The sun was rising on a chilly Saturday morning this summer, undoubtedly a time that a number of teens were sleeping in, enjoying their last few weeks of freedom.
But Methuen High senior Mike O’Donnell was just returning from a typical 10-mile run through Camp Mi-Te-Na in Alton, N.H.
Working as a YMCA camp counselor, O’Donnell taught swimming lessons for seven weeks. The seclusion and habitually impenetrable daily routine gave him the break from technology and competitive running he needed to come back stronger than ever for the cross-country squad this fall.
“Right when I got home, the Olympics were on and that's what really made me focus on my goals,’’ O’Donnell said. “At camp, it was nice to clear my head and be away from all the stress. Even my teammate Conor Clark noticed that I was more focused on the season ahead and determined to do well."
He is certainly off to the right start.
During a relay jamboree Saturday through Maudslay State Park in Newburyport, the 5-foot-10, 140-pound senior captain helped the Rangers finish 13th out of 208 teams with his time of 9 minutes, 46 seconds over the 2-mile course.
Even though he did not start running competitively until his sophomore year, O’Donnell has crushed the stat board.
As a junior, he walked away with Merrimack Valley Conference Runner of the Year honors after being the first nonsenior to capture the conference title, completing the 3.1-mile course in 16:09. He then went on to place fourth at the EMass Division 1 championship and eighth at the all-state cross-country meet, not bad for someone focused on playing soccer as a freshman.
“He's very gifted and talented, basically the whole package,’’ said Methuen cross-country coach Bill James.
“He didn't do much of his offseason training as a sophomore, but came into his junior year more prepared than ever. He understood the racing strategies better and came in in better running shape."
O'Donnell improved dramatically in the indoor and outdoor track seasons as well, including a personal-best 4:15 in the mile last spring, good for a fifth-place finish at the all-state meet.
At the beginning of the summer, he took a week off from training for a trip to Germany before heading off to Camp Mi-Te-Na. During his training, O'Donnell built a significant amount of strength and endurance, peaking at 12 miles in one run.
“This summer I worked on changing the variety of the settings of my run,’’ O'Donnell said. “I ran more hills for the end of the season and increased my mileage too. I also worked out at my school two days a week, focusing mainly on my legs and upper body.’’
In the weight room, O'Donnell dedicated two days a week to a leg and upper-body workout.
The increased workload will certainly pay off for the 17-year-old.
“My goal this fall is to run a 15:45 in the 5k and come in the top three at all-states,’’ O'Donnell said.
He has left an impression on Andover coach Leo Lafond. “What's really good about [Mike] is that he’s really focused,’’ he said.
“Some kids have lulls within the race but he’s consistent. And what’s scary about him is that the bigger the race, the better he runs. My best runner beat him during a match in the regular season, but O’Donnell beat him in every postseason race. He’s definitely the one to watch this year."
And O’Donnell and his teammates have developed a following. Drive through the streets of Methuen, and you might hear passersby cheering on the Rangers on their daily run.
Cross-country tends to be overlooked as a team sport, but is considered to be more about personal bests and record times. However, a vast amount of time is put into developing a strategy that is both mentally taxing and rewarding.
“People think you’re just going for a run, but it’s much more than that,’’ said James.
Pre-meet discussions focus on having as many runners at the front of the pack as possible to team up for the lowest score. Runners work on compiling negative splits: The last stretch of the race should be faster than the first. And strategically, runners need to determine how to advance their positions without losing their edge.
“Our coach just says to give it your all and remember everything we have learned,’’ O'Donnell said. “I tell the younger guys to push through whatever pain they have, because five minutes after they’re finished, it’s going to be gone.’’
Ryan MacInnis can be reached at email@example.com.