By: Mark Behan – March 2013
Methuen High track coach Roger Fuller vividly recalls the spring track practice when his star distance runner showed up with a cast on his leg. After a moment of disbelief in which Fuller’s “face turned white,” the runner removed the cast and told Fuller he was just kidding.
“It was the best April Fool’s Day joke I’ve ever played,” said Methuen High senior Mike O’Donnell.
“I told him, ‘Don’t ever do that to me,’” said Fuller, who has been coaching at Methuen High for 42 years. “I’ve got a bad ticker.”
Along with a sense of humor, the reserved O’Donnell also possesses the physique and skill set of a champion middle-distance runner. At 5-foot-10, 150 pounds, he appears to run effortlessly.
“As quiet as he is,” said Kevin Alliette, Methuen High assistant track coach, “when he races, he’s an animal.”
On the heels of a championship cross-country season, O’Donnell has elevated his performance this winter on the indoor ovals across New England. He has smashed school records and captured track-and-field’s marquee event – the one-mile run – at both the MIAA Division 1 Meet and All-State track championship Feb. 23 at the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston.
In addition O’Donnell recently signed his National Letter of Intent to attend the University of Connecticut on a track and cross-country scholarship.
“After visiting UConn, I felt at home there,” said Mike, son of Jim and Eileen O’Donnell.
O’Donnell opened his indoor season by winning the 2-mile in 9:31.26 at the Winter Festival in Boston – a harbinger of what was to come this season. A week later he broke the Methuen High indoor record for 800 meters, posting a speedy 1:55.25.
Not bad for a former soccer player and life-long skier who has been running competitively only since his freshman year.
“As a freshman he came out for the team (indoor track) about three weeks after the season started,” Fuller recalled. “The distance kids were running a workout, so I told him to jump in the back. After a few reps, he was running right up in the front.”
O’Donnell raced sparingly that first winter. But come spring time he was blossoming like the crocuses. He broke Methuen High freshman records for 800 meters (2:00.27) and the mile (4:38.23). And Fuller knew that the youngster who used to participate in middle school meets wearing a ski jacket was a prodigious running talent.
“I said, ‘There’s a kid that will keep me around for another four years,’” said Fuller. “Soon after, we (the coaching staff) met with Mike’s parents to discuss a long-term plan. His parents have been so supportive.”
O’Donnell has neither over-raced nor over-trained. His times have progressively improved as have his overall strength and endurance.
“I am doing about 50 miles per week,” O’Donnell said, noting that he does a lot of “little things” – pushups, crunches, core work, stretching, weightlifting and drills– “which add up.”
One thing he has not done this winter is ski.
“This is the first year I have not skied,” said O’Donnell, who started skiing when he was two. “It’s been tough. But this is my senior year. I am focused on running and I feel it has paid off.”
O’Donnell garnered national attention on Jan. 27 when he won the 1,000 meters at the Coaches Elite Meet in Boston. His time – 2:27.22 – was not only a meet and school record but it was the then-fastest time this year in the country for the event.
He then raced the boys’ junior mile at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston. He placed fifth in a then-season’s best 4:17.20.
“Mike has a gift,” said Fuller, “for the bigger the moment and the bigger the competition, the more he likes it.”
O’Donnell won the Division 1 Meet mile in 4:18.01 with a 60.9-second closing quarter mile. By virtue of his time at the Division 1 Meet, O’Donnell entered the All-State meet as the number-one seed.
“I looked at it like any other race,” O’Donnell said. “I try to go the line (feeling) relaxed. Once the gun goes off, I get serious.”
Racing the mile requires a blend of speed and stamina and strategy. O’Donnell’s strategies vary depending on the race.
“It’s not my strategy to lead (from the start), but I expected it might happen,” O’Donnell said of the All-State race.
O’Donnell towed the field through opening quarters of 62.09 and 66.48. He ran 64.50 for the third quarter to open up a gap. With two laps remaining, O’Donnell was like a Formula One Car on the open road, sprinting his final quarter in 62.43 for a time of 4:15.81 and a three-second victory.
“I felt strong,” said O’Donnell, who will compete in the mile at the New Balance Indoor Nationals on March 10 in New York City.
“As for goals at Nationals, the big one is to become an All-American (top-6 finish),” O’Donnell said. “And I’d like to run sub-4:10.”
Mark Behan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org