When San Luis Obispo High School senior Callum Bolger finished third at the Clovis Cross Country Invitational in October, he was bummed.
It wasn’t the finish he had hoped for in his third race of the season, but his performance still managed to turn some heads. It wasn’t just because of his time of 15:01 against some of the top runners in the state on the 5,000-meter course at Woodward Park — it was his shoes.
Phillip Rocha, a freshman on the No. 2-ranked University of Colorado cross country team and a decorated California runner, took notice and posted a photo on Instagram of Bolger running in the race.
“15:01 in trainers, what can he do in flats?” Rocha wrote.
While other runners at the Clovis Invitational wore racing flats, running in trainers — or standard running shoes to the layman — during the early part of the season was part of a calculated strategy conceived by Bolger and longtime San Luis Obsipo coach Steve Boaz.
The idea: Run in training shoes to start the season. Then lace up the racing flats, a streamlined running shoe typically worn by cross country runners, when the races and the stakes get bigger.
“When you add that new element of running in flats, it gets the excitement going so that you are ready to race and ready to run really, really fast,” Bolger said Thursday. “Coach always says, you have four aces in your deck, and you got to play them on the right races.”
The strategy hit the jackpot.
In each of the four biggest races in Bolger’s season — the SLO County Championships, PAC 8 League Finals, CIF-Southern Section Finals and the CIF State Cross Country Championships — he finished first.
The Stanford commit earned the Division 4 state title with a time of 14:57.4 at the same Clovis course he raced on in October. He beat the second-place finisher by 32 seconds.
For these accomplishments during a spectacular cross country season, Bolger is the The Tribune’s 2016 County Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.
Go SLO, Run Fast
Bolger had a chance to look back at his cross country season Wednesday at the SLO High School Sports Awards Banquet.
A slide show created by some of his fellow seniors gave him a chance to think back on the ups and downs of the season. Though the highs far outweighed the lows, Bolger still remembers the setbacks, such as a third-place finish at the Stanford Invitational (even though he set a personal record for 5,000 meters) and the time he ran feeling ill and finished in second place at the PAC 8 Midseason Meet.
“At the Stanford meet, I probably could have gone with the group in front with the two leaders, but I decided to stay back,” Bolger said. “I still ran a fast time, but it probably would have been better for me to be up with those guys.
“That was my first race. It gave me a chance to hone in strategy.”
Bolger learned from his early season mistake.
In the final CIF cross country race of his high school career, with no front-runner to go with, he put his usual wait-til-the-end strategy to the side and burst to the front early. He cruised to the win to avenge last year’s second-place finish.
“Our training is focused on doing well at the end of the season,” Bolger said. “I felt like I got off to a pretty good start and had good times early on, but I definitely felt like I was peaking at the end. And that’s the end goal.
“Training is just a slow steady progression to help me run fast.”
Foot Locker Nationals
At the 2015 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships Western Regional at Mt. SAC, a race that featured some of the top runners from the West, Bolger fell.
The fall and 33rd-place finish cost him a shot to run in the finals and a chance to fulfill and season-long goal.
Not this year.
His sixth-place finish at the 2016 Western Regional earned him a spot in the finals alongside some of the best runners in the nation.
The race started fast. The 40 runners weaved up, down and around the hilly course at Balboa Park in San Diego bunched together.
Each stride brought a new thought into Bolger’s head: “How fast was that first half mile? Pick up the pace a bit. Relax here. OK, this is a good pack. Let’s just hang here for a bit. Man, this is a steep hill.”
The only thing his brain wanted him to think about? The deep burning pain.
“During a race, it’s hard to keep your mind off how much you are hurting. But what coach Boaz keyed me into freshman year, try not to focus on how you feel, but race against something,” Bolger said. “Less focused on how you feel but more on your effort and being able to race people around you.”
The race times were fast, but Bolger said he was able to run well because the hills reminded him of the ones he trains on every day in San Luis Obispo.
Bolger blew away his projected finish of 24th place to cross 10th with a time of 15:19.
“I was able to run my own race and not get caught up with guys going out really fast,” Bolger said. “I was able to use the other runner’s speed to my advantage in the last mile. I was very happy with the result.”
But even as he thinks back to the experience, he knows he has a long way to go.
“I felt a little accomplishment, but I definitely need to work more to get on that next level with them,” Bolger said. “I want to be able to beat some of those guys in track season and maybe even next year in college.”
With the long hours of training and the national spotlight finally starting to fade, Bolger is taking a week off of running.
“Coach always says, the offseason in the winter is just getting back your love of running,” Bolger said. “Whether that means going out running alone or going out with your team and doing some crazy adventure run, it’s just a time where you can get back into the swing of things and not be doing a workout every single day.
“I’m definitely excited to start that.”
But it won’t be long before Bolger gets back into his routine to prepare for the track and field season, where he had an equally outstanding season in 2015, finishing as the 3,200-meter CIF-Southern Section Division 3 champion and third in the CIF State Championships.
“I will also have to make a transition going into college-type training,” Bolger said. “We have a high-mileage program, but coach Boaz keeps us in check and makes sure that when we leave high school we will have the ability to progress because some people over train like crazy.”
Bolger doesn't feel burnt out and said he still feels the fire burning to get better — just like his legs during that final mile.
“Getting me up every day is just knowing that each day is an opportunity to get better,” he said. “With Boaz and my training schedule, I know I will.”
Here’s what cross country champion Callum Bolger eats to prepare for a race:
Thursday dinner — Vegetarian chili or lentils
Friday breakfast — Unfrosted mini-wheats in 2-percent milk
Friday lunch — Peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich, banana and a protein bar
Friday snack — Another PB&J
Friday dinner — Spaghetti and meatballs from BJ’s Brewhouse (The SLO High cross country team almost always goes to BJ’s Brewhouse the night before big races)
Saturday 3 hours before race — Plain bagel, banana (add eggs to breakfast and add slices of wheat bread during the day if it’s a night race)