In terms of physical improvement, Kenai Central high school runner Mick Boyle's progress during the recently concluded cross country running season was modest most of that is made in the offseason.
But in terms of playing the mental game of the distance runner, Boyle, a senior, grew by leaps and bounds this season.
"I kinda had a bad mental set," Boyle said of the way he started the season. "It's hard to describe. At the beginning, I was thinking I could go out there, and not work as hard and still do better.
"Running is as much mental as it is physical, and I wasn't playing the mental game that well."
Even when he wasn't at the top of his game, Boyle's results were pretty good this season. He started things off with a sixth-place finish at the Skyview Invitational, and as the season progressed, so did the mental side of Boyle's game.
"I was slowly working my way up to the right mental set," Boyle said. "At regions and state, I was right where I wanted to be."
Indeed, Boyle was third at the Kenai Peninsula Borough meet at Homer, his last "bad" race of the season.
He followed the borough meet with a third-place finish at the Region III Championships on a cold, snowy day at Russian Jack Springs Park in Anchorage, then nabbed a sixth-place finish at the state championship meet a week later at Palmer.
"The team winning the boroughs was fun, and the region meet, despite the cold and nasty conditions, was pretty good," Boyle said. "State was perfect. That day was perfect."
According to Kenai cross country and track coach Liz Burck, the determination to succeed even after what he thought was a disappointing start exemplifies Boyle's leadership qualities.
"The kids voted him captain, so obviously they respect his ability to lead," Burck said. "He's not so much a verbal leader. He goes out and does it. He works hard at every practice, and the kids follow that and try to emulate that, so he's a good role model."
Boyle said he first discovered a talent for running during physical education classes at Mountain View Elementary School.
"They had us running the mile from time to time, and I was typically better than everyone else," Boyle said. "When I got to middle school, where they have cross country and track, I figured I'd try it. I had some success, so in high school, I figured I'd try it, too."
And the rest, as they say, is history. As a junior, Boyle was a driving force behind a trip to the state meet for the Kenai boys cross country team. Then he finished his junior year with an outstanding effort on the track, qualifying for the state championships in the 800-meter run and as a member of Kenai's high-flying 3,200-meter relay.
Boyle finished fourth in the relay with teammates Trevor Baldwin, Morgen Saltenberger and Clifford Cochran, and made a late surge from the back of the pack to finish third in the 800.
"Getting to take those guys to state with us Morgen and Clifford it was a lot of fun," Boyle said.
Baldwin qualified for last year's state meet in the 3,200, and teaming with Boyle on a relay was a perfect fit as the two have pushed each other in practice and in races.
"In training we definitely push each other," Baldwin said. "We'll go out for long runs, and we'll jog the first six miles, and talk about things. The last two miles, we'll push each other like we're in a race."
The competition between Boyle and Baldwin made the past cross country season exciting to watch.
"Every time we go to a meet, people I talk to, and other coaches, talk about him and Trevor and they've done so well together this year," said Burck. "It's been fun to watch it. It adds so much excitement to the race. We never know which one will come in ahead, but everyone has enjoyed watching those two run together. They push each other."
That competitive push netted some great results during the season, but also made for good training during the summer. A cannery job kept Boyle busy, and his priority for his free time often was catching up on his sleep, but Baldwin said he was able to get Boyle out of bed for a training run on a regular basis the key to a good season.
"I'm definitely going to miss him," Baldwin said. "It's what most runners wish they had someone at the same competitive level, who they get along with, and who goes to the same school."
Boyle said he'd like to continue running next year in college, though he's just beginning his college search. He carries a 3.7 garde point average at Kenai, and he said his favorite subject has been history.
"I'd like to run," Boyle said. "I'd like to go all out in college for a year and see if it's my thing. I've heard college is more intense than high school, and I'd like to see if I could handle it."
Of course, there's another season of track left before Kenai Central says goodbye to Boyle, and Boyle has high hopes for this season.
"I'd like to win the 800 at state," Boyle said. "The two guys ahead of me (last year at state) graduated, so I should have a fairly good chance, as long as I keep running."
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