Before last Sunday, the furthest distance that 13-year old Cleo McClain had ever run was 10 miles.
The eighth-grader, a student of Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School in St. Helena, completed that run three weeks before the Napa Valley Half Marathon as part of his training for the inaugural event.
He was aiming to run the 13.1 mile-race in around 1 hour and 40 minutes, a pace of seven minutes and 40 seconds per mile, but ended up finishing better than he expected.
In his first attempt at a half marathon, McClain finished the race with a chip time of 1:35:50 (gun time of 1:36:04), the second-fastest time in his age group (1-17), the fifth fastest time from a teenager, and the fastest time of anyone from St. Helena. His time ranked 79th out of 757 male runners and 121st out of the 2,102 total entrants.
It was a validating result for McClain, who started distance running this past fall and is still very much in the beginning stages of what appears to be a promising career, one he hopes extends into college and beyond.
McClain got his first taste of running in the seventh grade, when he ran the mile and the 800 for the RLS track team. He had decent success, mainly in the mile, but was left without a structured running program when the season ended.
It was not until months later when he picked up where he’d left off in the spring.
He and his family were in San Diego this past fall for his sister’s multi-day soccer tournament when McClain began wandering to hotel gyms out of sheer boredom for early morning runs on the treadmills. That simple escape sparked the passion he runs with today.
“When I got back to St. Helena, I started running every morning,” McClain said last Friday.
In his sixth grade history classroom at RLS, McClain remembers seeing an old photo of the school’s cross country team. At the time, there was no cross country team, just track and field. McClain wanted to change that.
He got a group of buddies together and employed the help of family friend Matthew Hileman, who has some distance-running experience, to coach the newly formed team. It didn’t take long for Hileman to see what McClain was capable of.
“The first day I tried to run with them, he was around the corner before I could blink,” Hileman said. “So then I got a bike and I could barely keep up with him then, and then I marked off mile markers and I would drive my car to them and I would meet them there.”
McClain performed well at the first cross country meet of the season, which only stoked his passion.
“He surprised himself, and everybody else, to have finished in the top two or three for that meet,” said his mom, Patty Cordano.
If the fire was already lit, that result turned it into an inferno.
“That absolutely motivated him,” Cordano said. “He’s like, ‘I’m on to something more. I just put a little effort in, and with a little more effort perhaps my time’s get better,’ and obviously they have.”
McClain ran in the first three meets of the impromptu season before a mild back injury sidelined him for two weeks and two races. The injury wasn’t deemed to be serious, but the scare proved to be a good learning experience about the importance of rest and taking care of your body, especially in a sport as physically challenging as distance running.
That’s one of the areas where people around McClain have seen him grow the most. He’s expressed interest in running until he’s in his 80’s – “like the Geriatric Olympics,” he said – but has come to understand that it won’t happen unless he takes care of his body, starting now.
“I think there was a period of time where he was probably pushing a little harder than was healthy for his body,” Cordano said. “There were a couple of key conversations that he had with folks that you really need to pay attention to those rest times. As hard as you push yourself, you also have to allow yourself to repair in between.”
McClain returned for the final meet of the season but had a disappointing finish, since he hadn’t been able to stay in running shape while he rested his back. When the season ended, McClain continued running after school in a sort of pop-up running club with some of his friends. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, McClain already had his eyes set on a new, higher goal – the Napa Valley Half Marathon.
To prepare, he talked to immediate friends and family with running experience. He gleaned as much as he could from them about pacing, rest and training. He ran five days a week, at least several miles every day, with one longer run mixed in before taking two days off to let his body recover.
McClain mostly trained alone, not an uncommon approach for distance runners. But running alongside another person is often necessary to push oneself. He was in a similar situation during the cross country season, since not many of the other runners could sustain the pace McClain did for as long as he did.
Hileman said that getting to high school will greatly help McClain’s development, since he’ll be able to get more training with older and more experienced runners.
“He’s running as hard as he thinks he can,” Hileman said. “I don’t think he even knows how hard he can run yet. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”
The day of the half marathon, McClain was relatively free of nerves. He was somewhat worried about burning out, since it was the farthest he had ever run. But once the race got started, those worries dissipated.
McClain ran with the 1:40 pacer for the first half of the race. He was averaging about a 7:34 mile when he passed the 6.9-mile mark. With only a handful of miles left to go, he decided to test what he could do. So, he picked up the pace and tried his best to catch the 1:30 pacer.
He probably would have had he started his kick a little sooner. He broke off a 7:01-mile pace over the remainder of the race and crossed the line a little over an hour and a half after he started. His average mile split for the race was 7:18.
“At seven miles, there was this one guy that was in the 1:40 group that said that we should go off, ‘cause we were both trying to get faster than 1:40 and we got down to like 7:20 splits, but I wasn’t really tired,” McClain explained. “I could tell that he was getting tired and so in the last like three miles I went off and ran like 6:50, 6:40.”
Admittedly, McClain said he had more in the tank after he finished. His training was relatively rudimentary, and with better structure he thinks he probably could’ve done a lot better.
“I kind of just winged it,” he said. “It wasn’t a great training; it was just kind of basic running.”
What does he think he would’ve gotten had he known what he could’ve done?
“I think I could’ve gotten under 1:30,” he said.
At 13, McClain has plenty of time to complete that goal. Among running a half in under 1:30, he also wants to break the mile record at RLS and would like to run a full marathon someday. He may even run in the Angwin to Angwish in April if it doesn’t interfere with baseball season.
He’s running track again for RLS this spring and then plans on joining the St. Helena High cross country team in the fall.
Just months into his distance running career, McClain seems to only be scratching the surface of his potential.
“I don’t think I definitely haven’t reached my full potential and I haven’t really grown much,” he said. “I think once I kinda grow a little bit more, that will speed me up a little bit and I hope to run in college.”
Added Hileman, “If he can grow a couple inches, I don’t see why he can’t run at the next level because no one is going to outwork him. … The sky is the limit, really.”