In his job as the girls cross country coach at Williamsville North High School, Pete Gratien can present a good role model to his athletes if they need a little inspiration.
That’s because Gratien won the title as The Buffalo News’ Runner of the Year for 2016 after taking time away from serious racing for a few years after graduating from college in 2009. He easily won the men’s championship, which goes to the runner who does the best over a series of races at different distances. Jennifer Boerner won the women’s title; she will be profiled in an upcoming column.
Gratien’s running career started back in his middle school days, when he discovered almost by accident that he was good at it.
“I tried the mile in gym class,” he said. “An elementary teacher suggested that I sign up the next year, and I did.”
Gratien, 29, went on to run at East Syracuse-Minoa High School, even though he wasn’t too enthusiastic about it. That joy of running arrived in college, when he went to LeMoyne.
The Dolphins didn’t have a track program, so Gratien stuck to cross-country and then just trained for the rest of the year. He liked it, but injuries got in the way.
“My junior year of cross country, I ran pretty poorly,” he said. “I had a herniated disk in my back, and I was recovering from that. After college, I gave it a rest.
“Later I moved out here. My now-wife was going to grad school at UB. I didn’t run at all until the end of 2011, when I ran a road race. I did pretty badly.”
It was more of the same for the next year and a half. Gratien wasn’t giving workouts his full attention, and it showed in the results.
Eventually, the city of Tonawanda resident started training hard again. He worked his way up to 10 miles per day. The effort started to pay off in 2015, as he finished fifth in the Shamrock Run and third in the Mueller Mile (4 minutes, 44 seconds).
By the start of 2016, he was ready to run. Gratien won five races in the first few months of the series. He won a half-marathon, and he won a mile - and some distances in between.
“This is the first year in my life I’ve been about the same at a mile through a half-marathon,” he said. “In the past, I’ve been better at the short stuff. My endurance usually catches up with me.
“I enjoy the mile more than the half-marathon. The mile is a different type of pain. You usually hurt for a minute. I really like the middle range of distances, the 8K or the 10K.”
Suddenly, Gratien had a huge lead in the point standings.
“I came into the year wanting to win,” he said. “I knew there weren’t that many guys who could catch me, but I was kind of surprised about how it played out. I’ve been battling injuries since July, so it was a good thing I had it wrapped up.”
The trophy is nice, but it might not have been the best part of the Tonawanda resident’s year. He had been working in jobs that involved chemistry for more than six years, but decided it was time to try his luck at coaching his favorite sport.
Then the call came from Williamsville North.
“I was very pleased,” Gratien said. “I left my job with the intention of making it a permanent career. To get a job that quickly, that was great.
“Coaching the girls is definitely different. The girls want to work hard and they want to do well, but they need a lot of positive reinforcement. You want to build them up. With boys, you can give typical tough coaching to them, and they’ll respond well to that. The girls have to be encouraged.”
His first season is now in the books, and Gratien is happy about how it went for him. It doesn’t sound like he’ll be switching careers any time soon.
“I like it,” he said. “It’s a struggle. The kids are like I was in high school. They are unmotivated. But I know the trick - it’s to get them to enjoy it.”
The usual thanks go to Jeff John of buffalorunners.com for doing good work on the statistics for the series. Those who finished in the top 10 of the overall standings or the top three in age-groups earn a certificate of achievement. Winners should send their mailing address to the email address below.
• GBTC 5K Cross Country Race, Delaware Park Golf Course in Buffalo, 9 a.m. on Sunday Dec. 4.
• Holiday 5K at Old Fort Niagara, Fort Niagara State Park in Youngstown, 10:30 a.m. on Saturday Dec. 10, 998-5777.
• Freezer 5K, 49 Illinois St. in Buffalo, 11 a.m. on Sunday Dec. 11.
• Caroler 5K Run, 206 Main St. in East Aurora, 10 a.m. on Saturday Dec. 17, 830-6713.