No Stopping Nathan Green
A serious health-scare almost limited the Borah High School junior for good in 2019. Then the power of belief got him back.
Nathan Green wasn’t thinking about what his heart couldn’t handle on that mind-numbingly stupid incline at Nike Cross Nationals this past December.
His mind, it wasn’t telling him no, either.
Maybe it should have. But it didn’t.
Because while the Borah High School junior’s legs may have been hurting, and while his heart may have been beating fast, his mission was a simple one: He needed to finish what had become, like many others before it, another difficult race.
He needed to make it up those hills.
He needed to earn All-American.
The only difference this time around was that this race would culminate in what had been inarguably the most emotional and unnerving season of his cross country and distance running career. With a potentially serious health-scare behind him, he went for it.
“Once you start running, you can’t quit,” Green said afterward. “You have to go for it.”
And now, with the beginning of 2020, a whole new set of big expectations arrives for Green.
It’s important to look back to that moment, just a few months ago.
Green’s a tough kid. He’s a strong runner.
He’s someone who invites a challenge; an athlete who adores the hills and tough terrain that Idaho brings. For the most part, he’s been healthy across his career.
An injury his freshman season erased his first cross country season — prohibiting him from competing in the kinds of races that would have placed him within Idaho’s top ranks in cross country — but by that outdoor season he was in full form, winning a state 1,600 meter title in 4:22.18.
His sophomore year went even better. He won his first Idaho state cross country title, and earned his first All-American finish at Nike Cross Nationals. He would go on to add two more state titles over the outdoor season and post the top time in the 1-mile run across the sophomore class nationally, hitting 4:06.20 on the clock.
Two more years remained for Green, arguably the top distance runner in the Class of 2021. Anything seemed possible.
And then in the summer, he felt something off.
His chest hurt, felt like it was being squeezed. Hard. Green thought it was nothing. He tried to run through it.
“I had to lay off,” Green said. “I sat out a couple meets and kept training, then tested it a little bit. But I knew something wasn’t 100-percent.”
He went to the doctors with his family. They cleared him.
In September, still unsure but not ready to quit, Green lined up at the Bob Firman Invitational.
It went wrong, almost immediately.
“It hurt real bad,” he said.
“I was unable to finish,” said Green, who dropped out just after the first big hills at Eagle Island State Park. “I had to drop out due to chest pain.”
The pain — and the unknown speculation around the cause of his stress — forced Green’s family to take him to the Emergency Room at nearby St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center.
The set of events was a massive emotional burden for the junior.
“It was scary,” he said. “The pain was nothing like I’ve felt before and it was serious and intense. It was terrifying. I had never been in a situation where I didn’t finish a race. I was never in a situation where I feared for my career.”
Doctors eventually took MRIs and diagnosed Green with a heart murmur, which indicated there was an abnormality in the way the blood was flowing through his heart. They later found that he had an early repolarization, which impacts the valves of the heart.
He was released later that day, but doctors told Green to keep a close eye on the way his body responded to exercise.
“After taking a couple weeks off, I had a heart monitor on,” he said. “We took time to see how I would react with stress on my heart — running, walking, jogging.”
Those weeks felt like months. But he continued to hope for the best, made sure he was doing all the right things to make sure his heart was in good condition.
Eventually, doctors told Green he could take the stress test — which is a cardiovascular examination of how the heart deals with exercise.
A passing grade would mean he would be able to, realistically, start challenging himself in distance running again. Green took that to mean his season wasn’t completely over yet.
And then, like that, he was green-lighted. A-Plus. He passed.
“It just … took care of itself,” he said. “No medication or any surgery. It did what the body does and solved itself. Thank the Lord.”
That isn’t to say Green wasn’t worried.
That first race back in October was nerve-wracking. He decided to come back less than a month later after Bob Firman, at the Boise City Meet on October 10.
What helped, in the month since that last race, though, was the support group around him.
The people closest to Green were incredible. There was his best friend Zach Garey, who had been the one to urge Green into the sport as a freshman -- that, Green later said, he could never repay him for.
“He’s why I’m so successful,” Green said of his friend. “I owe everything to him. He gets me through core and track workouts, long runs and hill repeats. He’s always there to pick me up, same with the entire team.”
Then there was Borah head coach Tim Severa — who won Brooks Running’s Coach of the Year in 2019.
“He’s one of the greatest coaches in Idaho,” he said. “He brings the heart and soul to Borah and really motivates us to be better runners and people every day.”
Green’s spirits were boosted by this sense of place, and by the people who gave him optimism. So it didn’t take long for him to see that this minor setback could be turned around.
Every day seemed like a step forward.
Once back to training, he started slowly but surely. On the best days, he would crest one of Boise’s tallest hills, Three Bears Trail, and look over the city -- and Albertsons stadium -- taking pride in just how far he’d come.
“You get to the resting point and you can see all of Boise,” he said.
Finally, he had to race again. And you would think, Maybe an easy lead-in? Maybe run as hard as you need to, but keep some in the tank? Work back into it.
That wasn’t Green.
He proceeded to score a season best time for 5K in 15:00.24 at Ann Morrison Park at the Boise City Meet.
It turned into one of the best (timed) performances of his career.
“It was a huge confidence boost,” he said. “I didn’t have any doubt in my mind after that race.
“There was no looking back.”
Races force you to look forward.
That Saturday in December, Green was staring at two gigantic hills mere meters from the finish, the last race of his junior season a few small seconds from being over.
He thought about the previous week.
Severa had run him through a devilish workout: First, measured over distance, with 2x 1,000-meters.
They followed with 4x 500-meter sprints, which coach had told Green would simulate what the last moments of NXN would feel like. As runner was fighting through lactic acid, he would have to beat it.
Green, as always, crushed the workout.
And so by the weekend, his legs had felt fresh, ready. He knew he could have a good finish, maybe even a top five performance. He trusted that the training -- and all the adversity beforehand -- had built him stronger, tougher.
“But the mud,” Green later said. “I was not mentally prepared for the mud.”
He got out to a slow start, 15th through the first mile before dragging backward into 18th at mile two.
Green was hurting at every point. He made up one place by the third mile. He was 17th.
And then that hill.
“It was finish on empty,” Green kept saying to himself. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s what XC is about. I kicked my heart out.”
He rushed by six runners in the final 200 meter stretch.
Green finished 11th overall, an improvement by seven places from his 2018 finish.
He earned his second straight All-American placement.
“I just put one foot over the other,” he said. “I was thinking of everyone back home, how much they sacrificed for me to get here. I thought about how much it would mean to them to see me do well.”
Green hasn’t been thinking about his heart lately.
The heart murmur, at least the dangerous parts of that diagnosis, are being managed.
Sure, it’s a part of what he’s endured over the last year, though it’s not something he’s continually worried about.
He’s looking ahead.
This indoor season could see Green get back to New Balance Nationals Indoor and go after a national title.
“As of right now, we’re chasing the dream of just making it back and getting a podium at New Balance Nationals Indoor,” he said.
Who’s to say it isn’t possible?
Green finished ninth in the championship indoor mile a year ago in 4:12.51, even though the whole experience was a little confusing.
He thought he was in the Emerging Elite Section, then found out he was in the Championship, though in the first heat.
He would go on to win that section — and he was three seconds faster than the next closest competitor.
That performance taught him, even a year ago, that you deal with whatever is put in front of you. Racing, he knew, was about how you managed pressure.
A year later? That idea took on a totally different significance.
But now, it’s not about what his heart can’t do. Success is measured in the power of belief in oneself.
“Just keep looking forward,” he said. “This year will be better than the last.”