Aaron Willingham looked at his junior season as something of a lost opportunity. His goals included winning a state championship, and he ran 70 miles a week until a stress fracture in his lower right shin made him stop. Even as he was healing, he saw time slipping away.

“There was one day last year, I almost cried,” Mt. Blue coach Kelley Cullenberg said. “He said, ‘Kelley, I just want to run so badly.'”

Willingham had big goals again this season. This time, his body cooperated.

He won the KVAC Class A championship. A week later, he won the Eastern A title. A week after that, the state title was his. That makes Willingham the choice for the Morning Sentinel Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.

While Willingham trained with the idea of being the state’s top runner in November, he knew all too well that he couldn’t reach any of his goals without being at full strength.

“For me, the biggest goal was to keep him healthy so he could finish the season,” Cullenberg said. “We monitored things a little bit more closely this year, just made sure his mileage was where it needed to be, so he wouldn’t overdo it — because he is so passionate, that it is easy to overdo.”

“I kind of just tried to focus on not being injured,” Willingham said. “My main goal was to listen to my body and not be too crazy.”

It also helped that Dan Lesko was also on Mt. Blue’s roster. Lesko finished second at the KVAC meet, third at regionals, and fifth at states.

“If I didn’t have Dan, I don’t think I would have done as well as I did this season,” Willingham said.

Willingham had to battle just to hold off Lesko during the season. But while Willingham was training smarter, he was still working hard.

“You have to have the determination and the drive to press on when maybe the weather isn’t good, or you didn’t have a good day at school,” Cullenberg said. “The passion isn’t really something that you can coach. The athlete has to find it themselves on their journey. He just continued to impress the heck out of me. His speed was just amazing.”

Willingham’s first race of the season, the Scot Laliberte Invitational in late August, taught him a lesson. He led most of the way, but Lewiston’s Isaiah Harris passed him in the last 30 meters, and won by half a second.

At the KVAC meet, Willingham finished well ahead of Harris. But at regionals, Harris was right on Willingham’s back. So Willingham tried to build an early lead and then hold on.

“He has the best kick in the state,” Willingham said. “So I tried to run away from him instead of running with him.”

With about 900 yards to go, Willingham led Harris by approximately 20 meters. Harris showed off that kick, but Willingham won by less than two seconds.

The state meet was Nov. 1, and Willingham didn’t have the base of knowledge he usually enjoyed going into a race. As the state meet unfolded, Willingham not only wasn’t out-running everyone, he didn’t know what they had in their tanks.

“Usually, in races, I get sort of a lead,” Willingham said. “Halfway through the race, I’ll get 30 or 40 meters. During the state meet, I didn’t get any lead at all. That was probably the scariest thing. I didn’t know these people. I didn’t know if they had (strong) kicks or anything.”

The top three runners would be separated by 1.11 seconds. Willingham passed Falmouth’s Bryce Murdick in the final 50 meters to win the race.

Consider, then, the bookends to Willingham’s high school season. In his first race, he lost down the stretch, and the winning margin was 0.5 seconds. At the state meet, he won down the stretch, and again, the winning margin was exactly 0.5 seconds.

“I don’t really want to be out-dueled in the last half-mile,” Willingham said. “That just kills me. So I just tried to find it in myself to do it.”

Willingham is looking at the University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire, among other schools.

“In the future, I would really love to run in college,” Willingham said. “There’s going to be a lot of other things that play into it, but I would like to run in a Division I school. But I wouldn’t be very opposed to running in a D-II school.”

“I think the big key for him is matching up the coaching philosophies for where he wants to go,” Cullenberg said. “He just needs to make sure that it’s a good match for him, and I think he’ll do well anywhere.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243

[email protected]

Twitter: @Matt_DiFilippo


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