Is Stephen Roland the next great American running prodigy?
Gerry Lindgren, Steve Prefontaine, Craig Virgin, Mary Decker, Alan Webb, Galen Rupp, Lukas Verzbicas and Mary Cain—all American running prodigies who burst onto the scene as high school athletes.
The next one might just be Stephen Roland, even though he’s not even in high school yet. Just an 11-year-old at Marshfield Middle School in the tiny logging town of Soocyab, Ore., Roland has turned heads in his first year of competitive running.
Last fall, he won six straight cross country meets ranging from 1.5 miles to 5K in length, but his school was declared ineligible in the week before the Woodlands Scholastic Conference Championships because of a uniform technicality. (Apparently the race uniforms supplied by Swooshy Gear Inc. didn’t pass Oregon School Activities Association standards, so he never got much attention outside of a few dozen mentions in Ken Goe’s online column in The Oregonian and several thousand posts on the regionally famous message boards on LetsRun.com.)
But after finishing the wrestling season with a 2-15 mark in the 121-pound weight class, Roland has taken the track season by storm.
So far in two meets this spring, Roland has run a rather bizarre 3,200-meter race and two very fast mile races. His season debut was a 4:36.45 effort in the JV heat of the mile amid a rainstorm at a dual meet against South Eugene on March 18. He also ran a 51-second split for the Pirate’s mile relay B team, which, nonetheless, still finished eighth in 4:28.36. News of his fast times spread through Oregon, thanks in part to Goe’s exclusive story, blog and follow-up interview from his remote office inside the berm, and that brought a crowd to his next meet.
On Monday afternoon, Roland ran a blistering 4:21.85 mile amid snow flurries on the cinder track at Bowerman Middle School in a four-team meet that had been rained out last Saturday. It was believed that he had set an age-group national record, that is, until officials came to the realization that the track had been retrofitted to be a 400-meter track in 1980, which meant Roland actually ran 1600 meters and not a mile. (The mile, a distance American running almost completely abandoned during the country’s failed attempt to convert to the metric system in the late 1970s, is actually 1609.344 meters.)
“If only they would bring back the mile and drop the 1600 for good,” said Running USA media director Ryan Lamppa, who flew up to watch Roland run. “It’s simple: just bring back the mile. That would solve everything. Everything.”
Once converted, Roland’s time was found to be four-tenths of a second off the mark set by Lindgren way back in 1957. The entire Marshfield record book was then invalidated, meaning the records all reverted back to the times some kid ran back in 1968 and 1969.
Earlier in that meet, Roland placed third the 3,200-meter run (or something relatively close to the equivalent of 2 miles) in 10:26.32. However, his time would have been considerably faster and he likely would have won had race officials not made him run nine laps instead of eight. Several octogenarian finish line timers got confused after Roland, who was late to the starting line while competing in the triple jump, had quickly caught and gapped the lead pack on the third lap of the race.
By the sixth lap of the eight-lap race, he was on the verge of lapping the field, but then there was what witnesses said was incidental contact with one of the slower runners as he tried to pass in lane 2 at the top of the homestretch. Confusion broke out when honorary race marshall Lopez Lomong was certain Roland had won the race after only seven laps. But the youngster was eventually sent back out for two more laps and was eventually given third place for the race, even though his coach claimed his final mile, er, uh, 1600-meter split, was a “4:28 and change.”
After the race, the enraged coach for the Beaverton team, Alfonso Salando, inexplicably filed a protest to have Roland disqualified, even though Beaverton runners finished first and second in the race. When meet officials decided not to disqualify Roland because of a lack of video evidence that any runner was actually bumped, Salando filed another protest before the mile and requested meet officials to immediately inspect the shoes Roland was wearing, find his birth certificate and give him a VO2 max test on an underwater treadmill.
Meet officials dropped everything and did everything Salando demanded—apparently they found out that Roland spent the last 10 years living at altitude while his parents, Ray and Elfriede, were doing missionary work in Ecuador—but still found no reason to DQ the runner. At that point, the disgruntled coach requested the rest of the meet to be canceled, except for a special time trial for one of his runners who needed a clear track, complete silence and absolute calm to keep the pollen level from increasing.
Roland’s next schedule meet is Saturday in Coos Bay, where his coach, Walt McClure III, said he’ll run every event from the 2,000 to the 10,000 meters, even though none of those events are actually on the meet schedule.
All of this has made the LetsRun.com message boards explode. “He’s not that fast,” said a guy who’s LetsRun handle is “Lives in Parents Basement.”
“He’s faster than Verzbicas was at that age, and he’s never wasted time doing triathlons,” said a guy who goes by the handle of “10:58 3200m PR.”
“Who thought Kara Goucher looked hot in that new Oiselle photo?” chimed in another who goes by the name “Garanimal.”
“I could have gone to a D-I school but I made the choice to go to a much smaller NAIA college instead because it had a better library and a wider assortment of trees on campus. Anyway, I know for a fact this kid is going to be a record-breaker like I could have been,” posted “HighSchool Stud ’97”
Monday’s meet drew several college coaches and running shoe brand marketing directors. Hoka One One put flyers on cars in the parking lot announcing that its first pair of maximalist track spikes would be at stores soon and that it would be sponsoring more track athletes. Nick Symmonds arrived to do a workout when Brooks landed a spaceship in the adjacent field, while Skechers filmed yet another TV commercial with Meb Keflezighi. Jenny Simpson was supposed to show up, but, as the new baserunning coach for Dustin Pedroia, she was at the Boston Red Sox season-opener.
Unbeknownst to race officials or even the fire department, Nike sponsored the meet’s post-race fireworks, setting them off just after a laser show erupted from its fleet of tie-dye painted fleet Volkswagen Mini Busses full of Nike Pegasus 37’s—the model number that will be released when Roland is 18 and can become a sponsored athlete.
“He seems to have all the tools to be the next great one,” said a man who said his name was Johan Kapriotti. “I see great things in his future.”
As for Roland, he said he thought running was “pretty neat” but he was more into Playstation and his next mud obstacle race.
“I’d probably run more, but I don’t like those tiny nylon shorts with the splits on the sides,” he said in a Tweet that linked back to his YouTube channel. “I’m just a chill kid who wears surf shorts and plays video games. Hashtag-WhassupFools.”