By Lance White
James Garst can run. There’s not a soul that watched him finish a race for Daniel Boone High School’s cross-country team that would say otherwise.
Now, Garst has taken a step up to run at the collegiate level. While he’s adjusted well, even placing third on ETSU’s team during the last race, things didn’t start out as smoothly.
“The biggest difference this year has probably been my underestimation of the competition,” Garst said. “The way it was at Boone, everything just came to us so easily. So when I got here at first, I wasn’t ready for this level of competition. The first few weeks here were extremely difficult. You just have to grind and grind, and keep working harder and harder.”
Working hard is something that Garst has known for years. That much is apparent in his ability to step out of high school and into college as a scorer for ETSU’s team, but Coach George Watts believes that Garst can continue to excel and improve.
“He’s a long distance guy, but at the same time we’ve got to work on his speed a little bit,” Watts said. “They worked on that to some extent last year at Boone, but he’s continuing to adjust here and he’s been getting better in practice and in races.”
Boone and the coaches there are where Garst attributes most of his success. He is very humble and knows that very few get where they are without some help.
“At Boone, they pretty much taught us at a college level,” Garst said. “They broke it down to the small things. A lot of places for practice, you’ll just go out and run and see how you improve from there. We did every small thing you might not do until you get into college like ice baths twice a week, stretching every single day, just a bunch of little things that not everyone might get to experience at a high school level.”
That humility is shown in how Garst deals with his teammates and coaches as well, not to mention in his successes during his first collegiate level season. While that type of success might go to the head of a more egotistical individual, Garst has kept it level.
“James is pretty low-key, if his success has gone to his head he’s been hiding it well,” Watts said. “Being a freshman is hard sometimes, but I could see him being a leader or a team captain in another year or two.”
Athletic prowess isn’t all that’s required to excel as a collegiate athlete. If the student doesn’t have the brains to back it up, they’re often penalized both on and off the field. Luckily, that hasn’t been an issue for Garst.
“James was a strong student in high school, and since we’re just part of the way through the semester we’re going to have to wait and see if that transferred,” Watts said. “His midterm grades were good, so I don’t see any problems there. Once he gets used to the academic rigors of college I think he’ll develop into a solid student.”
Back at Boone, Garst was second on his cross country team to Adam Barnard. This friendly rivalry is part of what helped Garst improve as much as he did while he was in high school.
“Adam and I were always really competitive and even though I never beat him, we pushed each other in races,” Garst said, “It was always really great to have that one person to chase after.”
That has changed pretty dramatically since high school, as Garst can attest. Before, in most races, Barnard would be the only person in front of Garst.
Garst’s one job was trying to pass Barnard and get first. Now, he has to contend with every runner in the race.
“At this point it’s a lot of improving yourself,” Garst said. “Everyone is at the same level almost in college, they’re talented, refined and they know what they can do. You pretty much have to outrace everyone every single race, so it’s not quite the same as high school.”
For instance, at ETSU’s final meet before Saturday’s conference championships, Garst ran second for the team in 25:59.90 at the Wake Forest Invitational, but that placed him 45th overall and 30th in the team scoring. Still, that 5:13 per mile pace over 8,000 meters was barely slower than his 5,000 meter pace of 5:05 at last fall’s TSSAA state championships.
That doesn’t surprise his high school coach, Lynn Jeffers.
“James is disciplined in what he does,” Jeffers said, “he’s very intelligent and driven, and he wants to be the best he can be. James isn’t just trying to be the best runner he can be, but the best person he can as well.”
Garst knows that much of his success is owed to his coaching at Daniel Boone. Jeffers believes that communication between the runner and coach is one of the most important things you can drive into an athlete.
“We tried to get the runners to buy into a lot of do’s and don’ts, things like rest and recovery, water intake, and even their grades and academics,” Jeffers said. “Communication is huge, and James has always been great at talking and communicating with the coaches.”
If the coaches don’t know that a runner is hurting or feeling unwell, the runner could be pushed too far and end up being injured. James’ strength doesn’t just lie in his ability to talk, but also in his physical build.
“James is built for running very long distances,” Jeffers said. “He’s extremely strong, not just mentally but also physically. He hasn’t quite had the foot speed that some of the other athletes have had, but his mentality and strength is above most others. The longer the distance, the better James will perform.”
Garst is working on himself, and will continue to do so as he races more and more throughout his college career. Watts said that he didn’t expect Garst to improve a great deal this season, but only because they have two races left.
“We only have two more meets left in the season,” Watts said, “the Conference Championship is next weekend on the 31st, and then there’s regionals which is November 13th.”
No matter where he’s running or who he’s running for, Garst has his eyes forward where they need to be. He knows the objective.
“My job is to catch the guy in front of me.” Garst said.