For some, the idea of playing a game or being in a competition involves clicking a controller and moving virtual athletes around a screen. For Grandon Smith, once exclusively a video gamer, his competition of choice now is running — and he’s quickly emerged as a standout on the course and track. Having picked up running only a little more than a year ago, Smith has made some big strides, becoming the No. 2 runner on Newtown High School’s cross country team this past fall.
The second-year runner and senior student athlete stepped into a routine of running not because of a sudden urge to race or attempt to get into shape, but through a volunteering effort (in other words, by accident). During the summer following his sophomore year, in 2012, Smith was talked into volunteering at the Rev3 Half Ironman Triathlon in Middlebury by classmate Paige Fedorchek. Among their peers also helping out at the race — providing refreshments for participants — was Alex Romeo, whom Smith said came up with the idea of participating in a triathlon. So, a small group of NHS students signed up for the July 2013 Pat Griskus Sprint Triathlon, also in Middlebury.
Initially, preparing for the race wasn’t so easy.
“I played video games all day, every day, for about three years,” Smith said. “I couldn’t run a mile without throwing up.”
So in the fall of his junior year, he decided to join the cross country team as a way to prepare for the triathlon, but missed the beginning of practices and tryouts. Coach Dave Foss happened to be his AP American History teacher, and told Smith upon learning that he wanted to run, that he could use the Newtown Road Race as his tryout.
Smith, who was made aware of the race by his physical education teacher Cheryl Lombardo, finished the 5K event in a time of 20:06.
“I had no idea if that was good or not,” Smith said.
It was a very good time, and Foss was impressed. Smith, after all, finished in 15th place among 534 finishers, and wasn’t too far behind soon-to-be teammate Joey Whelan.
Smith went on to become one of just a handful of runners to see varsity action in his first campaign in Foss’s decade of coaching. He ran for the junior varsity team, but also managed to finish among the top seven team finishers for varsity status in his first season.
“It’s nearly impossible to crack the varsity lineup in your first year of running,” Foss said.
Smith joined the spring track team at NHS, and — following the triathlon — came into his senior year better prepared to compete with the cross country squad. At this year’s Newtown Road Race, Smith dropped his time to 17:55 and moved up to fifth overall among 627 finishers. And no, he didn’t need that race as his tryout.
He was 19th among 97 competitors in this year’s South-West Conference championship race, completing the 5K course in a time of 17:49.31, a 5:44 pace. He was Newtown’s second-fastest runner behind sixth-place overall runner Christopher Gamble.
Not bad for an athlete who wasn’t interested in running until the summer before last.
“He’s just made leaps and bounds ever since,” Foss said of Smith’s quick emergence. “He went from couch potato to second team all-conference in about a year and a half.”
Smith has always had a thin build, but his endurance level is significantly greater now. “I like being in shape — it feels good,” he said.
Smith says he’s enjoyed cycling but has never been much of a swimmer. In addition to putting in plenty of hard work, he benefits from having a natural knack for running. He recalls being near the bottom of the pack of triathlon participants following the half-mile swimming leg of the race, but moving up to a middle-of-the-pack finish following the 10.5-mile bike ride and 5K race.
Now he runs 30–35 miles a week and averages about a 5:40 mile in a 5K. In track, he runs the 800 meter dash, the 1600, and as part of the 4x800 meter relay team.
Smith isn’t sure just yet what he plans to do after high school, but his experience in running may have a direct impact on his future plans. He suffers from shin splints, and he’s seen the variety of ways athletes can recover. That’s opened his eyes to a possible career and the thought studying physical therapy in college.
Smith said he got plenty of encouragement and has had positive reinforcement from Lombardo and another of his PE teachers, Carl Strait, the latter of whom is now the assistant cross country coach.
“I remember telling him he’s a fast runner,” Strait said of seeing Smith in his class before he began running regularly. “I don’t even think he had great sneakers.”
Now, Strait sees his former speedy gym class student turned cross country standout out on the course, and has watched him develop into a runner with a purpose.
“He loves to run negative splits,” Strait said of Smith improving his pace in the later stages of races. “He’s able to conserve his energy.”
In his first race, Smith wasn’t sure whether or not his time was any good. Now he pushes to come out on top and is aware of where he stands as the races unfold. “He loves to know where he is,” Strait said.
The Newtown High senior is certainly appreciative of this chain of events that linked together beginning with that decision to volunteer with his classmate. Smith says his grades have improved, and things are just better all around since he picked up running.
“After doing the triathlon and joining cross country, running was just a complete turnaround for my life in general,” Smith said. “I feel generally more confident as a person.”