Two weeks ago, at the 51st Loucks Invitational meet in White Plains, Ian Russ of East Aurora High School finished seventh in a spirited 3,200-kilometer race.
When the grueling competition was finished, several of Russ' weary young rivals came up and thanked him for setting a swift pace. All six of the boys who crossed ahead of him broke the coveted nine-minute mark and set personal bests.
"A lot of people said I was making the race by going out so hard," Russ said Wednesday after practice behind the high school in East Aurora. "I knew if nobody went out, no one would go sub-nine. So I'm like, 'As long as somebody goes, it's a worthwhile day, because everyone wants to get there.' "
Russ ran a 9:00.97, his personal best. He was less than one second from breaking nine minutes. He got a pretty good consoliation prize, along with the gratitude of his racing buddies: He broke TJ Hornberger's Section VI outdoor record of 9:03 in the 3,200 (a shade under two miles).
"I was very excited," said Russ, a senior who will run for Providence College in the fall. "That was my goal for the day. I wanted to try to go sub-nine, but my second goal was to try to get the record. When I hit it, I was really proud. I was very happy.
"I saw the first guy coming in and said, 'It's about five seconds away.' So I tried to pick it up. I was counting in my head as I was going over the line. I'm either right on, just sub-nine or a little over. I was a little over, and it was 'Darn it!' "
It was still a crowning achievement for Russ, who took up track in the sixth grade because he wanted to run hurdles and soon gravitated to distance running, which was ideally suited to his natural skills and his achiever's mentality.
Russ is an honor student who had several Ivy League schools interested in him (along with UB). He's an Eagle Scout. He plays the saxophone (he had a concert the night of his interview). Russ is something of the All-American boy. Oh, he's also the son of Brian Russ, the superintendent of schools at East Aurora.
"Yeah. Lot of pressure," Russ said with a smile.
There's a legacy to uphold at East Aurora, where coach Walt McLaughlin and wife Marty, his assistant, have built the top small-school running dynasty in Western New York, and perhaps the entire state. Both were Hall of Fame runners at Edinboro University. Marty was an All-American who made it to the Olympic Trials in 1992.
McLaughlin, who went to East Aurora and has been coaching track and cross country for 18 years there, said he doesn't keep a list of titles. It would be easier to keep track of the years they didn't win. East Aurora's cross country teams are perennial ECIC and sectional champions. Marty's girls teams and Walt's boys squads have won multiple state titles.
Walt said he's more focused on the kids' individual goals than team records. He and Marty see the teams as extensions of their family. They have six children who have been successful runners. Molly, a senior, defended her Class B cross country title last fall with sister Megan, an eighth-grader, second by an eyelash.
Marty said Russ has many interests and needed to become more fully committed and make a few "little sacrifices." Russ obliged. Last fall, he reached the cross country nationals in Oregon. His record time in the 3,200 was more than half a minute faster than the 9:38.36 he ran to win the ECICs last year.
He has taken his running to a new level, and his coach isn't surprised.
"We've thought for a few years he's probably the most talented kid we've ever seen," Walt said. "Yeah. He's shown that kind of potential the last year or so. We felt if he started laying the foundation and tried to be more consistent with his training and preparation that he had a shot to do some amazing things.
"And he sure has. His record speaks for itself."
Russ will be the favorite in the ECIC championships this weekend at Williamsville South. He said he'll try to "self-pace" and hope to go under nine minutes. But it's a difficult, lonely task for a distance runner to push beyond his limits without any serious challengers for company.
"A few weeks ago we went to a meet in Falconer and I was trying to pace to beat my friend's record. That was 9:18," he said. "Just doing that was very hard on my own. Trying to pace any faster than that will be difficult, but it's a good challenge."
There's more of a chance Russ will challenge the nine-minute barrier at the state meet in Cicero-North Syracuse in two weeks. His rivals will be there, the guys who rode his pace at the Loucks to their career-best performances in the 3,200.
Russ said he's motivated to uphold the lofty standard that the McLaughlins have established in East Aurora. He knows that the tight-knit community of former distance runners is watching and rooting him on.
"He not only upheld it," Walt McLaughlin said. "He set a higher standard. He raised the bar for those to follow."
"I'd like to think we're keeping the people who graduated here in the past very proud," Russ said. "We're keeping the legacy of East Aurora alive. I'd love to see somebody come along and break my record. That would be awesome!"