The Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships allowed Squalicum senior Patrick Gibson to experience something he has not been a part of in a couple of years - running in a pack.
"It was a humbling experience," Gibson said in a phone interview. "You go and run against guys like Ed Cheserek - to run against some of the best high school runners in the country and in Ed's case, the best - it makes you realize that you're not all that special. ... It was kind of different thinking about going from being one of the top high school runners in our area to having a legitimate chance, if everyone had a good day and I had a terrible day, there was a chance I could finish last in a race. It was kind of unique being back there in the pack. It took me back to my sophomore year. It was cool, but it was a little cramped."
Over the past two high school seasons, almost nobody has been cramping Gibson on a race course. In fact, he's rarely found anyone within bumping distance of him during competition.
This fall, the only person to seriously challenge him all season was Blaine's Tom Bradley, who not only pushed Gibson throughout the first 4,500 meters of the Northwest Conference Championships, but actually managed to beat him by almost five seconds.
Gibson won every other time he toed the line this season, though, including running a personal-best 15 minutes, 13.6 seconds to successfully defend his Class 2A state championship and setting a new course record (13:44) to win the 14th Annual Nike Border Clash the following week.
For his dominance, Gibson was selected The Bellingham Herald's All-Whatcom County Boys' Cross Country Athlete of the Year for a second straight season. Bellingham's Bill McClement, who led the Red Raiders to second-place finishes at state on both the boys' and girls' sides, was selected the Coach of the Year.
Though Gibson made winning look easy this fall, it certainly wasn't, especially as a returning state champion.
"There was a different level of expectations than I had felt in the past," Gibson said. "I wouldn't say it was pressure, it was just a different feeling. I knew if I didn't win a state title, that it would be considered a disappointment. It was just different."
Gibson said those pressures didn't make 2012 any less enjoyable for him, he just had to adjust.
And he admits he felt that disappointment just a touch when he didn't repeat as NWC champion.
"It was my last chance to run in the Northwest Conference and against those guys," Gibson said. "I was in a slump school-wise, and travel-wise I was worn out, but I don't want to make any excuses.
"I have a quote from (former NFL running back) Ricky Williams that I look at every day that says, 'When you blame things on other people, it takes the power out of your hands, and it puts it in their hands.' I would love to say I should have run a better race, but I didn't. It was my decision to take those (college recruiting) trips when I did. It's not a bad thing. I was happy for Tom. He's a great friend, and he went through a lot to get to that point. It was kind of a best-case, worst-case scenario, if you know what I mean."
But Gibson made sure he didn't have to experience that feeling again, as he bounced back a week later to run away with the 2A Northwest District title and then went to state set on repeating.
While a year earlier, Gibson said he had his sights set on a top-five finish, there was only one finish that he considered acceptable this year.
"I think he was definitely more confident that he was one of the top runners in every meet that we went to," Squalicum coach Katrina Henry said in a phone interview. "He went to state confident that he could win. He'd done it once before, and he knew he was capable of doing it again. Of course there was the added pressure, but I think Patrick handled it really well."
He certainly did, and as a captain of the team, he helped the Storm to a third-place finish in the team standings.
"That was great," Gibson said. "The last three years, I've really been working to pass along everything I've learned about running to the younger guys - I always say younger, even though they're only like a year younger than me. We've gotten really comfortable with each other. It's gotten so I don't have to run through a race strategy every time out. They get it now, and they're great runners, and this was a fun team to be a part of."
But now Gibson, who also won a 2A state title in the 3,200 meters last spring during track season, is starting to think about where he would like to continue his running career next year, just like many other members of Whatcom County's storied senior class he has been competing against since they were in middle school.
And with a pair of state titles on his resume, Gibson's list of possible college suitors is quite impressive with names like Georgetown, Notre Dame, Stanford and Villanova.
"I've always thought, since I was younger and looking at the potential of running in college, that running and athletics should be a tool to help you get an education you might not otherwise get," Gibson said. "I look at Notre Dame or Georgetown or Stanford, and I don't know that I would get that opportunity without running. The other thing is I want to make sure I'll be happy for the next four years as an athlete, as well as a person. I have to think about what happens if I break my leg and I can't run anymore. Will I still be happy there? I need to match the school, not just match the team."
Whatever college does land Gibson will get a runner who Henry described as "mentally tough. He's confident, yet not cocky or arrogant. He has tremendous work ethic."
Combine those traits together with his physical gifts, and you've got quite a runner.
But that's not what Henry will miss most when Gibson is gone.
And it won't be his first-place finishes, either.
"I'll miss his sense of humor," she said. "Obviously, he's a really good runner, but more than that, he was fun. He's one of the more creative people I've ever met. He sees things differently. He can make jokes and puns and word plays. He was so much fun, and that played a big part in getting more and more kids out. ... We will miss Patrick, but boy, it's been fun watching him run these past few years."
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
THROUGH THE YEARS
The Bellingham Herald's All-Whatcom County Girls' Cross County Athlete of the Year winners:
2012: Patrick Gibson, Squalicum
2011: Patrick Gibson, Squalicum
2010: Scott Carlyle, Sehome
2009: Scott Carlyle, Sehome
2008: Clinton Overman, Sehome
2007: Mason McHenry, Sehome
2006: Jake Riley, Sehome
2005: Jake Riley, Sehome
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.