Three months ago, Riad Rababeh sat outside Dearborn High, speaking about the upcoming cross-country season.
When asked to name the top runners in the state, Rababeh immediately mentioned Noah Jacobs, the Corunna runner who eventually would win the Division 2 state championship.
Then he mentioned Alpena’s Mitchell Day and Rockford’s Cole Johnson, who finished ahead of him in last year’s Division 1 state championship meet when Rababeh placed eighth overall, third among underclassmen.
In August, Rababeh didn’t put himself in the class of those other runners — guys he thought could win the D-1 title.
“Heck no, especially not when we were talking,” Rababeh said this week. “Most honestly, I wanted to make sure I at least got top three. Coming in as the third underclassmen with those guys — Cole Johnson, Mitchell Day — I just wanted to make sure I got top three.”
That seemed like a realistic goal, but surely when the season began, Rababeh must have thought he had a chance to win?
“I didn’t know, really, if I would win,” he said. “But that was a hope — a prayer — I was expecting top three.”
Three months later, Rababeh certainly got top three. In fact, he got top one, winning the D-1 title and recording the top time of the day, 15:24.8, an excellent mark given the soggy conditions of the course.
Rababeh really didn’t consider himself a threat to win the state title until a few weeks ago.
“Coming into regionals week, I felt a lot more confident,” he said. “All my races, I was running confidently, I was running good. I had a big race at Wayne County where I ran by myself and I ran really fast, my PR (15:20.5). That was all solo, and I ran the whole season solo.
“It got me thinking if I run with these guys, finally with some competition for once, I haven’t really seen myself against competition, and it could be a different story than what I had been telling myself.”
Saturday at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Rababeh found himself with a slight lead over Day and Johnson at the 2-mile mark.
About a quarter mile into the third mile, he made his first move.
“We were kind of bunched together,” he said. “Then I started surging a little more. I could still feel them, their presence near me, but I think with 600 meters left, that’s when I didn’t feel anybody on me. I felt I dropped the field and I kept pushing through.”
He pushed through to the finish line and was astonished when he saw he won by 16 seconds.
“In all my scenarios I played in my head of me possibly winning,” he said, “winning by that margin was not one of them.”
Rababeh, who this week signed to run at Central Michigan, became the first Dearborn runner to win a cross-country state championship since 1930, which was even before his 85-year-old coach Bob Bridges was coaching.
It was a big win for the school and Bridges, who was able to cap his 61st year in coaching with a state champion runner.
Bridges’ prerace advice was quite basic.
“He told me: ‘I’m not going to give you anything fancy. I’m going to tell you the same thing I tell you every race. Keep it simple. You go out there, you know what to do, just get it done,’” Rababeh said. “He always keeps it simple.”
The toughest part of Saturday came late at night when Rababeh went to bed and tried to fall asleep.
“I did not go to sleep,” he said. “I closed my eyes, I couldn’t fall asleep. It was crazy. It was all I was thinking about. It kept replaying in my head all night. I was so hyper and energetic and excited. The adrenaline rush even after the race was crazy.”