IN A YEAR that has marred track meets, cross country races, major road racing events and most everything else of the sort, Science Hill High School junior Jenna Hutchins has served as a shining example of resilience and perseverance.
Hailing from Johnson City in the northern corner of mountainous East Tennessee, Hutchins has been setting cross country courses and tracks ablaze since August, when she ran the year’s fastest 8-lapper, a 9:49.83 that’s worth 9:53.26 for 2M, putting her at No. 6 on the all-time list.
Hutchins, who won’t turn 17 until March, then went on to establish a symbolic cross country best and a national track record within a 3-week span from November 21 to December 11, breaking standards held by former New York prep great Katelyn Tuohy on both occasions.
The first came in a harrier race (where there are no records) where she won by 58 seconds to become the first prep ever to break 16:00 in a cross country 5000, traversing the Huntsville, Alabama, course in 15:58.42.
“The cross country one honestly meant a little bit more to me than the others,” Hutchins says. “Ever since I was younger, I had a little more experience on the track and I’ve had to take a couple of steps up in cross country the last few years to be ranked higher than I have been. It was honestly a big surprise to me and it meant more because of that reason.”
Hutchins’ second effort, winning the women’s 5000 at the Five & Dime Athletics Meeting in South Carolina was arguably even better. Her 15:34.47 earned her not only the national HS Record, but also the American Youth (U18) best and American Junior (U20) outdoor standard.
“I was grateful for the opportunity to get to run,” says Hutchins, just the ninth high schooler to break 16:00 on the track (see sidebar). “I was originally supposed to go to California and when that one didn’t work out, I was a little worried.” (Continued below)
“It’s unbelievable and Molly Huddle has been an inspiration of mine ever since I started running,” Hutchins says of the woman she succeeded as AJR setter. “I loved following her success and actually on Instagram, she responded to one of the posts and told me ‘Congratulations!’”
When looking at the best HS girls of the past decade—runners such as Tuohy, Mary Cain, Alexa Efraimson and Elise Cranny—among their shared attributes is a long, fluid stride with particular attention to a high knee drive.
Hutchins is a little bit different, though. “When I went to a running camp up in New York, they did a lot of testing on stride rate and efficiency,” she explains. “We did find that I don’t have as much of a knee drive. It is helpful more on the track towards the end of the race because I have an extra burst of speed. Having that quicker and more efficient stride does play a big role.”
Her closing speed also sets her apart, and Science Hill coach Anthony Jones knows something about speed, having been a 10.10 performer himself and a Big 10 century champ for Illinois.
Hutchins likes to train in Brooks, particularly the Hyperion Tempo model this past season, but she wore Nikes in both of her big races: Zoom Victory XC 3 and Matumbo 3.
At an earlier stage in her career, Hutchins balanced running with soccer, being part of an elite youth soccer group when she lived in Texas for 2 years. Playing midfield, her speed was superior to everyone else on the pitch even then.
“[My team] was one of the highest level soccer programs in Austin,” Hutchins says. “It’s different in terms of competition level because there are so many more teams and more advanced coaching.”
Obviously, her talent had been stewing for many years. “Sometimes, my mom and dad would take me over to Indian Trail and we’d just walk the track and that’s kind of what intrigued me because I’d see other people running,” she says. “My first race that I ever did was the Crazy 8s 300-yard run and I was really nervous. I think I was 6 and I came in 3rd. The adrenaline and rush was so much fun and I was just hooked after that.”
Hutchins didn’t conclude her frosh track campaign in style, instead finishing last in the Brooks PR Invitational mile. She fell with 600m to go trying to make a move to the outside and get the lead. She still crossed the line in 4:57.64.
“Everyone got packed up and we started out at a slower pace than normal,” she says. “When I fell, I knew that was pretty much it for that one.
“The lows are there, but it’s all part of the process. It provided me a lot of opportunity to grow and I think it helped me mature a lot as an athlete and person.”
The ’19 state cross country meet was another low point along her career path.
Hutchins—who was declared the individual winner during her freshman year after the 1st-place finisher was disqualified for going off course—had the lead over halfway through the ’19 competition but ended up 3rd.
“Going into that race, I knew that I wasn’t feeling 100%,” Hutchins says. “I was not mentally prepared for that race. I knew in the back of my mind that I wasn’t feeling well and I let that override the situation. My legs were dead and on top of all of that, I fell at the end.”
She continues, “I started working with Joan Hunter out of [Virginia’s] Loudoun Valley after my freshman year and that’s where I started to take off. She has more knowledge than anyone else. Her son Drew and the whole family has had a lot of success. We were very grateful because it’s not every day a coach like that is willing to coach someone.”
Hutchins has become fast friends with Bentley Grace, a wheelchair athlete with cerebral palsy who has qualified for the Boston Marathon.
In mid-December, Grace and her family traveled more than three hours from their home in Georgia to South Carolina to watch Hutchins break the 5000 record.
“Having Bentley there meant more to me than the record,” Hutchins says. “It just shows how special the running community is and how there are such great people in the world. She says that they would have driven for days to watch me run. She’s very special to me… we exchanged numbers and we text all the time. It’s an inspiring moment.”
Some have called Hutchins the best athlete ever to come out of Science Hill, which is saying a lot for a high school that has spawned such athletes as ’66 Heisman Trophy quarterback Steve Spurrier and current major league pitcher Daniel Norris.
What can be confidently said of Hutchins is that she’s Science Hill’s most accomplished athlete while still a high schooler.
“I think it’s a tremendous honor to have people say that,” Hutchins says. “I’m really lucky to have all the support that I do as well. The faculty, staff, friends and family that I have at Science Hill are always cheering me on.
“It’s a huge honor to represent them. It not only helps to be a good athlete, but to be a good person off the track as well because I think that’s even more important. I’d much rather be a better person than have all the accolades.” □