Dalton Hengst says he doesn’t know what drove him to this point.
The 17-year-old is one of the nation’s best high school distance runners. He attends McDonogh School in Maryland, a five-day boarding school in the Baltimore suburbs of Owings Mills, Maryland. He returns home on weekends, making the 80-minute drive back to his parents’ house in Hellam Township in York County.
All year long, every Sunday, he logs a 10- or 12-mile run with his father, Eric, pedaling alongside on a bike so he can keep up with his son’s brisk pace.
Dalton Hengst has posted top-10 times in the nation in four track events already this year, including the nation’s No. 1 time in the 3,000 meters.
Just a junior, he’s already run a 4-minute, 10-second mile.
Now he eyes the pursuit of the most famous number in track: The 4-minute mile. Only nine high school runners in the United States have done it. Before he graduates, he wants to do it, too.
“For a runner, a 4-minute mile — well, not many guys have done it — it’s just something special,” Dalton Hengst said. “Just to be kind of in the talks with people saying, ‘Dalton might be able to break 4,’ that’s crazy.”
The Hengst family has discussed the 2020 U.S. Olympic trials. To reach that goal he will need to run at the upper echelon of the sport, but to do so he could risk suffering an injury that could endanger those long-term goals.
Where is the line? How much training is too much?
“It’s a delicate balance,” Eric Hengst said. “We want to see him do it, but you want to keep it in perspective.
“The other week he asked me, I wonder if my body is going to break down.”
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Big goals and dreams are not new for Hengst. He plotted out out a plan to qualify for the Footlocker Cross Country National Championships the summer before his junior year. Then, he made it happen.
“My wife and I have said his best quality might be his competitiveness,” said Eric Hengst, a sixth-grade teacher in the Eastern York School District. “It also can make him a tough guy, but, well, a good guy to have on your team.”
A soccer standout in junior high, Dalton caught the running bug during a physical fitness test.
“I got beat,” Hengst said.
And by beat, he means he finished second.
“From that point on, first of all I knew I was a pretty good runner, and, well, I wanted to be the best runner at my school,” Hengst said by phone shortly after placing 21st at Footlocker nationals in December in San Diego.
His goals have always been wide in scope. So trying to go under 4 minutes before he graduates from high school next year fits the pattern.
Eric Hengst added: “His coach has said Dalton’s got lofty goals, but Dalton’s developed plans on how to reach those goals.”
“I dare to say, he’s the best I’ve ever seen,” said McDonogh distance coach Jeff Sanborn, who is in his 33rd year coaching. “He eats, sleeps and thinks about running. This guy lives for running. … He’s dedicated to the Nth degree.
“If he can get down to 4:06 (this year), you have to ask yourself, ‘God, how good is he?’” Sanborn asked.
Hengst has run with 2004 U.S. Olympic marathon trials runner Matt Marcini off and on since the seventh grade. Marcini, an Eastern York Middle School teacher, is a coworker of Dalton’s father.
“From the beginning, he was really, really tough,” Marcini said. “He could always hang on long runs.”
Dalton Hengst laughed, recalling one of their first long runs together. The youngster was so cold that he pulled up the collar of his shirt and bit down on it so part of his face would be protected from the wind. Hengst remembers Marcini asking him at the end of the run if he had bitten a hole through his shirt.
Still, Marcini was impressed. Even on progression runs where the pace went faster and faster, Hengst kept up in junior high.
“This is a kid that can probably run very fast for every distance from 800 meters up to 10 kilometers,” Marcini said. “He’s got that perfect combination of speed and endurance.”
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Depending on his development in the coming months, Hengst could become one of a rising number of high school runners to chase the sub-4-minute mile.
It used to be, no one ran that fast in high school. Then Kansas schoolboy Jim Ryun did it, repeatedly, in 1965. The next year another high schooler accomplished it. And it happened again in 1967.
Nothing, for almost 30 years. From 1968 through 2000, no high school runner in the United States cracked 4 minutes.
During a 12-month stretch ending in May 2016, four boys ran sub-4-minute miles, including Idaho schoolboy and current Penn State runner Michael Slagowski. There are more closing in, including Rhode Island’s D.J. Principe, who ran a 4:00.97 in late January.
It’s too soon to tell, but Hengst could join the next pack of runners to take down 4 minutes.
“I definitely think I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in, and if I continue to improve I set myself up for a chance,” Hengst said in late January.
“With any activity there is a question of risk versus benefit,” said Dr. Mark Lavallee of Wellspan Health, who has a sports medicine and strength and conditioning background.
Others point out, one of the biggest obstacles from 1967 until just a few years ago, could be the myth surrounding the sub-4-minute mile.
“Running is a highly mental sport,” Dennis Young of MileSplit.com explained in an email on the subject. “Most elite runners know exactly how to run within themselves, set out to achieve something, and end up coming pretty close to that goal. Once a few select outliers dipped under 4:00, or came surprisingly close, a bunch of guys who would have been content to be the fastest high schooler in the country at 4:03 set their sights on 3:59.”
Young doesn’t diminish the feat of running a sub-4-minute mile, but he does think times have changed.
“Everyone has always been trying to break 4:00. But they were doing so in the context that it was the massive, impossible goal,” Young wrote. “That context changed as increasingly large numbers of increasingly obscure runners broke 4:00. At this point, anyone who is part of a vibrant running community is probably only a degree or two of separation removed from a sub-4:00 miler. That’s not to say it’s easy. Something like twice as many people have climbed Mt. Everest as have broken 4:00.”
Hengst wants to see see how fast he can run, he wants to see how many competitors he can catch. So even if the training is difficult, he pushes the envelop because the payoff on race day has resulted in faster times.
“So it becomes sort of this interesting game … how do you shave off those last 10 seconds?” Lavallee said about elite runners reaching elite goals. “Do you lose a 1/2 pound? If it’s a 1/2 pound of muscle, no. If it’s a 1/2 pound of fat, yes. But then if you lose that 1/2 pound, did your body also lose too much potassium, which will result in you cramping up.
“Genetics, diet, rest, training and energy are all components. You can’t do anything about genetics, but maximizing recovery and all the regenerative components are a big part of it.”
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Hengst has a support system in place. He has friends in the sport, his family and his coach. The all share the same big-picture goal.
“You don’t want to send them off the track injured,” Sanborn said. “The goal is to reach their peak when they’re 25 years old.”
Sanborn has limited the number of miles Hengst runs in a week, slowly raising his weekly mileage from about 35 during his freshman season to its current range in the 50s.
“I’m not sure he has to run more than 60 miles a week,” Sanborn said.
So even when a determined teenager, who wants to win now, pushes back, they know the right thing to say to keep him grounded.
“There are times when he gets antsy,” Eric Hengst said. “When there are roadblocks, he wants to know why he can’t beat this guy. I have to tell him, ‘Well, that guy runs 80 miles a week. Just relax. We will get there.'”
When a cold zapped Dalton Hengst of energy during the last six weeks, the family erred on the side of caution, heeding a doctor’s orders that Dalton not run for 48 hours.
“That was like a godsend,” said Eric Hengst, who rattled off where Dalton improved his times in multiple events. “Sometimes it’s best to just relax.”
Hengst has already placed importance on what the medical field would term the four pillars of health: proper nutrition, proper exercise, sleep hygiene and stress management.
One of the difficulties for Hengst is finding a roommate who tolerates his routine and early bedtime: He’s in bed by 9 p.m., up for a morning run by 6:30 a.m. While such a routine might sound trivial, studies support its importance.
“It is 100-percent imperative (for high school and college athletes) to get nine hours of sleep or even more, every single day, not only for his performance but also for his injury prevention,” said OSS orthopedic surgeon Dr. Brian Bixler, who specializes in high school sports medicine. “One of the most important things for young athletes is sleep hygiene, and we’re messing with it like crazy.”
Even though Hengst admits he loves McDonald’s — “I mean, I love McDonald’s,” he said — he stopped eating there. He eats chicken and gluten-free pasta. He snacks on almonds and dried cherries.
And while it might sound inconsequential, the athlete, family and coach study trends in the sport.
“When I was in high school and college, the prescribed way to get better was to run at a faster pace in training than your racing pace,” Marcini, 40, said. “We used to joke that race days were easier than our workouts. They have gotten a lot more intelligent about it, and for that reason Dalton should get injured a lot less than I did when I was his age.
“There’s a lot more science involved. … That’s what has changed in the last 10 years and I think that has corresponded with how American distance running, right now, is starting to compete with (the world’s best). We’re training smarter, not harder.”
To keep up with the sports science, Hengst has attended elite running camps, he studies the workouts that some of the nation’s best youth runners post on online websites like MileSplit.com. For instance, Hengst posted an 8-week workout blog on the site last summer, revealing how he took just two days off from running when he had his wisdom teeth removed.
“Coaching is unquestionably getting better as more coaches learn more physiology and psychology,” Young said.
With each new teenage boy cracking the 4-minute barrier, the dance becomes a little less awkward. The younger runners learn from the older runners, reading what workouts paid off and what to avoid.
“Honestly, the reason I come out here every day and do these long runs, it’s not easy … it’s one of those things where the excitement of the sport is to work toward that (big) goal,” Hengst said. “I couldn’t imagine just being at a 4:05 mile and being like ‘Do I really need to go out and run today?'”
It all goes back to his drive, his competitive nature and that unwillingness to settle for second place — even in a seventh-grade race among classmates. A coach recently asked Dalton’s father about his son’s goals.
“My goals are to take this sport and lifestyle as far as possible,” Dalton Hengst said.