Seven minutes felt like a long time. Seven minutes spent standing next to the starting line after the official had called junior Mitchell Black and his competitors over before the 2015 Div. III 800-meter national championship race kicked off.
Plenty of things must have been running through Black’s mind; there were so many different ways the race could play out. The runners could get out too slow and he might have to clutch the early lead, or he could sit on the lead runner and kick at the end.
Regardless, he had come for the title, not the timing.
Black had been here before, twice last year in fact, finishing third in March and second in May, just inches away from capturing the title. He had also been the No. 1 seed before and was favored to win.
The stakes were at their highest and the pressure was paramount. But as the official raised his arm and the gun went off, all of that vanished, and it became just another race.
Black and the other top seed had been placed in the upper shoot, which meant they would start ahead of the rest of the pack in the upper lanes and then join in right before the second lap. As the race began, the other runner with whom Black was placed sprinted out in front.
“I thought that was great that he was doing all the work,” Black said. “He went right to the front as we joined the rest of the field and I just tucked in right behind him.”
This patience was a veteran move, a move that came with the experience of having run multiple times on a national stage.
Strategizing is easy before a race, but as the adrenaline rushes and the moment takes over it is easy for any competitor to lose focus.
But Black was no longer the awe-struck first-year excited to be at nationals for the gear and for the chance to witness some of the best athletes in the nation. This time he was here to take care of business.
Black bided his time as the next two laps sped by, waiting to make his move at the bell signaling the last 200 meters.
“I took that final lap as an all out sprint,” Black said. “I went as hard as I could and I heard people cheering for [Michael Harnish of Lebanon Valley] so I thought he was right behind me. But as I came towards the finish line I looked up and saw on the screen that I had a sizeable gap. At that point I knew that I had won and that was just a huge moment.”
Black finished with a time of 1:51.94 — beating Harnish by over a second — and was finally crowned a national champion.
“It’s been something that I have been thinking about for a year and a half,” Black said. “It was a big culmination realizing that everything I have worked for paid off.”
“I think a lot of it was experience,” senior co-captain Marshall Pagano said. “Nationals are so much more competitive than your average meet, and they are so much more high-stakes that strategy is key and his experience went a long way.”
“I knew Mitchell was prepared to put out a great effort, but that didn’t stop me from wringing my hands as he warmed up,” coach Ethan Barron said. “Coaching at nationals is a lot like parenting. You know how bad they want it and so you want it for them, but you’re pretty powerless to give it to them. You try to give them all the skills to accomplish their goals, but in the end, it’s completely up to them.”
Black did not have time to bask in his glory for long, however, as he had to compete in Tufts’ 4×400-meter relay team only an hour after his victory.
“I was on a huge high at that point,” Black said. “I tried to stay away from my teammates because I knew they would be nervous and I wanted to let them focus and not get distracted by my attitude. I knew we could get All-American if we ran well enough. At that point I just wanted to go out and run hard for my teammates.”
After only 60 minutes of rest, Black ran a 48-second split in the 4×400 meters that also featured first-year Andrew DiMaiti and juniors Alex Kasemir and Francis Goins. This was enough to push Tufts to eighth place with a time of 3:18.80 and earn the squad the status of All-American.
“It always sounds trite and overused about the really talented guys but Mitchell is incredible,” Pagano said. “He is such a supportive teammate, such an incredible competitor and such an incredibly hard worker. No one deserves it more than Mitchell and I am so happy for him.”
“Mitchell is an incredibly dedicated worker,” Barron said. “Anyone can work when a coach is standing over them with a watch. It’s what Mitchell does when no one is watching and the sacrifices he made that helped get him over the hump.”
With his latest performance, Black is now a seven-time All-American, four for the 800 meters and three for relays. This was his fifth straight national championship appearance. Black was also recently named the 2015 New England Region’s Track Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
Black will enjoy a few days of rest before turning his attention to the outdoor season where he will hope to continue the momentum from his national championship victory.