Never Sacrifice The Gift
With just a few meets remaining in his high school career, a senior distance runner won’t settle for anything but the best outcome
Dustin Horter kept staring at his watch.
With each lightning strike, he knew another 30 minutes would be lost, and there was a chance he wouldn’t walk on the graduation stage.
To go or not to go? To race or not to race?
But it wasn’t so much of a question. After six weather delays at the last district meet of his career on May 18, the Lakota East (OH) High School senior was already focusing on the starting line. He was staying.
By 9:45 p.m., when he finally got his chance to run the 3200m, graduation was over.
Horter, who at the time was the nation’s top-ranked runner in the mile and 3200m, was devastated, but deep down he knew one thing.
He had to run--and he did, winning in 9:10.34.
Even before the weather rolled in, and even before he won the 1600m earlier that day, his eyes were laser-focused on the mission. Go out and be the best. He knows those expectations go well beyond graduating high school, where he finished with an above-4.0 grade point average.
“His goals are set so far beyond even the state championship level,” Lakota East distance coach Adam Thomas said. “He doesn’t want to be the best kid in Ohio, he wants to be the best kid in the nation. His goals are to compete at the NCAA national championship level, and he regularly mentions he wants to run for Team USA in the Olympics someday.
“I think that’s really what drives him, is just to become one of the best distance runners in the world, and as he’s chasing that dream all these state championships and conference titles and crazy times he runs are just kind of stepping stones along the way for him.”
The Indiana University-bound runner already holds an AAU Junior Olympics national title (from 2015 when he was just a freshman), back-to-back Ohio High School Athletic Association Division I state cross country titles (2016 and 2017), state indoor and outdoor championships in the 1600 (2017) and a New Balance Nationals Indoor title in the 1600m from March.
There are 26 other titles from the Greater Miami Conference, plus district and regional championships in both track and cross country.
His resume is unmatched in Ohio. He keeps winning anywhere he goes.
But is Dustin Horter the best distance runner in the country?
Before his high school career closes, he wants to prove it.
Horter has an eye on doubling up at the OHSAA Division I state meet Saturday at Ohio State University’s Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium, where he could become the first runner since 1994 to sweep both the 1600m and 3200m titles.
He had a chance to do it last year after winning the 1600m, but on a hot, humid day, he felt too drained to go for a second title and decided not to run the 3200m ... despite being seeded first.
Was it a miss? Maybe, but Horter doesn’t regret it. Some days you just don’t have it, he says.
The point is, nothing will stop him from trying it this year –- not even if it means skipping graduation.
The district meet was the first of two qualifying stages for state, and he had to finish in the top four to move on to regionals. The weather delays began between the girls’ and boys’ 800m, so he was about 25 minutes away from his last race and should have been able to make it in time to Xavier University’s Cintas Center about 20 miles across Cincinnati.
But as he was faced with a decision to determine what was more important to him, there was never any doubt.
“It never crossed my mind to leave,” said Horter, who was surprised the following Monday with his own personal graduation ceremony at the school. “I was just kind of sitting there suffering, like, ‘I’m going to have to miss it.’ I just had to stay there because pursuing the passion of mine to go for the double, I just had to stay there, and I think that’s going to push me through it, knowing I did all this stuff -- I sacrificed my graduation, I sacrificed a bunch of time with my friends.
“So far this summer, we’ve been out since May 10 or 11 and I’ve been running every day, trying to be responsible about what I eat during the day and how much sleep I get, just kind of sacrificing a little bit of my senior summer before I go to college, and all that stuff culminating into one thing, that’s just really giving me a second wind to the season to push through it.”
Beyond a chance to ultimately win both events, Horter also wants to break four minutes in the mile -- potentially becoming the 11th high school athlete to accomplish that feat -- and if he’s got enough left in his tank, he would like to reach 8:40 in the two-mile. Both times would be state records. The latter would also rank No. 3 all-time. Nationally, only two athletes have ever broken 8:40.
Horter enters the state meet with a best of 4:03.4 in the 1600m, but is seeded at 4:10.70 from regionals and needs to beat 4:05.13 for the all-time state meet record, which was set by Westerville North’s Bob Kennedy, an Indiana alumnus and former Team USA runner, in 1988.
“Being able to break his record would mean a lot to me to be compared to him because he was a really good runner for Team USA and stuff like that,” Horter said. “To be put along those kinds of names would be a really big honor because I ultimately have those same goals.”
Patrick Watkins Memorial’s Andrew Jordan holds the state meet record in the 3200m at 8:54.96, which he ran in 2016. Horter’s best time is an 8:48.62, which he posted at the Eastern Relays, while his seed time from regionals is 9:15.52.
Thomas is confident Horter can achieve his goals, particularly in the mile since he runs that one with fresh legs.
“We’ve just kind of gradually improved his goals over the last four years,” Thomas said. “We knew he was going to be special, and we were kind of patient with his training and everything and just set some long-term goals. The most beneficial thing for him is that he’s stayed healthy.
“We haven’t missed a beat in training, and set the goal two years ago that it would be cool to break a four-minute mile. All the training has gone according to plan, and now we’re pretty close and we’re going to try to make that a reality.”
Horter has been chasing records since elementary school, when he first realized he had a talent for running.
He clocked 6:05 in the mile during gym class in the second grade, and the next year he was encouraged to join the Ohio Blaze Amateur Athletic Union track team after finishing well ahead of everyone else during a field day event.
By fifth grade, he broke the school’s record for the mile only to then watch a sixth-grader beat his time by a second.
Horter came back the next year and broke the record again.
“He’s just always been able to go out and run and finish way ahead of everyone,” Horter’s mother, Betsy Horter, said. “I think he was surprised at first, but once he realized he was actually pretty good at it, the first thing he wanted to do was beat the elementary school record.”
But until high school, track was just something he mainly did to condition for football -- his first love. He had played basketball, baseball and soccer, as well, but didn’t decide to be a year-round runner until ninth grade when Thomas saw that he ran a 4:32 in the mile as an eighth grader and asked him to join the cross country team, where he had narrowly missed qualifying for state the previous few years.
Horter had already begun preparing for football, but he decided he wanted to help the seniors get to state. And despite going unranked in the Ohio coaches’ poll all season, the Thunderhawks finished fifth in Division I that year.
“His first practice they went out and ran 3.1 miles or whatever it was, and he told me, ‘Mom, I don’t know if I can do this,’” said Betsy Horter, who ran track and cross country at Colerain (OH) High School. “I told him, ‘Your body just needs to adjust. It will take a little time, but you’ll be fine.’ He adjusted very quickly.”
Those seniors challenged Horter, who finished his first 5K in 16:42, and ultimately he said they helped forge his passion for the sport.
But, when they graduated and as he continued to improve and had fewer people pushing him in practice and local meets, Horter had to find other ways to challenge himself.
He says his Christian faith was instrumental in getting him to an elite level because it’s given him a bigger purpose than wins and losses.
Horter kneels down and prays before every race, and the track is a reminder, he says, that “God has a path” for him.
Horter also knows to make the best of the talent he’s been given, that he has to keep working harder than his competition. That’s why he aims so high with his goals, he says, so he has something to driving him forward.
“He’s obviously an extremely talented kid, probably the most talented kid I’ve ever coached, but he’s also probably one of the most dedicated and has one of the best work ethics I’ve ever seen as well,” Thomas said. “When you put those two things together, you’re going to see some pretty special things.”
Betsy said her son is “very well-balanced and efficient” with his time as he manages academics, sports and his social life, which often included supporting all the other sports teams at Lakota East.
Running is always a priority and has never been a chore for him. He runs in the mornings, at night and in the heat–-whenever he can get in a workout.
Horter follows a challenging training plan that he and Thomas came up with, and the pair have placed a greater focus on speed work this year, which has made him feel confident that he can pull off that double at state.
“I am in the best shape I’ve ever been in,” Horter said. “I started off the year running 800m and 1600m pace stuff so when I get into those 32s and I have to run 20-30 seconds slower per mile than my mile PR, it just kind of feels like I put it into cruise control a little bit. I think my legs will be pretty warmed up after the 16 and I’ll come out for that 32 hopefully feeling really good doing it.”
This state meet is Horter’s last chance to put a stamp on his high school legacy. Next week, as he heads to Seattle for Brooks PR, a national meet pitting some of the best distance runners in the country against each other, he’ll figure out just what kind of racer he is outside of Ohio--though he’s been there and done that, too.
Then he begins training for college.
Horter says he knows people will be watching him with certain expectations, but he’s gotten pretty good at “toning that out and just staying focused” on what he needs to accomplish.
Thomas doesn’t think Horter quite realizes the impact he’s already made.
“Every race he goes to these days is like an event,” Thomas said. “Everyone gets excited when Dustin steps on the track, and I tell people it’s almost the same thing when he does a hard workout here. The rest of the team, anybody who is around on the track, everyone kind of stops and watches what Dustin does because every day he is going to do something that amazes you.
“I don’t think these last races will be any different.”
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Contact freelance correspondent Laurel Pfahler at email@example.com or Tweet at her @LaurelPfahler
Graphic illustrated by FloSports’ Adam Oestreich