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Establishing Quite a Legacy

September 22, 2011
Columbia Falls High School


Aided by coach’s guidance and friendship, Derrick Williams pursues running records and state titles

‘Establishing Quite a Legacy’

Columbia Falls High School senior runner Derrick Williams poses for a portrait outside the school in Columbia Falls. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon

COLUMBIA FALLS – A conversation with high school runner Derrick Williams gives you an idea of how he approaches a distance race. He’s inquisitive, he’s insightful and he’s quite intelligent. He might be your doctor someday.

Williams, a senior who maintains a 4.0 grade-point average at Columbia Falls High School, has risen to the top of Class A cross country ranks in only three years of competitive running. He finished fifth at state his first year, as a sophomore, and second last year.

Now the long-legged senior is the established frontrunner to bring home the school’s first-ever individual cross country title, two years after he helped the team win the school’s first team championship.

In explaining the difficult path to a state title, Williams scrupulously breaks down both the physical mechanics and mental complexities of distance racing, identifying exactly what went wrong at precise moments during past races. He then transitions into a monologue on the importance of prioritizing education over athletics at college, where he will study medicine.

“As a human, he’s well ahead of where most of his peers are in terms of his worldview and his ability to interact with people,” head cross country coach Richard Menicke said.

“Derrick’s just a very outstanding young man, both in his conduct and maturity level,” Menicke added. “For an adult, he’s really a surprising pleasure to spend time with.”

Growing up, Williams played soccer, a sport passed down to him from his Jamaican father. The young Williams also dabbled in track, which ended up being his unforeseen introduction to distance running. As a freshman, a track coach asked him to try the 800 meters at a junior varsity meet, as opposed to his usual shorter sprints.

“I thought she was trying to kill me,” he said. “I ended up winning it. I started running distance after that.”

Williams tried out for cross country as a sophomore at the request of a friend and ended the season as one of the best runners in the state. Last year’s second-place performance was the highest finish in school history, Menicke said. Having posted the fastest times in Class A this season, Williams has started out strong in his title quest.

Menicke said Williams’ rapid rise is due to a combination of a tenacious work ethic and natural talent.

“He’s a very special runner,” Menicke said. “Anyone who watches him run – that’s a gift that he has.”

Williams ran a 15:40 at the Libby Invitational on Sept. 2, finishing second behind Glacier junior Troy Fraley at 15:30. The school record, Menicke said, is 15:39, set by Rob Macal in 1983, a year before the high school had an official cross country program. Menicke expects Williams to break the record, perhaps soon.

The Wildcats have four meets left, including an Oct. 8 invitational in Whitefish, before the Oct. 22 state meet in Missoula.

More than records, Williams’ primary goal is the state championship. He understands that the difference between being one of the best and being the best can be as vast as it is miniscule – it might only be a matter of seconds, but it can seem like so much more without the proper strategy and mental composure.

Senior runner Derrick Williams is trying to become the first individual state cross-country champion in Columbia Falls High School history.

As an example, Williams points to last year’s Class A state meet in which he lost to Corvallis’ Chris Jessop by 24 seconds. He said Jessop, who was a senior, understood the dynamics of high-pressure state meet racing. Williams thinks his own relative lack of experience – only three years of running – showed.

“Jessop knew what type of race he had to run to beat me,” he said. “I was young and dumb.”

Williams miscalculated his energy distribution and ended up falling short at the end of the race, when it mattered most. Today with his improved fitness, he said if he were to “start out fast again, I could recover better from it.”

But more important than fitness, Williams said he now has the confidence to pull all the disparate aspects of running a championship race together.

“It’s about having confidence that you know what race you have to run to win and not always cue off other racers,” he said. “Cover the moves – if someone makes a move, go with them. But the corollary of that is cover only the moves of someone who is a threat.”

Over the summer, Williams befriended Glacier’s Fraley and Flathead’s Zach Perrin, who have posted the fastest times in Class AA this fall. They like to rock climb and run together, an experience that Williams said has helped him grow as a runner, surrounded by the state’s best.

“Zach and Troy, they know exactly what pace they’re running at, even if it’s slow,” he said. “It blows my mind. I don’t quite have that down yet.”

Last spring, Williams won state track titles in the 800 and 1,600 meters, running a 4:19.50 in the 1,600, just off the state record of 4:19.43. He was second in the 3,200.

Such accolades have led to college interest. Williams said the interest is mutual, but academics are his top priority.

“I understand that the main point of college is to get an education, not to run,” he said.

Williams speaks as highly of Menicke as Menicke does of him, saying the coach “really made me into the runner I am today.”

“He’s a great coach, he’s a great guy – I love him,” Williams said. “He’s like a father figure. I look up to him but I also view him as a friend.”

Menicke calls it the “perfect coach-athlete relationship,” though he has found it comes with pressures.

“Quite honestly, my biggest concern is that he is such a talent that I feel a large responsibility to set him on the right path for the next level of his career,” Menicke said.

But before he reaches that next level, Williams has unfinished business in high school. Menicke knows a state title would be just one more well-deserved achievement in a career already full of them.

“He’s really establishing quite a legacy with his running at Columbia Falls, as far as history goes,” Menicke said. “I feel very privileged to be part of it.”

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