Heading into the final race of his high school cross country career, Russell Schultz couldn’t have been more confident.
The Black River senior had seven victories and finished no worse than seventh all season. His eyes were firmly planted on a top-five finish at the Division II state meet.
Then, during a speed workout that he had done numerous times throughout the season, he tweaked his Achilles tendon just four days before the race.
“I was going to crawl that race if I had to,” Schultz joked. “There was never a doubt that I wasn’t going to run. It was my last time at state. I was going to race.”
That ability to finish strongly after a record-breaking season helped the 5-foot-10, 135-pounder earn Gazette MVP.
Despite the injury, Schultz placed 13th at state — matching his finish from a year ago — to garner All-Ohio honors for the third straight season.
“Russell is so headstrong,” Black River coach Colleen LaHood said. “When’s he focused on something, he’s determined to complete it. I know he was a little disappointed with that run (at state), but I was ecstatic.
“To see how he was days prior to that, I didn’t think he would complete it.”
Schultz was dominant for the majority of the season, including a stretch of five straight wins highlighted by a school-record 15:50.6 at the John Speer Invitational. He also won the Patriot Athletic Conference and Malone District.
The 18-year-old, who followed that stretch of victories with a fourth-place run at the Youngstown Regional, went from winning races in comfortable fashion to struggling to finish two miles without pain.
Schultz never thought about changing his weekend plans. It’s not his style.
“I’m not one to really give up,” he said. “If I’m having trouble with something, I’m just going to keep my mind to it until I figure it out and do better. I just keep going until I get it right.
“(At state), I just taped it up and ran as hard as I could. I was just going to do the best I could because it was my last race.”
That mentality helped him push through some of the most difficult days of his running life.
Even when Schultz was winning races by good margins, he found ways to push himself.
LaHood even bought a scooter and rode alongside him on practice runs so she could help take him to the next level.
“There were some races where I would be running and there would be nobody really up with me or behind me for 20-30 seconds, so I just had to push myself as hard as I could physically and mentally and throw in some surges,” Schultz said. “If I wanted a faster time, I had to push it. I had to act like I was in second place and the guy ahead was way up there. It was all mental. You just have to tell yourself to go faster.”
Schultz’s run of individual wins was even more remarkable considering what he did afterward.
While most runners spent those minutes heading back to the team tent or starting a cooldown, Schultz found the nearest straightaway and coached his teammates through the final moments of their races.
“No matter how tired he was, he would go back and cheer everyone else on,” LaHood said. “I’ve never coaches a key that was selfless. He would help with every single kid whether they were the best runner or not.
“He’s an amazing young man, mature beyond his years.”
To Schultz, it was something he wanted to do more so than something he felt he had to do.
“Building up your teammates is one of the most important things in any sport,” said Schultz, who also runs track and plays basketball. “After I was done, I would go back and really push them to do their best because if you can succeed as a team, you can go a lot farther.”
As for the next chapter of his running career, Schultz is still weighing his options.
A student with a 3.9 grade-point average, Schultz has been contacted by a host of D-II and D-III colleges but knows running won’t be easy at the next level.
But like anything that has been thrown his way, he’s ready for the challenge.
“I know when I get to college that I’m not going to be the No. 1 runner anymore,” Schultz said. “I’m going to have to adjust to that, but I’m up for it.
“I just want an opportunity to compete for a school that can give me the education that I need.”
Contact Dan Brown at email@example.com.