Crayton Carrozza has one more lap to go in a race that won’t count. Sixty-seven seconds left, in fact. And while that may seem a tad slow for someone like him, an athlete whom some believe will break 4 minutes in the mile in college, you have to remember why he’s doing this in the first place, or why it wasn’t done earlier, you know, against competition.
You could say it’s a simple equation. He was too old to compete, nearly 19 and a half by the time he graduated St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas. That’s what made him ineligible. That’s what put him here in this time trial. But was there a manual for how he was supposed to deal with it? Or how he was supposed to feel? Or how he would ultimately set or achieve any of his goals? His entire year had been one giant identity crisis.
Does age really matter, or will my drive to succeed ultimately prove my own fate?
While Crayton spent much of the year bonding with teammates, signing with the University of Texas, and building his foundation through daily training, there was another jury outside of Austin that sometimes dashed his confidence and laid digs at his expense. You guessed it, the social media warriors.
You aren’t really a high school athlete, and at 19, you’re older than most college freshman.
So the season forced him to ask an important question of himself, too: What really defines me as an athlete? Would it be the official school records he’d leave with, all of which came his junior season, or the hours of work he spent working toward an overall goal — the sometimes unquantifiable predictor of future success — whether it’s achieved or not. Only success will tell us that down the road.
A year without racing has largely given him a chance to think about what he wants to achieve, how others view him and how he ultimately wants to view himself.
To many, high school is about finding one’s purpose. And after this night, after finishing with the seventh fastest 3,200 meter time in the country in 2019 for a high school boy, in a time of 8:50.77, maybe Crayton found something greater than that.
On a day when no one was watching, he found out what he was truly capable of.
“He’s one of those kids,” University of Texas men’s distance coach Pete Watson said, “once you see him in person, you appreciate what kind of kid he really is. He has potential.”
Crayton had counted the days in his head, then on his fingers. He knew the Southwest Preparatory Conference’s ruling on his eligibility had happened, or at the very least was coming up. The conference was voting on a Wednesday, he thought.
It was Thursday.
“Dad, did you hear anything about the vote?” he asked in the car on the way to a practice last August. “What did they say?”
By the car ride, Paul Carrozza had known this moment was coming, too.
The prior spring, Jon McCain, his athletic director at St. Stephen’s, had given him a hint that Crayton likely wouldn’t be able to compete officially for the school in his final year because of an age restriction.
He was six days too old, in fact. The official ruling by the SPC in the fall of 2018, which was upheld in UIL events, was that he would be ineligible for his remaining high school season -- boiled down, it was a self-inflicted gap year, only without the freedom and exploration that those decisions usually provide.
Crayton wasn’t eligible to compete for the Spartans inside the SPC in 2019, and raced just four times as a senior, across cross country and track and field.
McCain’s notice was early enough that Paul knew what was ahead and was able to load his son up in the 800m, 1600m, 3200m and 4x800m at the SPC Championships in Dallas, in May of his junior year.
And Crayton eventually made good on all those bets, hitting for school and conference records in each.
But a part of Paul wasn’t truly happy with how it all ended.
In the grand scheme of things, records didn’t really matter — after all, every record is meant to be broken. But Paul knew the significance of what they stood for: His own high school 800-meter record at Paradise High in California, which he broke in his senior year, had stood for 33 years. He wanted Crayton to put down a time that, potentially, would never be challenged. He knew he was capable of it.
He had been training Crayton for just three years. Most coaches got four, even five or six years. Crayton wouldn’t get the opportunity to completely shatter the records.
So when the question came, Paul knew the agonizing truth. Not until then, though, did it finally hit him. He finally realized his son wouldn’t be given another opportunity to race in a high school uniform.
“I had a bunch of mixed emotions,” he said. “I felt that no matter what came our way, we were going to make the best of it. We would make the best of that possibility. But I felt bad that he could have been so off the charts good and wouldn’t have a chance to prove it.”
“I don’t think you’re going to be able to,” Paul told his son.
This story starts long before that car ride between father and son.
It starts 15 years earlier, on the greens of the Texas Capitol, as Paul and his wife, Shiela, watch a 4-year-old Crayton sprint with abandon across the lawn.
“Oh shit, he’s a runner!” Shiela said.
Six years later, he showed them again. By 2009, Austin’s Congress Avenue Mile had become one of the best shows in town. It was a 30-year-old race that featured a picturesque view and a fast mile across the main artery in the states’s Capitol. Paul’s former running store, RunTex, operated the event. But until then, Crayton had never entered in it, mostly because Paul and Shiela held a secret rule for their kids.
“We have this 10-year theory,” Paul said. “You can be intense and care for a sport for up to 10 years. And then you risk the effects of burnout or ability after that. So we always felt there’s this 16-to-26 window.”
As a result, Crayton had skateboarded, tried BMX, competed in water polo, and swam over the course of his adolescence.
Still, there were glimpses. That day in 2009 was an important one in Shiela’s eyes.
While Crayton was scheduled for a swim meet that day, he had no plans to focus on it. All of his friends were running in the mile.
“Can I run that?” he asked his parents.
“Nope!” Shiela said.
“I promise to go back to the meet,” he countered, “just let me run this and I’ll go back.”
What’s a parent to do? They gave in. Eventually, to their amazement, they witnessed a 10-year-old Crayton walk down his competition.
“We’re in the lead vehicle watching him and he has this flowing hair all over the place, down to his shoulders, and he’s just sitting on this kid’s butt,” Paul said. “He ran 5:30 and won by 45 seconds. And at that point, you just knew he was going to be good.”
This wasn’t surprising. In fact, it seemed to be finally coming full circle.
Nearly two decades prior, in 1993, Shiela qualified for the IAAF World Championships at 3,000 meters under the tutelage of Paul, whose own college career saw highs of a 3:47 in the 1,500m and multiple stabs at the 800. Both were All-Americans at Abilene Christian — after multiple stints at various schools, including the JUCO program Butte College.
Nearly a decade before that, when Paul and Shiela were high schoolers themselves, they found their own successes at the prep level. It only seemed obvious, after they had kids, that one would become an elite runner, too.
But it didn’t happen that way. Quinn, the family’s oldest child three years the elder of Crayton, was a national age group class swimmer. She was so gifted at the sport, she never gave the sport an earnest look. Coby, the youngest of the three and two years shy of Crayton, never quite headed toward that path, either.
Crayton saw the writing on the wall just a few years after that mile. In the pool opposite the lane next to Coby nearing his teenage years, he was getting out stroked.
“I knew then I probably had to find my own sport,” Crayton said.
For much of his senior season, there were times when Crayton wondered what exactly was he training for. Never before had he been ineligible, forced outside the walls of sport. Those who knew him best often saw how he responded to life’s serious moments, with a hearty laugh and an aw shucks charm.
But by August, it may have felt like the world was up against him.
“At first I thought I was ineligible for just SPC stuff,” Crayton said. “so I thought to myself, ‘I can still do big meets.’ And then once it was like, ‘No, you’re out of those big meets, too,’ it was like, ‘Ok, this sucks.’ It was all this training we were doing and it just felt like I just had to train for kind of nothing.”
Late in the month, an important early season meet on the cross country schedule was the Austin Westlake Invitational, a UIL-sanctioned meet which featured runners and schools from public and private athletic associations.
A year prior, Crayton had won the varsity race in 15:25.60 and nabbed his junior cross country 5K PR. But this time around, wearing a sweatshirt and shorts, he held a clipboard. He arrived at the venue alongside his father, choosing instead not to warm up with the team — he didn’t want to give the impression that he was running.
“It was emotionally charged,” Paul said. “There were moments when he was by me and there were moments he was by no one. He took off to get away from the whole scene.”
As the gun went off, Crayton immediately zoned in, sprinting to as many locations across the course as he could, finding teammates along the way. In some ways, it was an escape, Crayton’s release from the shackles of his ineligibility.
“I knew it was their moment,” Crayton said of his teammates. “I cheered the whole time. But emotionally it was pretty hard.”
He wouldn’t compete. But he could still run.
“You go to the mile split and every coach is there,” said Travis Dowd, one of Crayton’s best friends who won the race in August. “But midway through, you’d be at some other marker and he’s the only one there. He’s the only one who could have caught up with us.”
While the adrenaline was different, Crayton let his mind empty as it did in many of his former competitions. He didn’t need to think about that day, how his season would be mostly empty of real competition, or how he would hear chatter from opponents saying he was too old.
All he needed was a chance to go, to let those legs move.
He was surprised by what he found, a certain strength you begin to cultivate when faced with adversity.
“I told myself, ‘Make these next races count,’” Crayton said.
The pivotal question is here. How did Crayton, who was born on August 26, 1999, age out?
Much of it stems around Paul and Shiela’s desire for their children to take nontraditional approaches to education.
“It was a bit of a non-conformist oath thing,” Paul said.
When the pair’s daughter, Quinn, was approaching middle school, she was excelling in the pool and was securing times that were competitive nationally for her age group -- like almost Katie Ledecky good.
“Quinn was getting to the point where her training was more comprehensive and I wanted her to get more sleep,” Paul said. “We wanted the education to be there, but we didn’t need it to be babysitting.”
Ultimately, Paul and Shiela wanted to provide a path that would allow progression without burnout. So when their children were young, they hired a teacher from a nearby catholic school, St. Gabriel’s, to teach each of their children separately.
Then, after roughly two years, they moved to homeschooling, with all three children attending a 1-day academy focusing on one subject per week.
When Crayton reached middle school, around the time he was supposed to be in the seventh and eighth grades, Paul and Shiela enrolled him and Coby in a nontraditional middle school that focused on “finding your mission in life,” according to Paul.
If he had enrolled at St. Stephen’s immediately after, Paul says, there would have been no issue. But because the prior school did not rely on testing, they instead chose to put Crayton in another academy.
A year later, Paul approached St. Stephen’s about forming a running academy and Crayton and Coby were enrolled.
“We never took any view toward athletics,” Paul said. “We didn’t think about it, the cut-off date.”
Paul never asked Crayton to finish early, either. “He wasn’t done with school. We would have had to accelerate him in summer school.”
And to be fair, Crayton never was behind. By his senior year, he was studying Mandarin and taking AP courses. When he looks back on it now, Paul says there’s only one regret.
“It’s that if he could have competed in high school straight up,” he said. “He deserves to have fun.”
Crayton woke up the day of the Texas Relays his junior year with a buzz he hadn’t felt in, like, ever.
What’s a kid to do? Skip school.
So that’s what he did ahead of the biggest race of his career, the high school boys elite 1,600 meter race at the Texas Relays. This was one of the country’s most prestigious track and field events, and it was basically in his back yard.
“I was pretty nervous the entire day,” he said.
For much of the day Crayton spent it playing video games like Call of Duty, but as the hours passed it wouldn’t go away: that electricity you get from envisioning a successful race.
This field was to feature the state’s best runners and even some from out of the state: Turkey Valley’s Jake Merrell, Niwot’s Cruz Culpepper, Fort Worth Christian’s Carter Cheeseman and Stony Point’s Dereck Elkins.
“All the pressure was on me,” Crayton said.
It all happened in a jolt. The gun went off and he was in the thick of it. “I just remember having to run in Lane 2 and a little bit of Lane 3, so I was stuck behind a pack.”
Merrell made his move at 400 meters, and “everyone else responded,” Crayton said.
That’s when he went for it with 200 left and picked up the lead, even holding it until the final 100. That’s when Elkins and Culpepper made the pass. Crayton settled for third in 4:11.79.
“I tell everybody,” said Watson, the Longhorns distance coach, “We have to get the best kids in Texas. And a kid like him reminds me of Sam Worley. I think he’s got all the tools.”
The race was an important juncture for Crayton, too. From his first freshman outdoor season, when he finished with bests of 4:33.17 and 9:59.39, to his sophomore improvements of 1:57.09 and 4:17.96 and 9:34.83, he was working his way through the makeshift world of competitive running.
His progression by his junior season, however, showed his potential at the Division I level — and to Paul, maybe even beyond that.
From the Texas Relays, he would go on to secure times that would cement him as one of the state’s emerging distance runners — and sneakily, maybe a national-caliber one, too.
He clocked a 49.7 in an open 400m, went 1:50.38, 1:51.02 and 1:52.48 in the 800m and even popped a 9:15.93 in the 3,200m at the SPC Championships.
Crayton only raced the 1,600 twice across 2018, mostly because Paul saw him as a miler in college. He didn’t want to wear out the tread.
“I’m not chasing the mile,” he said.
Much of his son’s development over the years was specifically tied to Paul’s philosophy of spiraling upward. He believed in interval training almost every day and progressive workouts that forced an athlete’s body to get comfortable at speeds it would need to race at.
“I think because I’m so connected and I’ve done the exact same thing he’s going through for so long, that I feel like what he’s going to feel,” Paul said.
“As a coach, you just want to provide them with the right opportunities so they can succeed,” he added. “Be best prepared for the events. But I think a lot of it is not leaving out elements of training.
“Don’t get stuck in a rut of doing the same things, or not shaking it up. Keep that rotation. Trust the process of the short intervals, the long intervals, the steady states, the resistance, the over distance and then the fusion of those things. You put it together and that’s the callousing effect.”
It’s important to think about the future.
A year mostly absent of racing? Ultimately, it’s fleeting. It’s a redshirt. The short game is to be caught up in it; the long game is what matters. And to those around Crayton, they believe in his potential to succeed past high school.
By his junior year, college coaches turned on to that fact, too. Once Pete Watson was hired on to Edrick Floreal’s staff at the University of Texas in July of 2018, he made it a priority to immediately go after Crayton. Age in the college game is becoming a fluid idea, anyway: BYU’s athletes often take 2-year missions, then return to school as men. Then there’s international recruits, like NAU’s Matt Baxter, of New Zealand, or New Mexico’s Weini Kelati, who come into school older and more refined.
He had officials to Arkansas, Washington, Oregon and Wake Forest. But some part, Crayton said, always knew he would be in Austin. He didn’t need to take an official, but did anyway. His sister was in her final year at Texas. He had been babysat by Longhorn track and field athletes as a young child, spending time in training rooms there. He had gone to football games at DKR.
“He’s huge for us,” Watson said. “We’ll get big miles out of him and I think he’s a big one.”
The Longhorns were convinced. And Watson had been especially excited by the potential of Crayton as a first year athlete running in 2020. As most coaches do, he saw someone else in Carrozza, a former athlete. While at the University of Virginia, Watson coached Henry Wynne to an NCAA indoor title in the mile, a third-place finish outdoors in the 1,500 and multiple ACC Championships. Wynne was one of the best mid-distance athletes Watson ever coached.
Watson saw a very similar trait in Crayton.
“I was excited about his patience,” he said. “A lot of young guys don’t have it.”
Much of that could be credited to Paul’s training, who often preached that it isn’t how you start but how you finish.
“My thought has always been, ‘You have to be in the game,’” Paul said. “You have to be alert. It’s all what you do during (the race). I don’t care what you’re thinking. Run a race that when it’s done you don’t have any regrets.”
In a year that could have been full of them, Crayton made sure he made the most of his opportunities.
The best days were in California. The pre-meet surfs in the ocean the day or two before. It’s there where Crayton’s worries would wash away and he would be free in that ocean, just living life.
Being a teenager.
That team trip to the Mt. SAC Invitational in Walnut, California, last October was one such moment. It was the only big cross country race Crayton ran in the fall.
And it was a blur. He was 20th, then sixth, then all of a sudden second. He made a key decision to take it easy on a series of switchback turns and then, like a bull, dominated the hill. He won the race over Great Oak’s Tyler Tickner, finishing the 3-mile course in 14:35.00.
“It was validating to know I could do that,” he said.
He would go on to run time trials that fall in the 1,600, going 4:08, and then 9:07 in the 3,200. Those efforts were examples of his aerobic capacity during the fall and showed what he was still capable of. But they weren’t real competitions.
“Competing is different than time trials,” Paul said. “Time trials give you the confidence that you can run fast. Competing is deciding how you get to the line first or stay in the game. It’s different. Racing shows you how good you are with competing.”
Crayton could have competed on the national stage in cross country — at his age, he was actually eligible in California. But he never tested the waters at Foot Locker.
Instead, he opted to go to a birthday party following an ACT final. Foot Locker was Foot Locker, but the hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd was playing there. And there were only so few moments to still be a teenager.
“At the end of the day, he’s talented and working hard and he achieves marks that other people can’t,” Crayton’s friend, Travis Dowd said.
Spring would gift him with a few more races in more intense — but not necessarily urgent — environments.
There was a fifth-place finish in the elite 800 meter run at the Texas Relays in March, in a race that featured the then-NCAA Indoor, and future-NCAA Outdoor, champion Bryce Hoppel of Kansas. Crayton dazzled in the final 200 meters, passing a series of athletes en route to a 1:50.64.
“I think I planned it well,” he said. “I negative split.”
A month later, he travelled to California, near the grounds where his father once raced, and scorched the track again for a US No. 1 effort at 1,500 meters, going 3:46.24 at the Steve Scott Invitational. That time stuck the entire season as No. 1.
“The first two laps I was in the back,” Crayton said. “I could see the pack fading. And so I caught up to the front. With 300 to go, we both went and were stride for stride. I was thinking about all those one-hit-wonders we did in practice.”
“One thing I’ve learned, you want to be a big moment runner,” Paul said. “You want to know when it’s really time to perform.”
Later, a trip to Seattle for national meet Brooks PR was passed on, mostly because Paul didn’t want any criticism about age to be thrown his son’s way if he won. Most of the athletes were 18.
Instead, Crayton had hoped to race at the USA Track and Field Under-20 Championships in Miramar, Florida. There was a chance to qualify for the Pan American U20 Championships in San Jose, Costa Rica; if he raced well enough and finished in the top two places, he’d be wearing the USA jersey.
Paul booked the family’s plane tickets and set up accommodation.
But when he tried to enter his son into the meet, he was met with a bit of shock.
Crayton was too old — he turned 20 in August; no athlete could be over 19 by the end of 2019.
“That was a bit crushing,” Paul said, “And my mistake.”
Once again, he was forced to break a disappointing bit of news to his son. He texted Crayton.
At this point, nothing was fazing Crayton anymore.
By May, with the school year just a few days from being over, Crayton was carefree. No more disappointments. No more missed races. He was already past the high school season. The private and public Texas state championships had come and gone.
In the car with his girlfriend, Margaret, on the way to the track for his final time trial, he talked about spirit week, his Mandarin final, and the weirdness of graduating high school. He would later walk with his two best friends, Dowd and Philip Chang, then celebrate with a puff of a cigar.
“It’s a little weird,” he said. “It seems like it came pretty quick. I’m pretty sad, but I’m ready to leave.”
That easiness continued through his warm-up as the sun began to descend and the air sat thick with heat. Crayton joked with teammates, many of whom would push him toward his first sub-9 effort at 3,200 meters.
It was only until one of his teammates and good friends, the UCLA bound Chang, completely threw himself into his own 3,200 meter time trial that Crayton finally started to sense the impending workload ahead of him.
“I’m actually really nervous,” he said.
A tense Crayton took off his sweatpants, removed his sweatshirt and revealed a red St. Stephen’s jersey and running shorts.
No age restriction was going to stop him here. This would be his last effort in a St. Stephen’s uniform.
‘GO!’ Paul shouted.
And in that gut-check moment, it was all business. His eyes were like lasers, only focused on the meters ahead.
Early on, Crayton’s legs were pumping so much, he went through the first 200-meter split in 32 and the first 400 meters in 64. His arms swung like clockwork; sweat began to drip from every pore.
New teammates started to come in every two laps, flanked on his right and left.
And eventually, he began to forget about the work. He knew his body was doing something remarkable, almost robotic. Paul may have been screaming splits from the infield, but at the same time, it was like he was invisible.
The sun was setting over the distant horizon at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School.
Almost no one, outside of a handful of teammates and coaches, were witnessing it, an athletic accomplishment only a few high school boys in the country were even capable of doing every season.
“Part of this athletic process is making the commitment to do it, knowing it’s coming and showing up and doing it,” Paul said. “Even though it’s a time trial versus a competitive race, it’s still something you think about, care about, makes you tense. You have to show up and do it, and then afterwards you get to be haunted by it or own it.”
But Crayton was crushing it.
He was way under 9 minutes for 3,200 meters — he was actually through seven laps in 7:43 — and while it was an effort that, in some ways felt wasted for a talent like him, it also agonizingly showed the incredible talent that wasn’t fully unleashed in 2019.
“It’s not like once you turn 19 you get magical powers and all of a sudden you can break a time,” Crayton later said.
By the end, his legs had memorized the pattern. He hit the final 200 meter split, began to unwind, and then his teammates left with a little less than 100 meters to go. For a moment, Crayton nearly slipped off the track, the lactate in his legs deadening.
Then he finishes in 8:50.77, which stood as the seventh fastest effort at the distance of the season. He crossed the line and hit the nearly blistering red polyurethane track.
A teammate joked, “Throwing up is just weakness of the mind.”
And Crayton hardly moves for several minutes. But eventually, as always, he seemed to find his humor. The seriousness of the attempt now draining, he responded to his moment of brilliance the only way he knew how. Whether anyone beyond St. Stephen’s was willing to congratulate him for the effort or not, he would remember it for an eternity.
“I don’t know if I’ll remember it most for the time or how much it hurt, but definitely both.”