LEWISTON — After the best year of running in his life, Isaiah Harris is glad to be home, and even happier to have a few weeks to sit back, reflect on his NCAA championship and rest up for his first full season as a professional track athlete.
Harris has done little more than hang out with family and friends and play Xbox in the three weeks since his whirlwind junior year at Penn State morphed into his pro debut in Europe.
“I rode a bike today,” he said on Monday.
He has a little more than a week remaining in Maine before he returns to campus to continue pursuing his degree in kinesiology and start training in preparation for his professional indoor track debut in the winter.
At some point during indoor track season, Penn State will raise a banner above its track commemorating Harris’ 2018 NCAA championship in the 800-meter run, the track and field program’s first national title in the event.
Harris will probably be in State College, Pennsylvania, for the ceremony, as the deal he signed with Flynn Sports Management and Nike in late June allows him to continue training with Penn State head coach John Gondak while taking classes. He plans to compete in three indoor events — including the Millrose Games in New York City — before focusing on the outdoor season, which will culminate in the Track and Field World Championships in Qatar in late September 2019.
“It’s pretty awesome. I mean, Nike is obviously the powerhouse,” he said. “Best part was being able to stay with my coach and stay with what I know works.”
Harris’ first pro deal included having the cost of his senior year of studies covered. That, and a national championship, were about the only things standing in the way of him turning pro this summer. Once he had the hardware, he believed his value would never be higher.
“There was nothing more I could really do. There was no better time,” Harris said. “I’ll be done (with school) for 2020. It’s an Olympic year. I won’t have to worry about classes. It will be the first year I can solely focus on track, and I think that will be big.”
His first crack at Olympic glory will be the biggest challenge Harris, 21, has faced in his running career. But those who have followed him going back to when he first started running at Lewiston Middle School know not to underestimate him.
“He always exceeded my expectations, in terms of his speed and endurance,” said T.J. Niles, who coached Harris in track and cross country at Lewiston High School. “The first year, he was full of surprises. After the first year I coached him, I knew he had the potential to be a great runner.”
‘It takes a village’
Niles first saw Harris as a raw, gangly sixth-grader. A year later, he was beating the top middle-distance middle school runners in the area.
The problem for Niles was Harris’ favorite sport was basketball. Track was a distant third behind football.
“I always thought I was going to play basketball in college,” Harris said. “I loved basketball. I still do. I always told everyone I was going to the NBA.”
But Niles and Chase Pray, a local longtime runner, saw running as Harris’ true talent. Harris gradually began taking the sport more seriously with the encouragement of extended family and the family of his best friend, Kevin Dillingham, with whom he started living in eighth grade.
Estranged from his mother, Harris had been living a nomadic life with his father prior to moving in with the Dillinghams (Kevin’s father, Russ, is the chief photographer at the Sun Journal).
“It’s hard to put into words. They’ve done so much for me over the years,” Harris said. “I started hanging out with Kevin in sixth or seventh grade. Then I think it was my eighth-grade year where I just started staying with them, and I’ve been staying with them ever since. They just took me in like their own, and it’s been that way ever since. Whatever I’ve needed to succeed, they would help me out with, whether it’s school stuff, training stuff, anything.”
Having reached the collegiate pinnacle of his sport, he’s had time to think about what the family and the mentors he had growing up did to help him get there.
“It’s kept me humble,” he said. “Just being from Lewiston and my whole entire life, moving from apartment to apartment and never really having much to being taken in by Russ and them helping me out. I’ve seen a lot in how communities work and families work.”
“It takes a village. It’s kind of cliche but it’s so true. If I ever wrote a book, I think that would be the title,” he said. “I’ve just had so many people who at some point in my life have given me whatever I’ve needed.”
A strong cross country season to start his sophomore year led to his first state championship that spring with a record-setting run in the 800. College coaches started asking Niles about his talented, but reluctant, sophomore.
“Track kind of just threw itself at me and forced itself upon me,” Harris said. “I was kind of upset that I’d have to give up basketball (dreams), but I also knew if I focused my training on track, I’ll improve a lot.”
Harris continued to play basketball, eventually leading the Blue Devils to the Class A regional finals his senior year. But by his junior year, the recruiting letters were flooding in from track coaches, not basketball coaches.
“Track was giving me the opportunities that basketball wasn’t,” Harris said.
By then, Harris had developed his trademark finishing kick. Developing the rest of his talent would be difficult, though, simply because he wasn’t sure how to improve while dominating.
“He was all by himself all of the time. No one could keep up with him in workouts,” Niles said. “He would run as fast as his competition was. It was hard to get him to run hard by himself. He had to have the confidence to go out a little faster and be confident he’d still have that finishing speed.”
Despite not having anyone to push him competitively as a junior, Harris added a 200-meter state title and shattered his own record while defending his 800 crown. He won the first of two New England championships in the 800, and accepted a full track scholarship to Penn State University.
In his senior year, under new Lewiston track and field coach Paul Soracco, Harris pulled off one of the great individual feats in Maine high school track history by winning the state 200, 800 and 1,600 titles before running the anchor leg in the 4×400 that clinched the Class A team title for Lewiston. He went on to win New Englands and finished third nationally in the 800, shattering his state record at the latter meet by nearly two seconds.
Face of Penn State track
Harris made an immediate impact as a Nittany Lion, sweeping the Big Ten indoor and outdoor 800-meter titles as a freshman. He finished fourth overall at the outdoor NCAA championships, while also qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials, where he finished sixth overall.
“He has the gift of being a relentless competitor,” Gondak said. “It’s not something you can necessarily coach. He knows how to find ways to win.”
Harris went on to win six Big Ten indoor and outdoor 800 titles at Penn State, and also led the Nittany Lions to their first Big Ten team outdoor title as a sophomore. Later that summer, he finished second at the NCAA and USA Track and Field (USATF) championships, and became the most prominent, and promising, member of Penn State track.
“He’s been the face of our program for the last couple of years,” Gondak said.
Harris set his sights on national indoor and outdoor titles for his junior year. Michael Saruni of University of Texas-El Paso crushed his indoor hopes with a record-setting performance in the NCAA final, relegating Harris, who was seeded fourth, to runner-up, a mere nine-tenths of a second behind.
With thoughts of turning pro penned to the back of his mind, Harris sought revenge on a rainy June evening at the NCAA outdoor championships in Eugene, Oregon.
“The day of the race, I felt so good. While I was warming up, I’d never felt so ready to race,” he said. “I was talking to myself in warm-ups, like, ‘You’re going to win this.’ I felt something. I don’t know what it was, but I felt really good.”
Harris still felt good despite falling back to sixth place in the first 400 meters of the race. In the indoor final, he had run out of gas in that race trying to chase down Saruni.
This time, he was ready when Saruni made his move approaching the second lap.
“I was just waiting for that, and all of a sudden I see him coming on my outside and making the big move and I was, like, ‘I’m not letting him get away,'” Harris said. “Once that gap forms, it’s a mental thing. It’s so much harder, so you’ve got to go with him and just keep him right there.”
“I still felt good. Coming off the turn down the home stretch, I just tried to give whatever I have for that last 150 (meters) and got on his shoulder,” he said. “That’s another mental thing, when someone’s right on your shoulder near the end, you start to feel it. It can hurt. And I feel like that got to him mentally. Once I looked over and saw him fading back, I felt a little relieved. But I also felt like someone else (eventual runner-up Marco Arop of Mississippi State) was coming on my outside, so I was just, like, ‘Just finish the race.'”
Over the final 400 meters, Harris split 53.22 to overtake Saruni and capture Penn State’s first ever national title in the 800.
“I’d wanted it for so long and I’d been close, getting second twice,” Harris said. “It just meant alot because Saruni was the top guy, the collegiate record-holder and everyone’s favorite, and I felt like I’d proven myself on the biggest stage.”
“As much as I was happy for myself, I was glad that I could make all of those people happy as well,” he said. “Penn State had always called ourselves ‘800-U,’ but didn’t have a national title. I had alumni coming up to me after the race literally in tears. It was great.”
Best of the best
The texts and messages from back home lit up his phone for days after his victory, then again after he announced he was turning pro after finishing second for the second year in a row at the USATF championships.
Less than a week later, he made his Diamond League debut in Paris, France, finishing fourth with a personal-best time of 1:44.42. In early July, he picked up his first professional victory in Barcelona, Spain.
Harris said the combination of a lighter racing schedule and better competition should have him peaking for next year’s world championships, which are later than usual.
“It’s fewer races, obviously better quality, but also a little bit later on in the year,” he said. “The collegiate system is long because it’s a lot of races and you’re going from indoors in January all the way to USAs (in late June).”
“It’s going to be a fast race every single time. You know you’re in the top quality races. In Paris, we had 12 guys in the 800, which is a lot, and I was, like, the fourth-slowest guy of those 12,” he said. “They all have PRs of 1:42, 1:43. It’s the best of the best now, every single race.”
For the time being, Harris is more focused on how he measures up with his friends in Fortnite and on patiently getting back to top form on the track.
“I’m looking forward to a slow build-up into shape,” he said.
He’s also looking forward to enjoying the perks of being a professional. Nike has already started showering him with gear.
“I’ve got 10 boxes waiting for me at Penn State,” he said, grinning. “I can’t wait to see what’s in those. Twice a year they send you those training packages.”