WALLBURG — Long distance running can be an isolating sport of infinite fortitude. Hours are spent training alone, running in the early morning and knowing full well that there will come a time when the body will want to call it a day.
Being able to push through burning lungs, rubbery legs and a stabbing pain in the side is what long-distance runners like Justin Todd take pride in.
“Running is a self-motivation thing,” said Todd, a Ledford High School senior. “It doesn’t really matter how fast you run, it’s going to hurt anyway. It’s just a matter of if it’s worth the pain. You have to tell yourself it’s worth it. Running is different than a lot of other sports. You go into it knowing that it’s going to hurt and you’re going to be fighting yourself for every inch.”
Todd didn’t envision starting his high school career as a long-distance runner, but soon discovered that his athletic prowess may be better served somewhere besides the gridiron or baseball diamond, the two sports he grew up playing.
“I was about 4’10” and weighed about 85 pounds as a freshman,” Todd said. “I figured there wasn’t much need for a football player that size. From there I just went out for spring track and just went with it. I saw I was pretty good at it, so I stuck with it.”
Todd didn’t start out as complete novice, having already run his first 5K in the sixth grade. Over the next two years, Todd put his work in, running countless miles in an effort to methodically lower his time as part of a team he used as his inspiration.
“It’s just me physically out there, but I know there are at least a dozen other guys right behind me on the same team who need me to do my job,” said Todd. “I’m hoping they do theirs at the same time. It’s mostly about running for each other. That’s where the team comes in. I want to do my part to help the team out and lead the other runners to know that they can do the same.”
As his times dropped and his role as a team leader grew, Todd continued to look for new ways to motivate himself on those early Saturday morning runs at Salem Lake. He found one in the most visible of places; on the Ledford track leader board outside the school’s gymnasium where all the school’s records are posted.
“It was an everyday thing in my head,” said Todd. “I always think about the goal in the end. If you’re not thinking about the finish line, you’re never going to get there. Motivation is a daily thing. There is competition in it, as far as going against runners from across the county, but you’re really battling yourself. There’s nobody forcing you to go slower. It’s you versus yourself. It’s like anything else in that you have good days and bad days. It’s not so much physically, but mentally. The big thing is being consistent and being self-disciplined. It’s a lot easier knowing I have a team that has my back. There is always someone out there who will be better, but I approach each race as a chance to be better. Each race is like a barrier or mental step, and with each one you climb there is always another one.”
Todd came into his senior year with high hopes, but first had to overcome some uncertainty as the Panthers were welcoming in a new track coach. When Larry Musser agreed to take the job, a relieved Todd knew the program was in good hands. Having known the coach most of his life, Todd helped Musser acclimate to his new surroundings.
“I was very thankful [Musser] stepped in,” Todd said. “Over the summer, it was just some of us running by ourselves with no coaches. We weren’t sure we were going to have [a coach] and he stepped in. For me, since I’ve known him longer, I’ve been able to tell him what we’re used to.”
Musser knew what kind of person he was inheriting in Todd, having coached him in middle school. What he didn’t realize was just how much the undersized football player had grown into a leader.
“If you looked up ‘coach’s dream’ in the dictionary, Justin’s picture would be there,” Musser said. “He brings all the intangibles a coach wants from an athlete, from leadership to excelling at what he does. He has a natural work ethic that has brought him up to a great level. Coaching kickoff coverage for the middle school football team, he was always the first person to tackle me. This is my first year coaching and it was so nice to have someone like him on the team. It was great to have that type of individual here to help me, basically by setting the example.”
Todd set the first example early on.
“This August, we normally run at Salem Lake for our long runs on the weekends,” said Musser. “Justin had a commitment and I told him we would work something out. We normally meet at 7 a.m. I got there about 15 minutes early and I saw Justin’s jeep parked out by the lake. He showed up at 5:30 and started running. I can’t coach that.”
Musser added, “What makes a great distance runner is a person who is willing to go that extra mile and is comfortable being uncomfortable. He’s not going to stop if there’s a little pain. He’s going to work through anything and give it that extra effort.”
Todd giving that extra effort produced a steady drop in his 5K time. While his on-the-track thoughts never veer too far from his teammates, his motivation for all those 5:30 a.m. runs stayed on that black and white list of his names outside the gym’s doors. Anthony Hughes was the one to beat in the 5K.
On Sept. 30, Todd hit the course at Hagan Stone Park in Pleasant Garden needing to run slightly more than three miles in a little over 16 minutes in order to claim his spot as one of Ledford’s all-time best.
Claim it, he did.
Todd completed the course in 16 minutes, 3 seconds. The first person to congratulate him on the record turned out to be none other than the person whose name he pushed into second place.
“I wasn’t surprised, but certainly impressed,” said Hughes, whose record stood for four years. “He works hard and is dedicated, and his performances attest to that. I’m humbled to have been a positive influence in his running career. I have a ton of respect for him and his family.”
With the record in tow, Todd said the accomplishment has yet to fully hit him. Now that it’s up there on the wall, he hopes it will inspire others that same way Hughes’ mark motivated him.
“Right now, it’s a personal record for me, but it doesn’t really mean as much to me as people think it would,” Todd said. “There are tons of runners at this school that have been really close to the mark. Everybody that has run has put in the dedication and I’m just very lucky in the way that it’s happened throughout the years. I liked getting it, but next up is sub-16s. There’s always another step to go.”
“It’s been a long ride. It’s been a lot of runs thinking about it and it’s good to see that it’s up there. I would love to see all of our guys up there. It’s a barrier that would be awesome to see someone break. Years ago, people thought no one could run a four-minute mile. Hundreds of people have it now and it’s awesome to know that every time you run faster you’re motivating somebody else to do the same things for themselves.”
Todd plans on continuing his running career at a university where he can study wildlife biology and animal rehab. He currently runs at least 75 miles a week, constantly thinking about the people who inspire him to keep pushing when his body is telling him to stop.
“The people running with disabilities are probably the ones I look up to the most,” said Todd. “It’s a mental struggle for everybody. Some people are faster than others but the person who crosses first and the person who crosses hundredth are putting in the same effort mentally. They’re all working their hardest. Some people say the sport is 90 percent mental and I would totally agree with that. There are going to be days when it’s hot and your legs hurt, but the fact that you get it done, it feels good. If you keep putting in the work you get what you put out. Stick with it.”
As far as the record goes, Todd wouldn’t mind seeing someone else’s name at the top of the leader board sooner rather than later.
“To be honest, I hope it doesn’t last that long,” Todd said. “I’d love to see other people come along and break it. The crazier the record gets, the more people will hear about it and maybe get more people into the sport.”
Hughes thinks Todd has the ability to not only set a new record but break a barrier.
Publisher’s Note: Todd’s additional season accomplishments after the interview was completed and the story was written and submitted, are as follows: Central Carolina Conference Individual Champion with a time of 16:42; NCHSAA 2A Midwest Regional Runner-Up with a time of 16:22.29; Placed 6th overall at the NCHSAA 2A State Meet (Received All-State honors and his time of 16:24.29 placed him on the MileSplit US 2nd Team).