BRISTOL, Va. – The records stood Large for more than 35 years.
They fell on the same sultry Saturday afternoon at the Virginia High School League Class 2 state track meet last month at East Rockingham High School in Elkton.
No one was more impressed than Jim Holdren, a track coach at Maggie Walker Governor’s School with more than 50 years of experience, who congratulated Virginia High rising senior Kelsey Harrington for defeating his own long distance runner, Mary Caroline Heinen, in the 1600 and 3200 meter runs. Heinen hadn’t lost a VHSL race since 2017.
“That really made me happy,” Harrington said, “especially that the coach came up and he shook my hand and congratulated me for beating his runner.”
She not only defeated her chief rival, but also set Class 2 state records and snapped school marks held by Virginia High’s Maria Large, who set the 3200 meter mark (10:39.34) in 1981 and the 1600 meter record (4.59.24) the following year, both with Holdren watching as an opposing coach.
Harrington passed Heinen in the final 15 meters to win the 1600 in 4:57.78 (to 4:58.20 for Heinen) and literally ran away with the 3200 in 10:37.07. Heinen was second at 11:16.58.
“You would have hoped it would have happened before now, but they were significant marks and you have to be pretty good to be able to run at that level,” said Indiana University track and cross country coach Ron Helmer, who won seven state team championships in track and cross country at Virginia High from 1974-82. “Anybody who gets to that level, I am happy for them. I am sure Maria would be happy for her. That is no small accomplishment. Absolutely, good for her.”
What does Harrington do for an encore as her senior campaign approaches?
“You just continue to grow and just keep up the training and next year try to break those records that you broke yourself if no one else can beat you,” she said.
Harrington, whose mother first took her to a track to exercise in first grade, began competing in sixth grade, and took it to another level in high school, finishing seventh in the state in the 3200 last June, while not competing in the 1600.
In a matter of one year, Harrington became the best girl to ever do it in both events in Class 2.
“Everybody always knew she was going to be a good runner, but the progress that she made from her sophomore year to her junior year was nothing short of phenomenal. She cut enormous amounts of time off of her P.R., her personal records,” Virginia High track, cross country and wrestling head coach Josh Shuler said. “Just the amount of time cut off, you just don’t see that very often and through the season too. Every time she ran just about she was setting a new P.R. Her work ethic is second to none.”
That hasn’t been by accident.
“There was more training definitely to reach that level. Last year I didn’t do as much work on training, but this year I picked up more training, more endurance work and that helped a lot,” said Harrington, who is also going to run cross country, with a goal set to win the state championship. “I felt like the weightlifting does help a lot because it builds your muscles in your legs and your arms so you are able to move a lot faster.
“Speed work every now and then is good to do because you need to have speed to be able to go around the track pretty well, but also to recover at the same time is important.”
Harrington sounds very much how Helmer describes Large, who was able to win five individual track and cross country championships at Virginia High before competing at Auburn. She was also able to remain in the school record books for nearly 40 years.
“Isn’t that amazing? She was just a big old smile every day. She had the capacity to hold up to a pretty good amount of work and she was one of those that just liked to race,” Helmer said. “She loved to race. There are a lot of people that love to work out and aren’t real excited on race days and there are a lot of people who love to race and don’t get as excited on work days.
“She kind took care of both of those things. She just had a great attitude, a big smile on her face and went about her business in a very mature manner for her years for sure.”
Harrington’s season wasn’t over yet. She also participated in the New Balance Nationals Outdoor, the largest high school meet in the country in Greensboro, N.C. in June, and placed 13th, setting another personal record by nearly 13 seconds in the “true” two-mile run.
“I was pretty pleased with my time,” said Harrington, whose preparation was limited due to a trip to New York City and a painful case of shin splints. “I was excited.”
Harrington had her eye on Large’s records, but had her doubts as the season progressed. Shuler said others did as well, but pupil and coach were determined to prove those skeptics wrong.
“Actually going into the season I was thinking I was going to beat the records, but as the season went along noticing my times, I got down to a 5:06 [in the 1600] toward the end of the season,” she said. “That is eight seconds I would have to cut off so I wasn’t really going in there thinking I was going to beat any record. I just kind of went in there and said I was going to enjoy it and hope to do the best I could.”
She did just fine, following their game plan by taking an early lead in the 1600 and holding off Heinen until the final lap. The lead moved back and forth twice more before Harrington made the final pass with 15 meters to go in what Shuler and others called one of the most exciting races they had ever seen. The 3200 was dominated by Harrington, who made it 2-for-2 for state titles and state and school records.
“It was a lot of fun, but it was also a lot of competition,” said Harrington, who is receiving recruiting interests from several Division I schools, including Vanderbilt, Syracuse and East Tennessee State, with more on the horizon. “I felt like I was using all that I had and I felt like she was using all that she had at the same time. It was kind of like whoever had more. I felt like your mind had to be stronger than the other person to be able to win the race at the very last part…
“As the race continued to go on and the last lap came around I felt a big difference after the Maggie Walker girl passed me, I felt a difference in that I thought my time was going to be pretty low because of the way I was running,” added Harrington, who wasn’t affected by the heat due to training in those conditions.
Shuler is confident that Harrington can improve her times in both events in the coming season. He is shooting for 4:50 in the 1600 and 10:30 in the 3200. Do that, and much like in June, there is little doubt the state titles will be hers once again. Records will fall too, this time her own marks.
“If she ran those times she knew she was going to win a state title so in her mind, more than anything, she wanted those records,” said Shuler, who calls her lap times or splits “insane”. “The state titles that went along with it were obviously amazing, but she was really gunning for those times. She wanted to set those new records.”
It is safe to say that Harrington made the right decision for her sport of choice.
“It is fun. Different people enjoy different things so you have to find what you enjoy doing,” said Harrington, who will indulge in some extra fun before school begins with a cruise scheduled for later this month. “That is something that life is about because there are a lot of things out there, but some people like running, some people like basketball, you just have to find what you are good at.
“I have played softball, basketball, I have actually cheered before, but it has kind of just came down to the point where you have got to find what you like doing and stick with that throughout the rest of your high school years toward the end.”