On most school days, Aberdeen High School senior Poli Baltazar runs at least 5 miles before he even enters the classroom.
He continues his diligent training routine during practices, on weekends and even on the eve of a big race.
That type of work ethic has helped Baltazar capture all-county and district championships as a member of the Bobcat track and cross country teams. A driven, goal-oriented competitor, he has also earned invitations to national invitational meets.
“He’s just one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met,” said Aberdeen High School athletic conditioning teacher Steve Reed, a former Hoquiam High distance-running great who has mentored Baltazar and often served as his running partner. “He has God-given gifts, but his desire and mental strength are unmatched, in my mind.”
“You get out of it it what you put into it,” Baltazar affirmed.
In both distance covered and dedication, he’s come a long way from the sophomore who turned out for cross country only because he saw it as a stress-free alternative to skateboarding — and briefly abandoned the sport when he learned it was more difficult than he imagined.
In August of 2010, Baltazar was visiting a friend, Sam Stipic, when he suggested a skateboarding outing. A Bobcat cross country runner, Stipic declined the invitation to attend a preseason team meeting.
Baltazar tagged along, but his first impression of the sport was not favorable.
“I thought cross country was the stupidest sport,” he recalled. “I thought they just had fun and went to invitationals and messed around. I thought that sounded like fun. That’s why I started to go to practice.”
Nor was Aberdeen coach Sherrie Green initially impressed with Baltazar’s attitude.
“He wasn’t really wanting to be (at practice) and came because a friend was running,” Green related. “He stood off and complained and I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out for him. We did our workout and he looked exhausted. However, he was one of those kids you noticed because of his raw talent.”
Matters got worse before they got better. After running hills for the first time, Baltazar left the team, with no intention of returning.
“He did quit the hills and told me it was stupid,” Green said. “He didn’t come back to practice the next day, so I had a parent go find him. He was at a skate park and reluctantly came back. This was a pattern for a few days, until he realized that I wasn’t going to let him quit.”
Stipic’s mother drove him to practice and even supplied him with his first pair of running shoes.
“I was wearing beat-up skateboarding shoes,” Baltazar remembered.
Given the circumstances, Baltazar proved a remarkably quick study. He ran second in his division in his first varsity race, the Capital Invitational, and wound up earning a state berth with a 14th-place finish at district.
“He did have a good season for being a beginner,” Green said. “A lot of his success was because he had a natural competitive spark, as well as having natural raw talent. I wouldn’t say he was a natural runner, but because he (knew) he could be better and liked the recognition he was getting, he realized that if he put more into it, he could be much better.”
The measure of success fueled Baltazar’s competitive instincts.
“I’ve heard Poli say that he hates to lose more than he loves to win,” Reed added. “That’s Poli in a nutshell, he hates to lose more than he loves to win.”
After finishing 69th at state in cross country as a sophomore, Baltazar realized that there was room for improvement.
He stepped up his summer training routine and began watching what he was eating.
“I went on a diet, started eating good, dropped 15 pounds to 130 and ran every day,” Baltazar related.
By most standards, Baltazar didn’t have much weight to lose. Moreover, at 5-foot-6, he is much shorter than the majority of his rivals — a factor he uses to motivate himself.
“You hear people say short people will never be any good,” he said.
His progress as a junior was immediate, as he dropped 90 seconds off his previous best time in his first cross country race. He wound up winning the hard course championship of the prestigious Seaside Three-Course Challenge in Oregon, captured the Evergreen 2A Conference title and helped the Bobcat boys earn their first-ever state team berth. He also broke the course record at Makarenko Park in Cosmopolis, Aberdeen’s home course.
A wrong turn cost him the district championship, but he rebounded by running second to Squalicum’s Patrick Gibson at state.
In track, he won the district championship in the 3,200-meter run, qualified for state in both the 1,600 and 3,200 meters and placed third at state in the latter event.
“My junior year took me by surprise,” Baltazar admitted. “My speed was better. My sophomore year, I felt I had one pace, one gear. I felt like all (other runners) had to do was stay with me and outkick me.”
Baltazar was even more successful in cross country as a senior.
He broke the course record at The Evergreen State College in Olympia en route to a district championship. That set up a rematch with Gibson at state.
Leading for most of the 5,000-meter Class 2A race at Pasco, Baltazar shaved 17 seconds off his state time from the previous year. Gibson, however, also bettered his 2011 time and overtook Baltazar in the late stages to win by some three seconds.
“That race could have ended differently, I believe,” Green lamented. “Instead of following Patrick Gibson, he chose to lead a lot of the race. Being a newer runner, it was difficult for him to understand the concept of drafting. Had he let Patrick lead and do the work, I believe Poli would have won that race, but we will never know.”
Baltazar says very little about that race, except to express some frustration that he and Gibson (who ran two of the three fastest times in the all-classification meet) did not receive more credit for their accomplishments. In retrospect, however, he believes his training regimen for state could have been better.
Having received an invitation to compete in the Foot Locker national cross country meet, he trained hard and scientifically for that meet.
“I really wanted to compete in the Foot Locker,” he said. “I kept my endurance high and speed low and then switched around. I ran 14:50.9 at a fundraising race at Makarenko Park. I only ran 15:16 at state. I wish I could have tapered (off) better and ran 14:50 at state rather than at a fun run.
“The disadvantages we have in our program is we don’t have a lot of guys in cross country,” he continued. “Every single race, I had to run for us to win.”
Baltazar wound up running 10th at the Foot Locker regionals to earn All-American recognition and a trip to nationals. He placed 31st at nationals.
He has maintained a relatively low profile during his senior season in track.
That is partly due to an injury. He was diagnosed with Achilles tendinitis last winter — an injury he attributed to a new pair of running shoes — and rounded into peak condition only a few weeks ago.
In addition, the notoriously goal-oriented Baltazar has paced himself more in training in an effort to peak at the state meet.
“I think, if you race, you can peak in about three weeks,” he explained. “That’s the hardest thing about running: You ask yourself where do I want my fastest time?
“He’s been training right through every race, because the only things that matter have been subs (subdistrict), district and state,” Reed added.
One example of Baltazar’s attempt to keep his eyes on the ultimate prize came at last month’s Grays Harbor All-County Championships at Hoquiam.
He had attained a distance triple in that meet as a junior, sweeping the boys 800, 1,600 and 3,200 runs.
This year, however, he skipped the 800 entirely and was upset by Montesano’s Tyson Lovell in the 1,600 before winning the 3,200. What was little known at the time was that he had undertaken a hard workout on the day before the race in order to increase his stamina for late-season events.
“He ran nine laps at Makarenko at 4:50 (per mile),” Reed reported. “I’m still in pretty good shape and I couldn’t have run one lap that fast. He was tired.”
Baltazar eventually decided to bypass the 800 and 1,600 in postseason meets and concentrate solely on his strongest event, the 3,200 meters. In doing so, he abandoned one of his goals — to break Aberdeen Hall of Famer Dave Barnett’s school record for the 1,600 meters.
Eyes state title
Still in play is Barnett’s record of 9:04 for the 3,200. Baltazar ran 9:25 (the state’s fifth-fastest time in the 2A classification) in capturing the subdistrict 2A championship earlier this month, but he still believes he can crack the nine-minute barrier at district or state.
Baltazar’s running style is better suited to longer distances. He typically attempts to break down the opposition by starting quickly and maintaining a fast pace throughout.
“When it comes to mental toughness, he is really solid,” Reed said. “I don’t think I’ve witnessed a kid who has mental strength the way he does.”
Although somewhat reserved in conversation, Baltazar has also adapted nicely to a team leadership role.
“Poli is a quiet leader,” Green said. “He leads by example and is also there to lend a hand to those who need help and direction. He is a goal-setter and has worked toward seeing those goals come to life.”
Baltazar’s goals extend well beyond AHS. He hopes to wangle an invitation to a major AAU meet in North Carolina next month, a development that would force him to skip graduation ceremonies.
He plans to continue his running career at Central Arizona Community College near Phoenix next fall, then eventually transfer to Oklahoma State, Oregon or Gonzaga. Career goals include earning a general education degree with the objective of becoming a college coach or administrator.
Reed said skeptics shouldn’t doubt his potential.
“With his desire, his love of running and his unwillingness to lose,” the Aberdeen teacher said, “he’s going to be a great 5,000-10,000-meter runner in college. It seems like the farther he goes, the better he gets.”
If nothing else, Baltazar plans to continue going the extra mile in pursuit of success.
“If you work hard, you can do anything,” he said. “I think that’s why I’ve been so successful. I don’t allow myself to have too many weaknesses. Too many people give up too fast.”
Rick Anderson, Daily World Sports Editor, can be reached at 537-3924 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org