JAMES CITY—— One hundred meters from the finish of the National Scholastic Indoor Championships' mile run, Jamestown High senior Colin Mearns ran 5 meters behind the leader, Canadian national champ Eric Dillon. To win, Mearns not only was going to have to fight through the pain, he would have to do so in a fashion inconceivable not long ago: with a blistering finish.
"I was one of the slowest guys in the (Jamestown) distance program as a freshman and sophomore," said Mearns, who will run on scholarship at Virginia next year. "I'd get outkicked in most races and was one of the slowest kickers on the team."
"There's so much difference between second and first," said Mearns, who won in 4 minutes, 13.08 seconds at the national meet in New York City on March 13. "It's sort of an unreal experience to have the title 'national champion' in high school."
Mearns is blessed with several gifts that prepared him to win a national title, not the least of which is genetics. Drew won an AAU 3,000-meter national cross country title in the 1970s, when he missed breaking a 4-minute mile by fractions. Mom Kate runs, and wins, masters-division sprint races in the area.
But perhaps the biggest advantage Mearns possesses is the wealth of training knowledge father has passed on to son. Drew Mearns was the University of Virginia's first women's cross country coach, back in the late 1970s, when he produced numerous All-Americans.
As a young lawyer in 1980, he became the first international track and field agent. The list of clients Drew Mearns recruited to Mark McCormack's famed International Management Group agency include marathon legends Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar, distance-running star Mary Decker and two-time Olympic 1,500-meter gold medalist Sebastian Coe.
Drew Mearns later became the agent for Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, defamed when he failed a drug test after breaking the 100-meter world record in the 1988 Olympic final.
"It was a very sad kind of nightmare," Drew Mearns said of the Johnson situation. "When Ben was busted, it was a hard thing, especially for someone like me, who went on to become a theology teacher and head of the religion department at Walsingham Academy."
But rubbing elbows with some of track and field's most enduring legends was mostly a positive learning experience. And when Drew Mearns came off the road as his family grew, he began training young runners.
In doing so, he combined the philosophies of Peter Coe, who trained son Sebastian, and of Bill Dellinger, who trained Salazar after vaulting to fame as Steve Prefontaine's coach.
"The Dellinger workouts are designed to simulate situations that occur in races," Drew said. "It's a system that involves not doing enormous amounts of distance, but doing concentrated speed so that you can adjust to changing conditions in the race.
"Coe would do hard stuff, start at a pace, shorten the interval and increase the speed over a particular period. At the end of a timed segment, instead of bending down, you sprint."
Colin Mearns said, for example, that if he's doing multiple 400-meter runs in a practice, that instead of stopping at 400 meters, his dad has him sprint another 20 meters or so.
"It's sort of like telling a sprinter to run a 100-meter race like it's 110 meters long," Mearns said. "My father works me pretty good.
"He's not as forgiving as my high school coach, because he won't let me stop when I'm getting too tired."
Drew Mearns said it's a matter of getting a runner to realize that if someone is running at, or near, his best in a race that he's going to suffer. Training is essentially preparing a runner to do his best while suffering.
"A runner has to internalize the coach," Drew Mearns said. "The thing I learned from the great distance runners is that excellence is a direct result of the relationship between an athlete and a coach."
Because of his willingness to follow his father's guidance, Mearns has become a great kicker. He won the Group AA state indoor 1,600 in 4:18, with a final 1,000-meter split of 2:33 that was faster than the 1,000 state champ ran that day.
That championship made Mearns, who also won the 3,200, the first Jamestown athlete ever to win a running event in a state meet. But it was his scintillating finish that gave him the confidence for his late burst past the Canadian champion, and to the national mile title.
"I kind of had to convince myself I had a kick," Mearns said, before underscoring his father's influence. "It's a mental thing: You just mentally have to give it everything at the end and run like there's nothing to lose.
"When I crossed the line, I put my hands on my head and was smiling, but didn't really realize what happened. Then I looked at my parents and smiled some more."