MINT HILL – Boys cross country coach Oscar Brooks has been around Queen’s Grant senior Lucas Brown long enough to understand his two personalities.
Off the course – or the track, as he’s also a state champion distance runner for the Stallions – Brown is reserved and quiet. He takes honors and AP classes and has a 4.18 GPA. One day, he said, he may want to be an accountant.
But race time approaches, Brown turns into something else.
“He’s so painfully shy unless he feels comfortable around you. Then he’ll talk your head off,” Brooks jokes. “He’s always upbeat and in a good mood. The only time you see his personality change is when it’s time to race. He kind of locks into a different mode, but if you catch him 30 seconds after he’s done with a race, he goes back to being that same happy-go-lucky Lucas. It makes my job real easy.”
Brown said he can’t really explain it, but it began at his very first race.
“No matter what race it is, I still get really nervous, and especially at the big ones,” he said. “I think my teammates would agree that I don’t really talk that much before a race because I’m in a different zone or something. I don’t really know. It’s a different feeling for me than at any other time.”
Whatever that feeling is, it’s worked.
Brown said he grew up playing tennis and running.
“I was OK in both sports, but not really great at either,” he said. “I decided to come out for cross country, but I didn’t even know if I would make the team.”
His first-ever race was a Hares and Hounds race at McAlpine Park in Charlotte. There were over 300 runners in his event, but Brown did admirably, placing 82nd that day with a time of 19 minutes, 17 seconds.
Since, he has improved every season, setting his previous personal best coming into this year at the 2017 Foot Locker South Regional, where he ran 16 minutes, 32 seconds.
That came less than a month after he finished second in the NCHSAA 1A championship race, where he clocked a 16:36.
He placed second in the state in the 1,600-meter race during the indoor track and field season this past winter. Last season, he won a state title in the 1,600 and placed second in the 3,200.
As good as those accomplishments have been, Brown has come out this season sizzling even for his standards.
He won the CXC Summer Night Invite race to kick off the season.
Entering the second race, the third annual Carolinas Invitational, Brown said he had a feeling he could do well at the course, which is located at Metrolina Christian.
“It’s a pretty flat course, but there are a lot of roots and a lot of twists and turns, so it is a little harder,” he said. “But I’ve run there before and I had a feeling I could run it pretty well.”
Brown did better than that, winning the race by 27 seconds over the field of 206 runners. But it was his time that was the impressive part.
He ran 16:05 that day. It was 27 seconds faster than his previous personal best and one of the fastest times in the state as only two kids have broken the 16-minute mark so far this season.
It won’t be long until his coach thinks Brown joins them.
“He’s gotten off to a good start,” Brooks said. “Right now, he’s got the fifth-fastest time in the state, and we haven’t even started focusing on him time dropping. I want him to go out and run his race, but I’m interested to see where he is later in the season when it’s, ‘OK, Lucas. It’s a month away from regionals and let’s make these changes.’ It’ll be interested to see where he ends up this year as far is his times go.”
So, where does Brooks think he can get to?
“I hate to put a number on it, but I’ll do it and he’ll step up to the plate,” he said. “I told Lucas, ‘Let’s get you to 15:30.’ I know it’s kind of ambitious but, heck, he’s at 16 flat now and we’re not two weeks into it, so 15:30 might not be low enough.”
Brooks said Brown’s wit and intellect is what separates him on the course.
“There are a lot of good physical runners, and there may be kids on Lucas’ level or maybe even better, but he’s so smart,” he said. “He knows who his competition is going to be before the race and he goes out and attacks the race. He doesn’t go out too fast or too slow. He’s just on point strategically the first two races. Over my years of coaching, I’ve had some really talented runners, but as far as the distance runners I’ve had, he’s as smart as they come.”
Brown said he wants to run in college, and his early season time is certainly raising some eyebrows.
He’s heard from a few coaches and is contacting a couple others to see where his options lie, but there are plenty of suitors for a 4.2-GPA student who can run a sub-16-minute 5K.
And the scary part is it’s likely only going to get faster and produce better times as the season wears on.
“I want to break the 16-minute mark as soon as possible, and I think when I’m in the mid-15s or faster, I’ll be excited about it,” Brown said. “Every year I’ve had a progression from the beginning of the year until the end. Now I know I might get that PR or break 16 any time that I go out, so that makes me want to work harder.”