Tristan Shelgren came to cross country a little by chance.
His cousins, the Coppolas, were football players at St. John’s Prep. There was Derek, and the triplets: Jared, Tyler and Brendan.
It didn’t matter that serious injury had changed Jared Coppola’s life forever, or that Brendan had dealt with his own medical dramas. Shelgren wanted to be a football player.
“But,” he said, “I only weighed about 90 pounds when I was going into high school.
“The coach at my middle school (in Boxford) told me I shouldn’t play football. I should be a runner.”
Of course, he’d kind of figured that out by then. His sister turned to cross country and track at Masconomet when she got cut from the soccer team.
“Her coach told her she had some speed, and perhaps she should try running. So she did.”
Consequently, Shelgren began running in middle school, and found he enjoyed it. When he and his 90 pounds matriculated to St. John’s Prep, he went out for the cross country team. But it was just for something to do. He really wanted to play basketball and rugby.
“First practice we had, we ran about three kilometers, and when I got back, everybody around me had their hands on their knees, and they were huffing and puffing, and I didn’t feel that badly.
“But it wasn’t until I started running, and winning, that I ended up liking it as much as I did.”
Shelgren kept running, and kept winning. For four years. He has capped off his career by winning the eastern regionals, the states, the Northeast Foot Locker championships, and will compete Saturday, Dec. 9, at the Foot Locker national championships in San Diego.
He’s grown to love the sports, and feels the many challenges and strategies involved makes every race different.
“Take Eastern Mass. and the all-states,” he said. “They were a week apart. The Eastern Mass. was unbelievably cold. It was about 30. A week later, it was really muddy and because of that you had to run the same course (in Wrentham) entirely different.”
For those who may think running competitively in a cross country race is like a easy 5-mile jaunt along the beach, think again, Shelgren says.
“This is such a hard, demanding sport,” he said. “You have to be able to run at sub-.5:00 pace, and still be able to put on a kick from about 800 meters back to win.”
He ran for the freshman cross country team, but by the winter, he was up with the varsity and got to know many of the older athletes.
“Sophomore year was one of the best for me,” he said, “not so much because of my times or anything, but because all my friends were running. It was great.”
That summer, coach John Boyle gave all the runners a sheet with a workout regimen on it, and I did it.
“So, I had all kinds of confidence going into my junior year.”
He was in great shape, and had a spectacular junior season. But he began to understand how much of running is mental this fall, when the college application process and other outside issues sapped his focus.
“It happened in New York, the Manhattan Invitational,” he said. “I don’t use it as an excuse, but I got to the point where I was neck-and-neck with this guy,and I finally realized I didn’t have it, and I quit on the race.”
That hasn’t happened yet. For two weeks in a row, he outraced Newton North’s Andrew Mah. It’s a curious rivalry in that when the face is 5K, Shelgren always prevails. But in the outdoor and indoor 2-mile, he hasn’t defeated Mah yet.
“He just goes out tough,” Shelgren said. “And if he gets a gap on you, he goes the whole race. He’s one of the toughest racers I know.”
There was no Mah at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx last weekend when Shelgren decided he was going to simply stay with the pack, “let them do all the work,” and then go for it in the end. Thankfully I had enough to do that.”
Now it’s off to San Diego, where he’ll have warmer weather than he’s accustomed to when running.
“All I can think of his hydration,” he said. “You can’t really prepare for it here because it’s so cold. I realize it’s going to be a factor. I hope I don’t let it affect me too much.”