Penns Valley’s Colton Sands closed his eyes, spread his arms wide and smiled.
This — a PIAA gold medal in the 3,200-meter run — is something he tried to push out of his head for the last week. But, after crossing the finish line Saturday in 9 minutes and 24.75 seconds, he didn’t need to worry about adding extra pressure anymore.
The gold from the PIAA Class 2A Boys’ Track and Field Championships finally belonged to him. And he wanted to take a moment to let it all sink in.
“I’m beyond stoked,” Sands said. “I knew I had a chance to win, but to actually do it just feels great.”
Sands came into Shippensburg’s Seth Grove Stadium as the second seed in the 3,200. And, after the first 400 meters, the Penns Valley sophomore knew he had a solid chance at the gold. He kept pace with the leader, running right behind him, and the first lap came in at about 72 seconds — the slowest first lap he’s run this season, even if it was intentional.
That meant he’d save plenty of energy for the end. He had to remind himself at several points during the race not to run ahead — he was tempted to simply try cruising for a big win — but he remained disciplined. And, with about 200 meters to go, he reverted to his sprint mechanics and left everyone else in the dust.
He finished the final 200 meters in under 28 seconds, an incredible feat of stamina. Sands beat runner-up Jack Miller, of Jenkintown, by 3.31 seconds.
“It just felt excellent pulling away,” Sands said, reflecting back on those final 200 meters. “I was checking the ground for shadows for the last 50-75 meters, but at that point I was just focused.”
Said Rams coach Kendyl Wittenrich: ”The whole race he seemed very comfortable. His face wasn’t stressed, he was relaxed, and he was comfortable to sit in second. ... That was a perfect race for him; that was set up for him to win.”
Sands felt a lot less relaxed in the morning.
The long-distance runner recalled with a laugh how he tried to distract himself around breakfast at 7 a.m., more than two hours before the race. He sat on a bed in a Shippensburg dorm, leaned back against the wall and read up on Saturday night’s NBA playoff game between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks. (He’s picking the Bucks.) He didn’t care what he thought about — as long as it wasn’t running.
The nerves came back as he walked up to the starting line later that morning. But, after the first 100 meters, when the pack started to clear, Sands felt in his element. The race was his.
“Honestly, I wasn’t surprised at all,” Wittenrich said about Sands’ gold. “Watching him this season, I kind of figured this is where he’d be at — but I’m glad he closed it out so decisively. He earned it.”
Wittenrich knew she had a talent when she watched Sands and fellow sophomore Brendan Colwell, who ran but did not place in two events at states, during their junior high careers. Wittenrich can remember comparing their eighth-grade times to her varsity runners and how they were fast enough then to beat out some upperclassmen.
In some ways, Saturday was a long time coming for Sands. Sure, he faded in his second event Saturday — he had the 1,600 just a few hours after the 3,200 and finished 10th — but the sophomore was ecstatic over his gold.
He plans to stick the Class 2A gold right in the middle of the medal rack in his bedroom. Next season, he’ll try to repeat. But, for now, he plans to enjoy the culmination of his hard work.
“This is just really gratifying,” Sands said. “I’ve been working since January for this, and all the work and all the miles, it just paid off. I’m so happy.”
Penns Valley (Class 2A)
Saturday’s medalists (top 8): Colton Sands (1st; 3,200)
Friday’s medalists (top 8): None
Honorable mentions: Colton Sands (10th; 1,600), Brendan Colwell (20th; 3,200), Brendan Colwell (21st; 1,600)