By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
There were six player of the week selections made this year in men’s cross country by the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Robby Peters of Concord University won five of them, probably a league record.
It was little surprise, then, when Peters came in first, and was therefore named runner of the year, at the conference championships in Greensburg, Pa., last weekend. Peters finished the race nearly 12 seconds ahead of his closest competitor.
“I’ve never had a season like this before,” the senior from Dawson in Greenbrier County said. “Each year’s been more successful. I’ve seen myself get better as time went on, but I never would have thought it would have gone this well.”
There should have been one hint, though. He noted that he did not win a high school championship until his senior year at Greenbrier West.
“It seems that I have a habit of not winning a title until my last chance,” he said. “I did that in high school, too.”
“I knew that it was my last chance to do it, in cross country, last chance to get a conference championship title,” he said. “Also, a lot of what motivated me was a lot of the hype that I’ve had after getting back-to-back honors. I was sort of expected to win, and wanted to live up to that.”
The time of 27:31.86 on the 8-kilometer conference championship course at Seton Hill University “wasn’t my fastest,” he said. “It wasn’t one of my better performances.”
His fifth player of the week designation came after he won on Oct. 6 at Concord’s own traditional invitational meet, when he set one of the five fastest times ever on the course.
His Concord coach, Mike Cox, said, “It just shows how hard he’s worked, and the commitment he’s made to be good.”
Peters said his preparation for his senior season included three straight 95-mile weeks, plus some weight training and “lots of quality mileage — a lot faster running, intervals, sprints and what-not.”
Improvement, he said, is “not something that you can really gain over the course of one season; it’s year after year.”
Many runners claim to receive both physical and mental benefits from their sport. Peters said, “You know you’re in shape. You can do some things others can’t.”
“Mentally, it gives you a lot of confidence. You’ve put so much work and effort into something as difficult as this, and then you see the results. You think if you really put your mind to anything, you have the confidence that you can succeed in it.”
Peters also runs track events in the spring semester for Concord. He is the school’s current record holder in races at 3K, 5K and 8K, and as a member of the 4-800-meter relay team.
He began running in the eighth grade with a couple of friends, Randy Ferrill and David Martin. Their friendship and running practices continued through high school.
“Randy actually convinced me to start,” Peters said. “Ever since, we’ve pushed each other and helped each other.”
“I took a liking to (running), the mentality behind it, and the results from training. It was addictive, to see the improvement over time.”
His middle school coaches, a couple named Reed and an assistant coach named Butler, helped encourage him, and later his high school coach, Lewis McClung, saw his potential.
On the high school level, his 800-meter, 4-by-4 relay team took the state championship in the spring of his senior year. It didn’t immediately translate into collegiate success — or any substantial athletic scholarship.
He said, “When I first went into college, even though I was a state champion in spring track, I didn’t really realize how much more difficult it was at the college level. I really had to grow into that role. I guess I did sort of predict that I would eventually win a title, just because it was something I wanted, and I knew I had several years to do it.”
Cox said, “He’s just improved year after year. He’s gotten stronger and faster.”
“I did not have a scholarship as a freshman athlete,” Peters said. “It wasn’t until the last couple of years that Coach Cox has offered me substantially more money.”
Peters qualified for West Virginia’s Promise Scholarship that is good for four years. But since he was held out, or “red-shirted” for one season, he couldn’t get that funding for his fifth year of college.
He said, “(Cox) agreed to match that. It’s helped me out a lot.”
Cox, who set records at Athens High School and Virginia Tech, has been a role model for Peters.
“I see his fastest times, and they seem so out of reach,” the senior runner said. “It’s so admirable. I wanted to be closer to that level. I wanted to improve myself. He was a big inspiration, as far as that goes.”
Running, of course, relies on individual effort, but Peters said that the men’s and women’s cross-country and track teams help each other out, even when it comes to tips on how to improve their efforts.
He said, “We might share ideas, here and there, moreso for the younger runners. They might ask us some questions. Usually, (you) just lead by example. That’s how I learned most of what I’ve learned, just by observing the older guys.”
Early in his college career, he had that opportunity when he spent a summer in Colorado with a group of Concord upperclassmen runners. All were aware of studies showing lasting benefits from training at high altitudes for a considerable period of time.
“I was the youngest one there, so it was probably the biggest learning experience for me,” Peters said. “We did a lot of runs at 7,000, sometimes 9,000-plus feet of elevation. I could feel a difference. It was certainly a lot harder to run fast out there.”
His quest to reach the national cross-country meet ended last Saturday in Lock Haven, Pa., at the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region championship. He finished in 17th place with a time of 31:58.1, about 10 seconds off the time needed to qualify.
Peters plans to finish his academic classes in the spring semester and student teach next fall, shooting for a December 2013 graduation. Even after his final collegiate track season ends, he said, “I plan to keep training, keep competing, as long as I see improvement.”
To make it as a sponsored runner beyond high school “would be a dream come true,” he said. “It’s ambitious, but I’m going to go for it, if that’s possible.”
— Contact Tom Bone at email@example.com