The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Whatcom County's senior crop of boys' distance runners is the unbelievable wealth of talent.
Blaine's Tom Bradley, Bellingham's Joe Charbonneau, Squalicum's Patrick Gibson and Mount Baker's Dillon Quintana have already announced their plans to run cross county and track for NCAA Division I programs next year to headline a long list of college runners the county has produced this year, and Sehome's Conner Johnsen and Reed Henderson could join them when they announce their college plans shortly.
And though it's been amazing to watch the on-course and on-track battles since many of them first ran with and against each other in middle school, what truly makes the Class of 2013 runners special can be summed up in one word - class. You're unlikely to find a better group of young men that enjoy and respect competing against each other than this list.
"It's been an honor running with those guys," Gibson said in a phone interview. "I consider myself lucky to call each of them friends."
Gibson, who added a Class 2A state title in the 1,600 meters this spring to his resume of a 3,200 state title he won as a junior and two individual cross county championships, has been selected The Bellingham Herald's All-Whatcom County Boys' Track and Field Athlete of the Year for the second-straight year. Sehome co-coaches Kevin Ryan and Tim Carlson have been selected the Coaches of the Year after leading the Mariners boys' and girls' teams to twin 2A team titles.
Gibson, who seemed to more often be the top finisher among that talented group of seniors, almost always made sure to show his appreciation for the opportunity to run with his competitive friends, turning around after crossing the finish line and making sure to shake each competitor's hand and congratulate them on their race.
Now while it's easy to show class when you win, the real test comes when you don't win a race you hope - and probably even are expected - to win.
Gibson found himself in that situation after his final high school race last month, when Johnsen ran a perfect tactical race to claim the Class 2A state championship in the 3,200 meters, passing Gibson on the final lap and pulling away.
But as you would expect, Gibson handled the disappointment like a champion.
"It really wasn't too hard for me to take," Gibson said. "Conner is a good friend of mine. I'm happy he got to know the feeling of being a state champion. It's a pretty spectacular feeling."
That's not to say Gibson wasn't disappointed with the outcome.
But what disappointed him the most was the fact that he came 1.81 seconds away from his ultimate goal of running a sub-9 minute 3,200 during his high school career.
"He clearly wanted to win the 3,200," Squalicum coach Katrina Henry said in a phone interview. "Patrick is a very competitive person, and he wants to win every time out. But more importantly, I know how important breaking 9 minutes was to him. It hurt him that he didn't get either. He did what he could, but he just came up short."
Not that Gibson's final trip to state was a complete waste. His time of 9:01.80 was a personal best in the event.
And of course he did add a title two days earlier in the 1,600 meters, an event he finished second in as a junior.
Doing so certainly wasn't an easy feat, either, as Johnsen pushed Gibson to the limit. The friendly rivals finished in a virtual dead heat with matching times of 4:11.85, but Gibson got the medal with the blue ribbon by seven thousandths of a second.
"It was as close as close gets," Gibson said. "It was fun. It's hard to have a run that long and finish equal. As far as I'm concerned, we tied that one, and they just gave me the blue medal. It was definitely the race of the weekend."
The difference, Gibson said, may have been an old habit he has of stopping the timer on his wrist watch at the end of a race.
"I was talking to my coaches and they were wondering what I was doing stopping my watch in a race that close, but it was totally impulsive," Gibson said. "I didn't even really believe I did it until I saw the picture.
"I've been using that watch since I was a freshman to get my lap times, and one time when I was a sophomore I forgot to stop it, and I looked at it the next day and it said something like 30 hours. I was like 'That's no good,' so I've just always remembered to stop it each time since then. It was just habit for me to do, but I think it helped me, because I kind of leaned in to stop it, and that might have been the difference."
But as luck would have it, Gibson didn't have his lucky watch for the 3,200. In the excitement over his narrow win in the 1,600, the watch got broken.
"He was really sad about that," Henry joked. "But at least he broke it for a legitimate finish."
With Gibson and Johnsen splitting the two distance events at state, the Sehome senior certainly could make a strong case for top honors this spring.
Though both certainly were deserving, Gibson ended up getting the nod because he won every race he entered in 2013 with the exception of the 3,200 at state and a third-place finish in the 1,600 at the 2A District 1/2 Meet, when he was just running to secure a trip to state.
Every other time, including the 1,600 at the Birger Solberg Invitational and the 3,200 at the Bedlington Twilight and Northwest Conference Championships and in both races at the sub-district meet, Gibson ended up on top.
But getting to the top hasn't been easy for Gibson - or at least not as easy as he often has made it look.
Though he has a wealth of talent, he's focused the past two school years on what he calls the "one percent things" of the running lifestyle, or the things that would take him from being a good high school runner to an elite-level runner - things like proper diet, getting enough sleep and managing a proper training schedule.
"He's always continually working every day on being his best in whatever regard, whether that's mentally or physically," Henry said. "He keeps making all these little changes, but those improvements lead to his success."
Last winter, Gibson got the chance to experience what it meant to take it beyond that one percent.
As members of the Whatcom Tesseract running club, Gibson and Bradley got to train with Donn Cabral, who trained with Tesseract coach Peter Oviatt when he was in high school and went on to set the American collegiate steeplechase record while at Princeton and compete in the event at the 2012 London Olympics.
"I've been training with Peter for so long, and most of the stories he tells about the right way to do things, he was telling them about Donn," Gibson said. "It was amazing to finally meet him and get to know him after I had already heard so much about him."
Not just get to know him, but run with him.
Gibson and Bradley got to run with Cabral two to three times a week while he was in the Bellingham area to train.
"The neat thing is he was a really down to earth guy," Gibson said. "He's been to the Olympics, but he's just another average guy. The times you realize how special the opportunity was is when you're at Footlocker or Brooks events and you say, 'I got to run with Donn Cabral,' and everybody is like, 'No way! You're not telling the truth.' That's when you realize how special it was."
The only disappointing aspect for Gibson was he didn't get to take full advantage of the opportunity. Gibson developed some tendonitis in his Iliotibial Band - the ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin - forcing him to shut things down for a good part of the winter to get ready to go full speed this spring. Gibson said he got to train with Cabral for about a month and a half, while Bradley got the entire winter to work out with the Olympian.
But Gibson made the most of the time he did get.
"I think I learned that running at that level has to be your life," Gibson said. "Everything he does is focused toward running - it is like it's his job. I think it showed me that if I want to get to that point, running can't just be a lifestyle, it has to be your life. Over the next two to three years, I'm going to get to see if that's where I want to go with this. I wonder if I can do that, but I've got some time to decide."
Gibson will be making that decision while running for Stanford University beginning next fall. He is considering majoring in Inter-Management Science and Engineering, which is Stanford code for Business Management.
Even when he's a Cardinal, Gibson said he won't soon forget the opportunities he's had running against his good friends and worthy rivals in Whatcom County's Class of 2013.
Chances are, the county won't forget any of them, either.
"Patrick is all class," Henry said. "I think a lot of it comes from his humbleness and personality. A lot of athletes that are consistently good can be cocky or arrogant. Patrick is not like that. He encourages everyone. Patrick is just as excited for other runners to PR as he when he PRs. ... With Patrick, I'm going to remember the random little moments of hilarity. He's done a ton in terms of leadership and building the program at Squalicum. I'm going to remember him as a great runner but even more as a better person."
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
ALL-WHATCOM COUNTY BOYS' TRACK AND FIELD ATHLETES OF THE YEAR
2013: Patrick Gibson, Squalicum
2012: Patrick Gibson, Squalicum
2011: Logan Packard, Mount Baker
2010: Ryan Macdonald, Sehome
2009: Shayne Moore, Blaine
2008: Mason McHenry, Sehome
2007: Steven Ayers, Sehome
2006: Steven Ayers, Sehome
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.