Thomas Graham, a 2012 graduate of Cary Academy, might be the best boys high school cross country runner in state history. He has quickly gained the reputation as one of the toughest.
Graham, now at Stanford, fell at the start of the IAAF Junior Mens World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland on March 24. He fell face first at the start into the muddy course. After the race, officials feared he broke his scapula and nose.
Pictures of the red-bearded Graham, muddy with blood flowing from his nose, running along the snow-lined dirt trail, are popular among runners throughout the country.
Ive heard about it, Graham said by telephone this week from Stanford. A lot of people have seen the pictures. It wasnt as bad as people say. Nothing was broken.
He also has heard comments about his prerace quote about his race strategy to Just stick your nose in and try to do as well as you can.
My sister pointed that out, he said.
Graham had qualified for the junior world championship by finishing fifth in the U.S. junior nationals in St. Louis in February. The junior worlds was his first race as a member of a USA team.
He was knocked out of contention early. The runners were packed in lines that were four runners deep. In the early jostling on the course, a South African runner went down directly in Grahams path.
Graham went over him into the mud. By the time Graham got up, he was in last place.
At the time, I wasnt in a lot of pain, he said. I knew my shoulder was hurt, but didnt know about my nose until I started spitting blood.
The bloody nose interfered with his breathing, but his shoulder was a bigger problem. The longer the 8-kilometer race went, the more his shoulder hurt and the more limited his movement became.
You can block out the pain, you learn to do that running cross country, but the shoulder kept getting tighter, Graham said. If you cant move your shoulder normally, it throws your entire stride off.
He said the thought of not completing the race popped into his mind, but he quickly rejected the idea.
Thomas has great natural mental toughness and determination, and has always taken challenges, pain and unexpected circumstances, without backing down or getting mentally shaken, said Cary Academy coach Conrad Hall.
He doesnt get flustered or thrown off his game, and he takes pain as part of the process without being bothered by it. If its simply a matter of pain and discomfort, Thomas will push through that and race as close to 100 percent of his potential as anyone can get.
Graham passed more than 70 runners, finishing 40th (23 minutes, 37 seconds) among 113 runners. Hagos Gebrhiwet of Ethiopia (21:04) was the winner.
Graham won four consecutive N.C. Independent School Athletic Association cross country championships at Cary Academy and added five track and field titles. He had the 15th-fastest high school 5,000-meter time (14:11.66) ever in the U.S.
He redshirted during the indoor track season and is redshirted this spring in outdoor track at Stanford.
It was a matter of whether I would benefit more from competing this year or having a fifth year later, he said. Im practicing and running in some meets unattached. It is working out well.