SM North senior Asher Molina had been flying through the cross country course at Rim Rock Farms for about 4.5 kilometers on Saturday when Manhattan sophomore Daniel Harkin kicked passed him.
Molina had been in the lead of the state 6A championship run for a while at that point. But with the equivalent of about a lap around a high school track left in the race, that lead was slipping away.
Earlier in his running career, Molina might have panicked — tightened up and tried to ignite some hidden reserve of energy that just wasn’t there.
Instead, as he watched Harkin pass him, Molina smiled.
“It’s something I’ve been working on. Just kind of turning your brain off and trying to relax,” Molina said Sunday. “I don’t think the smile lasted too long, because, yeah, it started to hurt. But I did have a real smile on my face.”
Loose and light on his feet even as the discomfort mounted, Molina stayed focused on the finish line, slipping past Harkin with just a couple hundred meters to go and holding on for a personal best finish of 15:51.5 — and an individual state title.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a runner who finished in 26th place last year. With a pace of 5:05.9 per mile on Saturday, he shaved more than 30 seconds off his time in the 2017 championships
Asher credits the breakthrough not with any changes to his physical training regimen, but with a shift in his mentality. A gifted natural runner, he learned early in high school that he loved the physical challenge that distance running presented. But, he said, he was missing the mental part of the equation. It wasn’t until he was forced to sit out part of his junior year track season with patellar tendonitis that he was able to take a step back and realize the importance of bringing the right mentality to the starting line.
Yes, he’d be passionate about the sport. But when participating in it wasn’t an option, he missed it desperately. And he realized that it wasn’t just the competitive aspect of running. It was the fun.
“I had never really known how to act during a race,” he said. “When I realized that this was really something I loved, it got easier to just calm down and have fun. In a race now, I’m not thinking about how I’m going to do this. I’m just not thinking at all.”
The change in mindset helped him secure the individual state title in the 1,600 meters this past spring. Saturday’s cross country win just added to his collection.
As he crossed the line Saturday, his mom was the first person waiting for him.
“I was in a pretty euphoric mood to begin with,” he said. “But getting to give her a big hug and see the rest of my family was pretty great. They’ve always been huge supporters of my running.”
Molina said he plans to run at the college level, and has spoken with the coaches at both KU and K-State. But, he said, it’s still early in the process.
“I don’t know where I might end up yet, but I do know that it’s something I want to keep doing at the college level,” he said. “It’s going to be a big part of my life no matter what.”