The idea of reaching a national meet barely was a blip on the radar in August.
In October, however, it started to come into view. Newark’s Toby Hardwick did not start the season with this end in mind. But as his times improved and the meet titles piled up, Hardwick definitely wanted to see just how far he could take his magical senior season.
“I wouldn’t have really thought much because I didn’t think it would be coming true,” Hardwick said. “Hard work definitely pays off. I learned that firsthand.”
Hardwick will be one of 40 runners to toe the starting line Saturday at Morley Park in San Diego. The Foot Locker Cross Country Championships essentially will be a sprint to the finish.
A 5,000-meter race never will be confused for a dash, but with the rarefied air Hardwick has reached, it would be easy to think he was flying. He ran a personal-best 15:13 to place fourth out of the Midwest Regional meet in Kenosha, Wis., on Nov. 30 to qualify.
“After the state meet, I kind of figured out what kind of runner I am,” Hardwick said. “The past few races I have been getting tougher competition, and running with the top dogs is definitely an advantage. I am just getting faster as the meets go on. I guess I would say it is momentum. I don’t know how else to explain it.”
Hardwick shook off a bit of a disappointing finish in the Division I regional in October to rebound to a runner-up finish at the state at National Trail Raceway in Hebron. Hardwick lowered his school record to 15:21, and the story seemed to have its ending.
Instead, Hardwick represented Ohio in the Mid-East Meet of Champions, then headed to Wisconsin with coach Randy Noftz and teammate Isaac Wheeler. Hardwick ran the regional course the day before and was ready to take his shot.
Noftz said Hardwick overcame the first half-mile, which was uphill, and found himself in a pack of more than 20 during the first two miles. The third mile came, and Hardwick broke away with the front few.
“Toby went with them,” said Noftz, who noted the pack ran 4:55 each of the first two miles. “They kept peeling out, and the next thing you know Toby is in sixth. He beat two of the three ahead of him during the final straightaway.”
Hardwick was the only Ohio runner to finish in the top 10 and qualify for the national meet. During the third mile, he pulled away from Youngstown Boardman’s Mark Hadley — the state champion — and Twinsburg’s Garrett Crichlow, who Hardwick had forged a friendly rivalry with since an early-season meet.
Noftz praised Hardwick’s patience, something that continued to grow in Hardwick as he was running to Ohio Capital Conference-Ohio Division and district titles this season. He similarly defeated the pack at the state meet.
“Once I had seen (Hadley) drop off — the only Ohio guys that were up there were me and (Crichlow) — and the two-mile hit, everybody just started dying off,” Hardwick said. “Everybody’s breathing was way too heavy. The only thing that was running through my mind is I have always wanted to go to California … and I can’t just wuss out on something everybody else was going through I might as well fight it like the rest of them.”
Hardwick does not anticipate being intimidated by his trip this weekend. He and Noftz flew out tioday. Hardwick and his competitors will have a chance to meet some of the best runners in the world Friday.
He and 39 others then take center stage 9 a.m. Central time Saturday. Maybe the 15-minute mark is Hardwick’s next step. Not too long ago, nobody expected him to take this one.
“I was hoping for the 15:15 area after the state meet,” Hardwick said. “I hit a 15:21 out of nowhere, and I felt really good after the race. Once I was running on the national qualifying course, I realized this could be a fast course if you run it correctly. At the one-mile and two-mile marks, it was running smoothly, and I knew the front pack was definitely going to take me along.”