WHAT WAS IT LIKE for Isaiah Harris, jumping from the small pond of Maine high school track — where he typically won everything — to the big Div. I pond at Penn State?
He says, “I remember talking to my dad one day my freshman year and being like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. My body hurts.’ I was so sore. I was getting dropped every day.”
The transition to the pros, in contrast, has gone much better. Harris credits that to staying with his college coach, John Gondak.
“This is my sixth year with Gondak,” he explains. “He knows how I am and I know how he is, and how he likes to coach.” The partnership has flourished since that rocky first year.
Back in Lewiston Harris had won Maine State titles in the 200, 800 and 1600. PRs of 21.82, 46.8, 1:49.63 and 4:18.92 gave Gondak some indication of his potential. But getting him there wasn’t easy, at least at first.
“When I finally started getting my summer training from him before my freshman year, I realized that I was nowhere near the shape that he expected me to be in,” Harris admits. “It was kind of a shock once I got out there. I was getting dropped every day in every run, in every workout.
“Once we got through all that and got to racing, I realized I was running well and everything was paying off. I could see the results. It makes it a lot easier to trust the training and be confident and go out there and do it every day.”
To say the process worked is an understatement. As a frosh, he placed 4th in the NCAA with a PR 1:45.76. As a soph, 4th in the NCAA Indoor, runner-up outdoors, and runner-up at the USATF meet with his PR 1:44.53, qualifying for the London Worlds at age 19.
In ’18, Harris capped his junior year with his first NCAA win in 1:44.76, shortly thereafter signing a contract with Nike. Then, in his first race on the pro circuit he ran a PR 1:44.42 in Paris. One more race in Barcelona and he headed home.
“It had been a really long year,” he explains. “I had done a couple of meets with the cross country team. At our home meets the team would go 10K or so and I would drop out at 5K. That was back in the fall and then you have indoor track and outdoor track. And then I went over to Europe and once I had that PR in the bag, it was call it a season before an injury happens, you know?”
All looked good for a strong ’19 campaign and perhaps a return to the Worlds. Then when Harris returned to the grind after a break that fall, minor disaster struck in the form of an inflammation of his sacroiliac joint: “That was something new. It was my first serious injury that kept me out for more than two weeks.”
Forced to skip the ’19 indoor campaign, Harris — now a pro — worked with Gondak to be a force in the outdoor season. At USATF, he just missed the team, placing 4th, only 0.14 away from a plane ticket to Doha. His best time of the year, a 1:45.55, came in a small meet in Rovereto, Italy.
“I was happy under the circumstances,” he says. “I didn’t get that base training and I felt like I had to race my way into shape and it just wasn’t the ideal training cycle. It was my first year since I started running that I didn’t PR, and now PRs started to get harder and harder.
“I wasn’t too upset with myself. If I had a full year of training, I still could have got my time a little faster. So it left me more motivated to get into the fall training and get a good cycle.”
The off-season went well this time around. Harris, who is training with former USC star Robert Ford (1:46.43 PR) as well as Georgetown alum Joseph White (1:45.73), came through the winter in solid shape, hitting an indoor PR 1:46.01 at Millrose and finishing 2nd at the USATF meet in Albuquerque.
He also chased one of his bucket list items. “It’s been a goal of mine to break 4:00 in the mile and I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to actually run a mile. So I begged my coach to let me have one and if there’s any place to do it, it’s gotta be Boston. That track’s kind of a springboard or a trampoline. I figured that would be my best bet.”
He just missed, running 4:00.10 for 3rd. “I think I’ll run it again,” he says. “It’s kind of nice to switch it up, especially during indoor season and get something other than an 800 in the legs. Going back to the 800 after running a mile makes it seem a little bit easier.”
After indoors came the C19 shutdown. “I think everyone was saying this, but I truly believe that I was in the best shape I had ever been in. So it’s kind of a bummer that I didn’t really get to race.”
Yet there’s been plenty of training. Currently Harris is in Phoenix with his cohort: “The weather is just perfect; it makes for perfect training.
“Gradually over the years, we’ve ramped up the mileage slightly, but it’s more the intensity of the workouts — I’m better able to handle more intense workouts now. I understand my body a little better than when I was 18 or 19 in knowing what I need to do to get in shape and stay healthy.
“I like to think that what I’ve been doing has been working, so long as I continue to stay healthy.”
One thing the shutdown has given Harris is more time. He’s an avid gamer, so that’s where some of it has gone. Much of the rest has gone toward reading. Latest recommendation: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
The other side of more time — the Olympic postponement — might have worked in his favor, he thinks: “You never know, because it’s months away. Hopefully the body holds up until then. Being young, it could be an advantage in a way. You never know when your prime years are until you’re past them, but I would say I’m still on the upside. Every year is another year to get stronger and better than I was, or would have been, last year.
“So, I’d like to look at it as an advantage but I’ll knock on wood for now and just make sure everything goes smoothly and I stay healthy.”
He’s planning on a few indoor meets before racing at the new outdoor meet in Austin at the end of February where various luminaries are scheduled to be chasing Olympic standards. “That’s where I’ll try to get after it,” he says.
His ’17 experience in London, he adds, shaped much of his thinking about his place in the sport. “When you get to that level, you just kind of realize everyone is good. Everyone has a kick, everyone’s fast and you can’t underestimate any runners. I learned to never, never doubt anyone in the race because on any day, anyone can have a shot at winning.
“That prepared me well for the pro circuit. Being able to get that experience at a young age, it opened my eyes to the type of talent that’s out there and the type of people I’ll be racing for hopefully the next 6, 7 years.” □