Wa-Hi cross country runner taking the lead

Wa-Hi's Aaron Nelson is a state cross country leader and team captain for the Blue Devils.

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After multiple 600m runs, some Blue Devils ditch their socks and shoes on the grass.

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Wa-Hi cross country runner Aaron Nelson cruises through the finish line flags during practice in the 600 meter at Howard-Tietan Park last week.

WALLA WALLA - Running isn't only about getting from point A to B for Aaron Nelson.

The Wa-Hi senior and captain of the cross country team wants to get there first.

And although he didn't take the top prize, Nelson did beat the previous Wa-Hi record Sept. 25 in the Nike Pre-Nationals Jim Danner Champs 5K, topping more than 200 other boys from across the country.

Nelson finished fourth and smoked Wa-Hi's previous best time in the 5K, crossing the line in 15:29.41.

"I was pretty happy with that, but I was hungry for more," Nelson said a few weeks later, after practice and under darkening skies. "I wasn't first."

A week later, Nelson again again flirted with the records, finishing second at the Sunfair Invitational three-mile in 15:15.5, microseconds behind the fastest Wa-Hi finish on the books at Sunfair.

"I want to win the state championship," Nelson said. "I set out with a list of the guys I thought could potentially win state, and there are only two I haven't raced yet."

He's not likely to meet those two before regionals and state, but this weekend will tell if he's prepared.

The Blue Devils host Wenatchee, Eastmont, Pasco, West Valley, Sunnyside and Eisenhower in a Big Nine meet this Thursday. Ike is one of the top teams in the state and country.

Nelson's run through most of the Jim Danner Champs 5K seems to help prove his fitness to try.

Nelson started off in a bad position, said coach Michael Locati.

"As the race went out, he got stuck in the middle and wasn't able to move out with the leaders," Locati said. "By the time the first mile hit, he was about 10 seconds behind and had to make up a lot of ground to get to the front."

Nelson dug deep.

"It was really fast," he said. "There were 200 boys sprinting. It was a good, hard fight to get through the people to get in front."

He finished the first mile in about 4:55, Locati said.

"By 1.5 miles, he'd caught up with the leaders and was tagging the back of the group, and by two miles, he was leading and opening up a gap on them," Locati said. "Leaders don't have to battle. If he'd been with them, he probably would've run that first mile in the high 4:40s. But because he had to work he was back a little."

By the second mile, Nelson had a comfortable lead of nearly 10 seconds, Locati said.

"He'd dropped everyone else and there were only a couple of kids behind him at that point," he said.

But the race wasn't over.

With about a quarter mile to go, Nelson started to struggle.

"It was warm, and then there was all of the effort it had taken to get into the position he was in," Locati said.

Nelson said he was likely dehydrated.

"I broke down with about 100 meters to go," he said. "I was probably dehydrated. I need to work on that."

"It was quite a race," Locati said. "He's asserting himself on a national level at this point. He had a great race and meet against national-caliber runners."

And Nelson made the point again at Sunfair, hanging with the leaders until the last 600 yards or so.

Weather played a role in both races, Nelson said. Unseasonably warm temperatures in the high 80s made running harder. Cooler fall weather is welcome, he said.

"This is much easier to run in," he said, indicating the cool evening and light rain.

Now, with state on his mind, Nelson is revisiting his goals.

"I want to achieve what I set out to get," he said. "There's a sense of accomplishment in beating your best time. It can be hard to come out every day and run, and you have to focus on the end result."

In addition to winning state, he'd like to finish the 5K in the low 15 seconds, or even break 15.

Nelson originally joined cross-country to stay in shape for wrestling, coming on his sophomore year.

"After a few years, it was less about staying in shape and more about, ‘I like to do this,'" he said.

Running took hold.

He runs year-round, and during the season works out about three hours a day, including conditioning. He watches his diet, even at a time when most teenage boys are notoriously lax.

"A lot of cross runners thing they can eat all the junk they want, but I eat reasonably," he said. "I want to stay in shape. Cross-country is an all-year commitment."

Nelson said he started out as a ‘mid-JV' runner.

And as Nelson has improved, so has the team.

"I think that our top guy when I was a sophomore would be our No. 3 or No. 4 guy now," he said. "We've got a lot of talented underclassmen coming through. In the last couple of years, the cross country program has gotten a lot stronger."

To win this week's meet, the whole team has to come together, he said.

"Everyone has had some pretty good races," he said. "But we've never had our good races at the same time. We need consistency to be competitive in the Big Nine."

Both Wa-Hi and Ike's boys are undefeated.

Ike is ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 20 in the nation according to ESPNRise.

"They are a legit No. 1," he said. "Nobody has beaten them or knocked them off and they haven't had any bad races. If things hold up, they could very well continue that reign all the way through."

About of the runners, including Nelson, teammate J.P. Wolpert, a pair from Ike and a pair from Wenatchee, are considered top 10 in the state, Locati said.

"There will be six top kids running this week," he said. "It should be a good race."

And while Ike reigns, Nelson, who's currently eyeing collegiate cross-country options, hopes to bring them down.

"We'd really like to beat them," Nelson said. "I think we can get close. I beat their top runner this season, and in the past. I think I can take him out again. "

State is Nov. 6 in Pasco.

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