Luke Johnson, Atharv Kulkarni, Vedang Lad and Matthew SantaMaria have each put together memorable runs individually, but it’s what they did together on the biggest stage that will leave a lasting legacy.
The quartet became the second team ever from High School North to win a national championship when they captured the 4xMile relay at the New Balance Nationals in Greensboro, North Carolina on June 19. They followed Tyler Corkedale, Ryan Sleeper, Joe Rosa and Jim Rosa, who won the 4xMile relay at the 2009 indoor nationals.
“It felt really great,” said Kulkarni, the senior who anchored the relay. “That was the first national championship in a while for our school. It had been a dream of mine since our coach told us the story about those guys.”
To do so took a united effort with everyone at their best. They all have different styles and strengths and levels of experience. Each had had their own moments in the mile in the past, but their personal records had come on different dates, at different races.
SantaMaria, a senior, ran his fastest mile at groups last year. Johnson, a sophomore, had his top mile at groups this year. Lad, a junior, ran his best mile at sectionals. And Kulkarni, a senior, recorded his best mile at the Meet of Champions.
“For all four guys to run their best race is very, very challenging,” said North head coach Brian Gould. “They did that and then some. It was the best race I’ve ever seen them all run as individuals, and they all did it together in the same relay.
“I’ve watched the race a couple times now and at the end of the race, I don’t think any of those guys could have done a single thing better. It’s incredible how they rose to the occasion.”
North finished in 17:19.69, seven seconds faster than the runner-up from New York’s Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School. SantaMaria led off with a 4:19 to put North in the thick of things, Johnson ran a personal-best 4:15, Lad strategically ran 4:27 and gave the baton to Kulkarni in position to win it, which he did with a 4:16 split.
Almost lost in the thrill of the national championship win was another goal that they accomplished barely 12 hours earlier. The first day of nationals finished with them setting a new school record 7:43.63, while placing 12th in the 4×800.
The team took ice baths, rested and prepared for their final day racing together. They also ran the distance medley relay with Ahmed Elmogi running the 400-meter leg in place of Lad, but that came after they’d made history with the 4xMile.
The foursome was driven to the win the 4xMile by history—there was that first North team to win nationals, and it served as a constant reminder of their capabilities.
“It was definitely a big deal because we’ve been working toward it practically since we got to high school,” Lad said. “We’ve heard of Jim and Joe Rosa. There’s an All-American list you see and you want to be a part of it.”
Their own history motivated them further. SantaMaria, Johnson, Lad and Kulkarni had placed seventh at outdoor nationals last year.
“Everyone ran well last spring except me and Vedang,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have the best of races. We finished seventh so we didn’t do awful, but we expected more. Throughout training in winter and spring, it was in the back of my mind how painful it was to know you didn’t run well. In the sense of motivation, I was thinking about it a good amount.”
Then earlier this year, the same four had finished fifth at the indoor nationals in a time of 17:36.05. It gave them a podium finish and they saw a chance for more.
North arranged its runners in the same order that it ran indoor nationals. They were confident in the way each could contribute in that lineup.
“We’re fortunate in that we had a guy in Matt that we knew would run a strong and consistent leadoff leg,” Gould said. “He’s the sort that can run in a crowd and thrives off pack running. Luke is a hammerhead and he’ll just go out there and drive. If there’s a gap, he’ll make up the gap. If he’s in a pack, he’s not going to be afraid to take a risk and pull away.
“Vedang has an incredible internal clock and sense of pace. Whether he was in a pack or in open space, he’s a guy that would run his best in a big pack or alone on the track. He’s able to push himself in a tight race or completely by himself. And Avarth has anchored our 4×4, our 4×8, our distance medley. That kid is a warrior. He’s such a competitor.”
SantaMaria has been a consistent force for the Knights. He’s been steady in races and he had North in the top three at the first exchange.
“I was pretty nervous going into it,” SantaMaria said. “I didn’t want to hand off in a bad position or jeopardize our chances. The first leg sets the tone.
Johnson might be the best athlete of the four. He plays football in the fall, then plays catch-up with his fitness all winter. But he’s become a top miler, and he put together one of the fastest splits of the day, and he still has two more years of running with North.
Lad has become a top two-miler after a humble start to his running career. He didn’t come out for track until he was cut from the swimming team his freshman year.
“Most of middle school was Science Olympiad and other stuff,” Lad recalled. “I went to winter track. Winter track was my first school sport ever.”
His strength worked well for him in what became the most tactical leg within the 4xMile race. He sat on the heels of the race leader for the first half of the race, then made his move in the second half to put Kulkarni in position to win.
Kulkarni did the rest. The year before, he’d gotten the baton in ninth at outdoor nationals and pulled them to seventh. This time, he had the baton in the top three, and his teammates and Gould had mounting confidence with every lap that they watched him pull away from the field.
“I actually prefer the anchor position,” Kulkarni said. “I feel like I work well under pressure.”
Kulkarni also has made big gains over his career. Next year, he will continue his track career at Rutgers University after a spectacular ending to his high school career. “I’m leaving my own legacy for the people behind me. I wasn’t a very great runner when I started. When I started I ran 25:00 (for 5-kilometers). I worked and worked and worked. To do this and show everyone anything is possible is a great feeling.”
It will be up to the returning runners like Lad and Johnson to lead the distance crew now. They’ve already helped to inspire with this year’s All-American ending.
“It’s kind of crazy that we have four kids that can run as fast as we did,” Johnson said. “We helped each other train. It’s an amazing opportunity that I’m proud to be a part of.”
Johnson, Kulkarni, Lad and SantaMaria and will have their names added to the All-American list on the wall at WW-P North. All of them had seen individual success, but it’s their achievements together that put them there and will be retold to future generations of Knight runners.
“They’re ordinary guys that did something extraordinary,” Gould said. “If I could put a tag line on that legacy, it would be four ordinary guys who showed up and ran their best when it mattered the most and did something extraordinary as a group.”