And while it has been hard adjusting his expectations mid-stride, the Jackson High School senior is OK with the fact that the final day of the state track meet may not go how he envisioned it would when the season began.
Nelson, one of the top distance runners in the state, came into the year with two very concrete goals -- winning a state title in the 1,600 meter run, and breaking the school record in the event. But six weeks ago, he started feeling pain in his foot. He ran through it for the rest of the week, and ran well at that weekend's Pasco Invitational, but an MRI the following week revealed a stress facture in his heel.
Nelson knew right away that the injury wouldn't be a season-ender, but it did mean a week on crutches, and two more without running. He was able to do non-impact training such as biking, swimming, and working on an anti-gravity treadmill, but none of that could replace the valuable miles he missed as the postseason approached.
"I know I'm way behind where I should be at the end of the season," said Nelson, who will run at the University of Washington next year. "My legs don't really feel that sharp and I just don't feel like I'm in that great of shape. With experience and what training I have, I've been able to run well for the most part."
Despite the lack of training, Nelson won titles in the 800 and 1,600 -- he decided to do the 800 instead of the 3,200 because he didn't have enough training for the longer race -- in both the Wesco and 4A bi-district meets leading up to state.
But now, with his biggest races looming today, Nelson isn't quite sure what to expect when he runs the finals of the 800 and 1,600.
"I don't have too many hopes, I'm just going in to race, and hopefully I do well," he said. "Before I had the injury, I was definitely focused on trying to win a state title and break our team record of 4:11. Now I'm just hoping I run well and run smart and get a PR. I could have been faster at this point, but I'm not too down about it."
What Nelson has done so far has been impressive, make no mistake about that, it's just that no one knows exactly how his body will respond to another tough late-season test with such limited training under his belt.
"He's been able to put some pretty good races here at Wesco and regionals, but the proof is in the pudding this weekend," said Jackson track coach Eric Hruschka. "We don't know how big a hole he has in his training. The level of competition goes up exponentially each week now, so we're rolling the dice a little."
And don't mistake Nelson's uncertainty with a lack of desire to win today. He finished fourth at state in the 1,600 last year, and believes he can be better, limited training or not. His best times this year in the 800 (1:53.76), ranked third among 4A runners in the state heading into this week, and his best time in the 1,600 (4:17.43) ranks eighth, and he felt like he could have gone a few seconds faster when he posted that time at the bi-district meet.
"I don't know exactly what my legs will do," he said. "But I think I can definitely challenge at least for a podium spot."
And even if Nelson's legs betray him somewhat today, don't expect him to simply fade to the back of the pack, his coach says.
"He's very determined and stubborn, the type of personality that lends itself to being super tough," Hruscka said. "He's always been a gamer and brought good results in big races."
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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