-COURTESY GOHATTERS.COM CROSS COUNTRY CORRESPONDENT RALPH EPIFANIO-
DeLand, Fla. - More than any other athletic endeavor, distance running is a sport centered more on maturity and experience than natural-born talent. Both running history and its folklore are replete with tales of runners who "peaked" at just the right moment to conquer a supposedly "unbeatable" foe, or run times that had, heretofore, been deemed improbable.
Distance runners tend to run their best times in their late 20s or early 30s. Understandably, college cross country coaches can't count on this event occurring in the four short years that a runner will be under his or her tenure, thus their few scholarships are awarded to a proven talent, rather than a "late bloomer." However, there are some notable exceptions, coaches who "see" something that others do not. Former Stetson cross country coach John Boyle can be counted among them.
Andrew Epifanio appeared on Boyle's radar long before he was college-bound. For beginners, he was a kindred spirit to the elder statesman of Florida running. Like Boyle, Epifanio simply loves to run. He ran his first road race at nine, won his first (overall) 5K at 13, and continued to build upon his success at Deland High School, where, as a senior, he was second in the 2009 5 Star Cross Country Championships (16:46), and second in the 3200 at the 2010 4A District 2 Track Championships (10:01). Although signed by Boyle, he joined the Stetson team in the fall of 2010, shortly after the coach's retirement.
That first year, 2010, was a period of adjustment; going from the high school distance of five kilometers (3.1 miles) to eight kilometers (4.97 miles) is a huge difference, compounded by a doubling of weekly training mileage. At the end of the season, however, the (then) 17 year old posted a 27:36 PR, which was nearly two minutes faster than he had ever run an 8K.
After the short (August to October) season, he continued to train-and race-mostly by himself. The results of the past year are quite remarkable. In 2011, Andrew entered 17 Florida road races, finishing first 13 times-including eight straight from February through April--second three times, and eighth the other. Along the way he set, or reset, personal bests at every distance he ran, ten in all: 5K (three times), 4 miles, 8K, 10K, 15K (9.3 miles), 10 miles (twice), and 21.1K (13.1 miles).
What stands out even more is that it seems the longer the race, the better he gets. In November he ran ten miles (twice the college distance) in 57:29, a personal best by 3:39 (finishing second to coach Joe Matusczak in the Deland Thanksgiving Run). A month later, Andrew ran his first half marathon-2 ½ times his college cross country distance--and the outcome far exceeded expectations. En route to the finish, he came close to his personal best at four miles, posted his best 5 mile time, his best 10 mile time, and when he crossed the finish line in 1:14:05, he was eighth overall in a field of 1320 runners. Andrew was also first in the 19 and under age group, in a National Age Graded time. As of this writing, according to Florida Running and Triathlon records (January to April), this time currently ranks as the leading 19 and under time in the state of Florida for 2011. (Final standings will be out later in the year.)
In one of his few out-of-state races, the Traverse City Cherry Festival 15K on July 9th, his finish time of 54:39 proved to be a Regional Age Graded time, only a few percentage points below another National time. A memorable feat, considering that it was his first 15K (nearly twice the college distance), and was run during his "off season."
As he begins a new year, the Stetson XC co-captain seems to be right "on track" to continue his winning ways. In the last weekend of the year, he won the last race of 2011 (a 16:41 5K on December 31st) and his first race of 2012 (a 17:07 5K on the very next day, January 1st ). That most recent win places him second-by only a point-in the Daytona Area Grand Prix, despite his having missed the first two races due to college cross country meets. Epifanio is a former GP winner. In 2009, at the age of 16, he was the youngest winner in the history of the Grand Prix.
Not so incidentally, right behind Andrew in Grand Prix points is Stetson Cross Country coach, Joe Matusczak. Joe's most recent race was a 2:44:44 marathon in Jacksonville (also on December 18th), where he finished seventh overall in the field of 824.
Despite the 2012 Cross Country season being nine months away, both coach and athlete are hard at work preparing for it. Between them, Joe and Andrew continue to lay a foundation for the future of Stetson cross country. The more they push themselves, the more they pull the rest of the team along with them, and perhaps establish standards of excellence for the (incoming) class of 2016.