers Josephus and Noah Lyles — was assembled less than two weeks ago, according to Josephus Lyles. Last week, they started running together. Just a few days ago, they started working on handoffs together. So it was understandable that before they stepped on the track at Franklin Field, they stopped and huddled for a prayer in the bullpen together, and asked for the strength to make this bizarre, last-minute situation work.
“It was a little bit special,” said Josephus Lyles, a sophomore, “because it’s the Penn Relays.”
The Lyles brothers were leveled with nostalgia Friday, because just one look up into Franklin Field’s historic stands took them back to what the event really means to their family. They have been coming for years, exposed to one of the country’s great track traditions by parents Kevin Lyles and Keisha Caine, who both starred in the sport at Seton Hall in the 1990s.
“Our parents would get mad at us and [say], ‘Come watch the race,’ ” said Noah Lyles, who is now considered one of the country’s best prospects. “We didn’t know what we were watching.”
Bullis runner Gabrielle Tielman knew what she was watching when she first visited the Penn Relays as an athlete last year, and after a disappointing showing, she vowed to return for her senior year. Tielman, who only started running track as a sophomore, helped the Bulldogs finish third in the 4x100 small schools championship with a time of 47.54 Friday, which was the pinnacle of a two-year journey. Unlike Hunter and the Lyles brothers, all of whom have two more years to come back to the event, for Tielman, Friday was her last chance.
“All the hard work that we put in through this year, last year, offseason, has finally come together,” Tielman said, “and I think that’s why we were able to do so well here.”