FAIRMONT — One was an out-of-nowhere phenomenon, the other a steady natural talent. During the course of the 2019 season, however, the prior dark horse became the front-runner and the former sensation drifted slightly to the fringes.
But on the season’s biggest stage, both delivered masterful performances to finally reach a common ground: Atop the podium as individual Class AA-A cross country state champions.
The journey to the pinnacle was vastly different for Fairmont Senior’s Ethan Kincell and East Fairmont’s Erykah Christopher, but the gratification of a state championship was all the same.
Kincell bolted to a time of 16:20.73 to win the Class AA-A individual boys’ title, while also leading the Polar Bears to a Class AA team state championship repeat. Christopher, meanwhile, ran perhaps the best race of her career as she clocked an 18:53.37 to breakaway for the Class AA-A individual girls’ state championship after finishing third overall as a freshman and fifth overall as a sophomore.
The respective titles cemented a foolproof case for both as the respective boys and girls Times West Virginian Runners of the Year.
“I was just thinking to myself, ‘There’s no reason why I can’t just come out here and win it,’” said Kincell, comparing his first-place championship finish to his 24th place finish just a year earlier. “It’ll be one heck of a story to tell one day.”
“I’m really proud that my work paid off,” said Christopher, reflecting on her championship breakthrough. “The season was a little frustrating at the beginning with not seeing the results I thought I’d been working for, but the results showed in the end and that’s all that matters.”
Kincell’s TWV Runner of the Year nod comes after he amassed a near perfect resume this season: He won seven of nine races, lost just once all year to an in-state runner, collected individual conference, regional and state championships, and guided the Polar Bears to conference, regional and state team championships, with Fairmont Senior also breaking the state meet record for best average finish amongst its Top 5 runners at a time of 16:55.
Kincell’s 2019 senior campaign was the culmination of an insane 12-month leap for him on the running circuit, which began in the wake of the 2018 state meet when he truly invested in the sport. He committed to the daily grind, upping his mileage to top tier levels, while diligently taking care of his body via improved recovery methods, core workouts, diet and sleep habits. Back in August, Kincell even estimated he devoted a mind-blowing five hours a day to everything in his training regimen, a number FSHS boys’ cross country coach Dayton McVicker confirmed and said was a low estimate if anything.
“I’ve never seen someone get so motivated so quickly before to where he was hellbent on not losing to anybody in the state after (last year’s) state meet,” McVicker said. “If there is a single moment that flipped the switch for him, I wouldn’t know it, but something happened, he kind of just fell in love with the sport and got hooked on it.”
By track season in the spring, Kincell had already vaulted into the state’s distance-running elites as his training routine and raw mileage reached the upper limits of McVicker’s designed regimen. Throughout the 20-week cross country season this year, Kincell logged a total of 1,111 miles, according to McVicker, as he settled in at an average of 55 miles per week. There was even a period last winter, McVicker said, where Kincell was running so many miles at such a fast pace, he was at a high risk for injury and needed to tone it down. Even during the final month of cross country season, Kincell ran with the Polar Bears’ slowest runner on a regular basis, McVicker said, to preserve himself considering his mileage totals.
“From last year the biggest thing was just not slacking at all, putting in the miles every single day no matter how I feel,” Kincell said. “If I’m feeling a little sick one day, it doesn’t matter, I’m going to go out there and still run. I just really dedicated myself and gave it every single thing I had.”
Yet, even considering Kincell’s work ethic, his canyon-sized leap in such a short time, and his now lengthy list of accolades, McVicker said his most unique trait is the quality of teammate he is.
“He’s definitely probably the best leader I’ve had on a team I’ve coached or even a team I’ve been a part of in any instance,” said McVicker, who continued his career into the collegiate level. “I know I would’ve loved to have had a teammate like him or would’ve loved to have been a teammate like him. He’s just always positive. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say anything negative; like even when he doesn’t have a great day or a great run, he’ll just be like, ‘That wasn’t very good,’ and that’s about as negative as he gets.”
“He’s always interested in his teammates too. Anytime he finishes a rep or a race, he’s never too far from the finish line to see everybody else finish. He’s very aware of what everybody’s individual goals are, and I think he really cares about making sure everybody accomplishes what they’re setting out to do. He’s just a great teammate.”
Christopher, on the other hand, burst onto the state’s high school running scene as a freshman, where she immediately flirted with state championship contention in 2017 finishing third overall at 19:09.02.
But for the next year and a half, Christopher plateaued as she dealt with re-occurring knee soreness and injury that robbed her of her ceiling. There were hints of Christopher’s career playing out under a “what could’ve been” caveat in which she racked up a handful of career honors but never had the breaks go her way to win a championship.
“Sometimes when I increase my mileage too much or do anything with super high mileage, I’ll start to feel a little pain. So whenever I feel that coming, I just have to talk to my coaches and my mom to schedule something around it to get me healthy,” she said of the rigmarole of maximizing her training while also avoiding injury. “This season, it wasn’t quite as easy for me to run fast times as it was my freshman year so I just had to accept that I had to work a little harder now.”
Her injury history lurked and her motivation waned at times, but there was no skirting around it: She had to put in more miles and had to become more diligent in miscellaneous swing factors, such as diet and recovery.
“It’s hard to get out there everyday, but there are no shortcuts. You have to do it or you’re not going to see the results,” she said. “I had never really done a lot of mileage compared to other runners, but this season, I started to up my mileage a little bit.
“I think it was me maturing as a runner.”
Talk to Christopher and East Fairmont coach Ken Hibbs and it’s sort of indefinable steady maturation that stacked layers upon layers in her running pallette until she eventually reached the top. There was the cleaner diet and more frequent long weekend runs to account for the uptick in mileage — which settled at around 40 miles a week — in Christopher’s training routine. She started to find her voice as a more confident overall leader during track season in the spring, Hibbs said. And once cross country season hit, Christopher finally began to control and harness her pacing during races and even within her training, according to herself and Hibbs.
“Last cross country season, I think my biggest issue was confidence. Before every meet, I was scared, I was crying, I was so nervous to be in it,” Christopher said looking back. “But this year, I kind of realized trusting what I’d been doing outside of the race would help me do well in the race.”
By the end of the season, all the moving parts of Christopher’s alterations and adaptations coalesced into a fortified stronghold, and the jagged nature of her past career arc smoothed out into an upward progression. She surged in the season’s final month, and eventually right into a first-place state championship finish.
“It was the best feeling in the world,” Christopher said of her state title, “because I definitely don’t think that I was considered to win the meet this year.
“Just being able to prove, not only to myself, but to everyone else that I could be a state champion was a great feeling for me.”
Email Bradley Heltzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.