This past Saturday, Amador Valley junior John Lester made national headlines with his supreme winning effort at the Desert Dream-Last Hurrah Invitational 800m. His 1:48.26 placed him as the 3rd fastest junior in history and puts him on pace to chase the national record in the next year. Lester takes us through his athletic journey from the beginning and how he has negotiated this unusual spring leading up to his robust effort this past Saturday.
1) What sports did you participate in before HS? How did you go about selecting the sports you have done in HS?
Before high school, I played baseball, basketball, flag football, swimming, ultimate frisbee, and ran some track and field for CYO. During my freshman year, I chose to do football and track, primarily because that was what my friends were doing. It wasn't until the spring of my freshman year that Kevin Gray told me about the potential of Amador's cross country team and their desire to go to state. That's all it took to convince me to do cross country and track as opposed to football and track.
2) What were some of your highlights/proudest achievements during your freshman and sophomore years in HS?
Obtaining a 4.0 all four semesters of my freshman and sophomore year was certainly one of my proudest achievements. I also obtained the rank of Eagle Scout my sophomore year upon completing my eagle project - which took nearly a year. Making the state meet in the 4x400 and 800m my sophomore year was the icing on the cake.
3) You switched from football to cross country before your sophomore year. What led you to make that decision?
I was awful at football, so the decision wasn't terribly hard. Mr. Gray told me every chance he got about the star power of our young XC team, which included our lord and savior Aidan Boyle, Junior studs Aidan McCarthy, Jack Gray, and Jacob Lawrence, and of course, the vivacious sophomore Euan Houston. I wanted to be a part of that.
4) Regarding your sophomore state final where you ran 1:52.99, what do you remember about that race, and how satisfied were you with your time following the race?
I remember Kai Wingo went with about 300 to go and I went with him. He was behind me going into 400 (the race was out fast) and we both waited to make our moves on the backstretch. With about 220m to go I was about even with the rest of the field and I thought I was going to win it. On the final turn, I was tripped up in traffic two or three times, so I didn't quite have the close I wanted. I was hoping to hit 1:51, but a perfect race would have to occur for that to happen. At the end of the day, I was happy to get under 1:53, but it was a bittersweet ending not having that "perfect race" I visualized beforehand.
5) Did you do anything differently training-wise to prepare for the fall XC season? What do you feel were your best races during the XC season?
Apart from slightly higher mileage, the only thing I did differently in prep for the fall XC season was take things more seriously. In my first season I was just struggling to get in shape until about September, so this year I went out hard in summer training during cross, focusing a lot on improving my form on hills. I also attended the Runner's Workshop camp with my team and learned a lot about meditation and visualization - and that for me changed a lot of things. Being able to visualize races and workouts made me more confident and comfortable in both my training and racing. For some of my teammates it was weird, but those moments where I could just close my eyes, music blasting, and just visualize made me more relaxed and confident. I think my best race of the season was EBALS where I dropped a 15:25 3-mile.
6) What did you do over the winter to prepare for the track season? Any workouts? Weekly mileage? Longest run?
In January and February, I had Peroneal Tendonitis so I was restricted to the bike for 3-4 weeks. I would rip bike workouts as hard as I could, knowing that I wanted to drop something good at Dan Gabor. Weekly mileage is still roughly 35-40 miles a week, so no changes there from sophomore year. The longest run I did in the winter was maybe 10 miles or so.
7) At the Dan Gabor Invitational, you ran 49.68 earlier in the meet and then came back later to run 1:52.06. It's hard to imagine that would be your last official race of the season but how excited were you for the rest of the season at that point?
I knew in the next few races I was going to break 1:50 which was definitely ahead of schedule, to say the least. I knew this was the season I had been dreaming of for a long time, and Dan Gabor only affirmed that sentiment.
8) Once the season was put on hold, what kept you motivated to keep training? What were some of the workouts that you did that gave you the confidence that you could run faster?
After dropping 1:52, I knew I had more in me because up to that point I had done virtually no speed/lactic work, only a few mile workouts. Knowing that I was in good shape but also not knowing when racing opportunities would come up made me motivated to just be ready for anything. It was actually a tempo workout about a week or two after quarantine that I knew I could run faster and I wanted to prove that. I ran something like 5:25 on the first rep and worked down to 5:12 by rep #6. To be fair, I took longer rest than I was supposed to (on accident) but being able to consistently drop 5:20 pace tempo workouts gave me the confidence that I could run faster this season.
9) You ran a 1:49.36 time trial in mid-April and then took part in the Quarantine Clasico running 4:08.90 for the mile. What were your time goals going into those efforts and what do you remember about the efforts themselves?
The goal for the 800m time trial was 1:49 high. I remember it was hot that day and it was a weekday (a Wednesday afternoon I think) but I felt really calm and relaxed, which I think helped my cadence through 500 or so. My pacer, Reece Proctor, took me out perfectly so I was able to run pretty smooth through 600 around 1:21 and close in 28. From then on, I struggled to find competition/pacing because Reece was gearing up for XC training and nobody else was really training (that I knew of) so I decided to see where 1:49 would translate in the mile and came away with a 4:09 1600m after a couple time trials with a bike pacer (Aidan Boyle). Let me just say, the mile efforts were WAY harder than the 800, partially due to the wind in the evenings (when we chose to run them) and the fact that I gave Ozzie hardly any notice prior to the time trials themselves, so I would be having a Thursday workout and a Saturday race, making my legsunhappy.The 4:09 and 1:49, however, got me into the Quarantine Clasico where I had pacing duties for 800-1000, so I had to put myself in a little bit of an uncomfortable situation putting myself behind the front pacer through 800. To come away with 4:08 was pretty nice, but I was gunning for 4:05-4:06. Given the situation though, I was happy with the result.
10) Your entry into the Desert Dream-Last Hurrah Invitational was very last minute. What was the original plan for you that Saturday? What was your goal going into the race and take us through the race and how you managed both laps? What was the toughest part of the race and how concerned were you about being passed at the end of the race?
The original plan for me that Saturday was to run an 800m time trial where I was shooting for 1:47. Thomas Kersulius was going to pace me through 400m. Once I heard that Culpepper and Kipyego were going to be in the 800m in Arizona, I decided on Thursday night to go. Going into the race, the plan remained the same: Go out smoothly in 52 high or 53 flat, hit 800 under 1:20, and rip it the last 200m. The toughest part about the race was the heat and dust that was in the air - even though it was at 8:30, it was still well above 90 degrees. The toughest part of the race came in the last 100m where I tried hard not to tie up and keep my feet moving - watching the race later I looked okay until about 20m to go. During the race I was actually unaware that Cruz was coming up on me, so I wasn't worried in the present moment. I felt that I put enough distance between myself and the rest of the field that all I needed to do was close hard and stay smooth.
11) Tell us about your coach and how he has helped you develop into the runner you are today.
Jason Oswalt, whom we affectionately call "Ozzie", has been instrumental to my development as a runner and racer. He's the perfect counterbalance for someone like me who is prone to overthinking. He keeps things simple and straightforward, and if you've ever listened to his race commentary, you'll know what I mean. Even after what some may consider good performances, Ozzie has kept me humble, unafraid to let me know where I did well and where I can do better. My approach to training and racing has been very similar to Ozzie's coaching style in that he just keeps things simple. I think for most, if not all runners, simple is better - and Ozzie keeps it that way.
12) Favorite XC course: I don't have a favorite. Each brings similar pain.
Favorite XC invitational: Mt. Sac. But not for the course.
Favorite XC workout: The Ridge! (Many, many people will disagree with me on that).
Favorite long run: Callipe loop
Favorite TF invitational? Arcadia
Favorite TF event? The 4x400
Favorite TF workout? 8x400
Any pre-race rituals? I say the Hail Mary a couple times while I warm up.
Favorite pro runner? Craig Engels or Nick Symmonds
Favorite free time activity? Watching movies or scrolling through credit
Favorite pump-up song? Anything Jacob plays on the bus.
13) When it comes to making your eventual college decision, what are going to be the most important factors for you when it comes to making that choice?
Coach/Athlete relationship - Like Ozzie and I. Simple.
Academics - does the school have the programs I want/opportunities available for student-athletes?
14) Anything else you would like to add.
Favorite Quote (for Euan):
"He who says he can and he who says he can't are both usually right."