BETHEL — As a runner at Telstar High School, Josef Holt-Andrews has about as much practice running in elevation as any Maine cross country runner.
One of the jewels of the western mountains, Bethel sits 679 feet above sea level, and it is in its hills and clean air where Holt-Andrews trains to become arguably the top cross country runner in the state.
Like any runner, the junior harrier strives to elevate his game with every workout and every race. So when he had the opportunity to attend a high altitude running camp at Western State University in Gunnison, Colo. last summer, it was a chance to run at another level.
Holt-Andrews' lungs had never burned like they did the three weeks he spent running at 7,700 fett above sea level. Neither had his competitive fire.
"It was fun. There were a lot of guys that were faster than I was, so it was good competition," he said. "You could definitely tell the difference with the elevation, not just with your breath but your body fatigued a lot faster."
Holt-Andrews has been wearing out the competition since he took up cross country as a freshman. He fell in love with the sport instantly.
"I used to play pretty much every sport there was and I realized I didn't like the team aspect of it. I didn't like having to rely on everyone else to get it done," he said. "I like the mental toughness you have to have to run."
He finished third in Class C as a freshman. Mountain Valley Conference rivals Matt McClintock of Madison and Chase Brown of Boothbay were the only two runners ahead of him, and he would spend the next year chasing them.
He took third in Class C, again behind that pair, last year (and 28th at New Englands). After finishing second among Mainers in the 3,200 at the New England track and field championships, he went into this season knowing that, with McClintock and Brown graduated, the bull's-eye would be on his back.
The pressure has only helped his confidence. Instead of going full throttle all the time to protect his favored status, he's taken a lot of races a little bit slower than last year because he's been the pursued rather than the pursuer.
"A lot of it's mental for me. It's a lot to do with the workouts. I just think about it all the time. I try not to get overwhelmed but I try to think about it as much as I can and be prepared," he said.
If he needed a reminder that going out too fast usually spells doom for a runner, Holt-Andrews got it when he finished third at the Festival of Champions, a Belfast race that draws high school cross country teams from all over New England and the Maritimes.
"He ran pretty well there. He didn't meet his expectations. I think he ran up to my expectations and acutally exceeded them a little bit," Telstar coach Dan Crooker said. "He probably could have run a little smarter. He led the race for basically 2 1/4 miles, and when you're running with those caliber of athletes, it doesn't hurt to sit back and see how the race develops."
Holt-Andrews has been able to set aside his disappointment with how the race turned out and sit back and look at the big picture.
"It's tough to lose, but I feel like I can realize what I'd done wrong more than I would last year. Last year, I'd have no idea why," he said. "I'm going to change a couple of things that hopefully help me in the future, but I've moved on."
He moved on to the point where he could joke with his coach about finishing third again.
"He's matured to where he doesn't beat himself up as much anymore," Crooker said. "We sat down and talked about what he could he have done differently. That's a key thing, especially with an athlete of his caliber. The guys that are able to do that are the ones that are going to succeed and continue to move forward. The ones that beat themselves up over it don't ever have the opportunity to learn from it because all they're thinking about is 'I should have won.'"
Holt-Andrews wasn't having any such thoughts after dominating the Mountain Valley Conference championship meet on Friday. He finished more than a minute ahead of the rest of the field.
But winning the MVC meet is little more than a stepping stone for much loftier goals. It starts with the regional championships next week, then states, then New Englands and, hopefully, a spot at regionals in New York and a chance to qualify for Foot Locker Nationals.
Holt-Andrews is hoping to run on a national level and get the attention of Division I cross country coaches. Crooker said he thinks he has the talent and work ethic to do that and even run beyond college. If he takes his running career that far, he would follow in the footsteps of another great runner out of Telstar, Anna (Willard) Pierce, who competed in the steeplechase at the 2008 Olympics.
Reaching those heights requires a lot of small steps along the way, like pre-dawn workouts at the high school that end just as bleary-eyed teachers and students are arriving for the start of the school day. Like eating right and getting proper rest. Like communicating to Crooker how his body feels every day.
"He's kind of a coach's dream," Crooker said. "He's super-committed to the sport and he's got a lot of the things that go along with it. He came into high school with a lot of initiative, and he's stepped up to the plate."