It's All a "Shel" Game
Posted 12/08/2017 05:26PM
Wherever he goes, Tristan Shelgren always leaves something behind. That’s not a metaphor for a season in which he has yet to lose a race entering this weekend’s national championships. The leave-behind is a personality trait. Shelgren tends to shed a variety of items in his wake around the house. Clothes. Running shoes, publications and empty plates of food. A vexing habit, to be sure.

“Yeah, that’s accurate,” says Shelgren, who flew to San Diego today in advance of competing in Saturday’s (December 9) national Foot Locker Cross Country Championships. “My mom gets on me pretty good about that tendency.”

Shelgren is quick to volunteer he has many people to thank—not the least of whom is his mom, Robin—for their support on his journey to such a milestone moment. He says he’s indebted to his Uncle Skip, who talked a 100-pound Shelgren out of trying out for football in middle school, lest he get “snapped in half.” The teen also acknowledges his eldest sister, 23-year-old Mackenzie, for inspiring him to follow in her footsteps after she took second at the MIAA Eastern State XC Championships as a senior at Masconomet. He even credits an otherwise anonymous middle school classmate and cross country runner named Sophia, who he took a liking too and therefore attended practice religiously. Full disclosure, Shelgren says, the feelings were not mutual.

When he arrived at the Prep from Glen Urquhart, Shelgren already had connections to the St. John’s community. He is first cousins with the Coppola brothers: Derek ’08, Brandon ’11, Tyler ’11 and Jared ’11. But it didn’t take him long to start scripting a legacy of his own. Shelgren went undefeated as a freshman in Catholic Conference cross country competition. As a sophomore, he finished sixth at the prestigious Manhattan Invitational and was named Catholic Conference MVP. That spring, he ripped off the second-best two-mile time in school history (9:10.43) in taking silver at the Eastern Division 1 Outdoor Championships.

“We knew right away that he had a chance to be very good,” says John Boyle, who has coached cross country at St. John’s since 1966. “As this 2017 season went along, our collective expectations began to be that he might do better than just qualify for nationals by finishing in the top 10 at the Foot Locker Northeast Regional championships. Of course, it all came together and he won that race last month. He’s the best runner I’ve ever had here and he’s exceeded everything anyone’s done.”

Rare air

Only one other distance runner in the history of Eagles athletics has qualified for Foot Locker nationals in the competition’s 39-year history. Dan Foley ’83 raced in the national final in the fall of 1982 and finished 18th in a field of 32. Despite his lofty status in the annals of competitive running at the Prep, Shelgren still battles a measure of self-doubt. He confesses he was “sick to his stomach” this past Sunday night when he began dwelling on the talent-rich field he is up against at Balboa Park on December 9. He says he still has dreams that former teammate Joshua Raposa ’15, a 4:27 miler, could still stroll onto campus and beat him. Shelgren owns the school record in the mile at 4:15.93, set indoors this past February.

“I realized I had some talent for it at the beginning of freshman year, but I didn’t think I belonged,” he says. “At some level, I still question myself. I always wanted to be the best and I guess I’m in the thick of it now.”

It’s hard to blame Shelgren for a certain level of insecurity. Popular running websites haven’t picked him to be a winner this year in pre-meet coverage. He was not a Runner To Watch in the preseason and his name has often been misspelled or his class year wrong.

“I’ve felt like I’ve had something to prove,” he says.

It’s taken a lot of sweat equity to prove his point. Shelgren quit eating QDOBA four times a week and started seeing a nutritionist. He attended the Princeton University Cross Country Camp. He studies video of opposing runners to root out tactics and tendencies. And he dutifully trains his 45-55 miles per week.

“You rarely see kids that are this gifted athletically, but he also puts himself through what you have to if you want to rise to this level,” says Boyle. “He’s one of those guys who was ready to alter his attitude and make real demands on himself. The season-long core routines and the speedwork. And not just the training, it’s the regimen: sleep, nutrition, hydration.

“And then you have to be a kid who wants to get to the line,” he continues. “Some kids practice great, but the external pressure of racing makes them a different runner. Not Tristan. Plus, he always has a plan for his race. He knows who he is running against and he’s interested in figuring that out.”

Last call

When Shelgren toes the line alongside 39 of his peers who make up an elite field that will vye for the individual national title, he will at least take solace in having garnered considerably more respect from the running media. Both the Boston Globe and Boston Herald have named him their Runner of the Year. Dyestat has him at No. 13 in its National Top-30 rankings, while FloTrack has rated him a top contender for the Foot Locker crown, with one of the site’s four experts having picked him win.

“What stands out to me most when talking with Tristan is his knowledge of the sport,” says Mary Albl, a writer for Dyestat. “It's very evident his hunger and desire to be the best, but Tristan goes beyond that. He reads about running, looks up what his competitors are doing and breaks down his races and his competition. He's very educated and his desire and will to succeed put him above many other runners at the national high school level.

“When I saw him cross the finish line (in winning the Northeast Regional), I was a little surprised. I don't think many had him winning the whole thing. But that win was such a testament, again, to his preparedness. I doubt anyone was in that race was more prepared and had a strategy like Tristan. He finished just outside of the top 10 a year ago, and when I spoke with him in October, he told me exactly what went wrong and how to correct it. I think he’s more than capable of a Top 10 finish at nationals (which would earn him All-American status).”

Shelgren isn’t keeping his strategy for Saturday’s race a secret. “When I realized I finished four places away from qualifying for nationals last year, I resolved to go out with a bang. The race in San Diego is all about mentally sticking with the leaders until that last hill, then just go up it strong and down it strong. That’s the best I can do.”