For the first time in years, Isaiah Harris didn’t have anywhere to be.

So, he returned home.

Since his contract with Nike ended in the latter half of last year, Harris has been back in Lewiston, staying at the house where he lived most of his high school days, trying to figure out the next step in his professional running career.

After the conclusion of his Nike deal — which he signed soon after winning the 800-meter NCAA outdoor championship in 2018 for Penn State, where Harris was still training and even helping coach his old team while living in the area until moving back to Lewiston — Harris and his agent spent the next few months exploring and negotiating with interested companies.

He decided to sign with Brooks, which was made official Friday, and will soon be moving to Seattle, Washington, to train for his pro races and, he hopes, a spot on the national team.

“Really, for me, the deciding point was when I went on the visit and I said, ‘Yeah, I can see myself here,’” Harris said. “It’s like when you go on a college visit and you know right away. It was kind of like that.”

Nike had the first right of refusal, meaning whatever contract Brooks sent to Harris, Nike could either match it, and therefore keep Harris on its team, or let him sign with Brooks. 

“It was a bit of a back and forth, and at first my agent said that Nike would probably match it, which sounds like a good thing,” Harris said. “I was kind of at the point where I went and visited the (Brooks) team out in Seattle, it was two days, and we met everyone in the company. The CEO, the CMO, had dinner at the CMO’s house. Just seeing the team, how they are in practice, where they practice, where they live, how the coach interacts, it made me realize that I could see myself there.

“I loved my time with Nike, but I wasn’t in a group. They gave me the freedom to train where I wanted, which was nice, but I’ve shifted. I want a group to train with.”

Harris said he is still on good terms with Nike and enjoyed his time there, but he’s excited to train with his “Brooks Beasts” teammates, which started earlier this week in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“It’s going to be fun to have people holding you accountable,” Harris said. “They have an athletic trainer, a chiropractor, sports nutritionist, massage therapy, all stuff that is about taking care of your body and the medical stuff. It’s hard to train as hard as you want to without getting things like massages. Things are going to flare up and you need to get on it right away. It’s going to be super beneficial. The coach (Danny Mackey) is a very smart coach, he’s a biomechanics guy so he’s on the science side. I was a kinesiology undergrad, so I had to take some biomechanics classes and I can appreciate it a little bit more.”

Isaiah Harris runs across the walking bridge between Lewiston and Auburn on Jan. 6 while being photographed for a story by Seattle-based running shoe and apparel company Brooks, which recently signed the Lewiston athlete to a four-year professional running contract. Earlier this week, Harris left for a month of training in New Mexico before relocating to Seattle for the next four years. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LEARNING ON THE JOB

Harris has continually learned more about running as he’s progressed through high school, college and the pros. 

Harris didn’t start running track in high school until his sophomore year. After that, he’d run cross country in the fall, play basketball in the winter and do track in the spring. So he didn’t do much year-round training. 

“My last race senior year was my fastest race, my PR at the time of 1:49.6, and it was hard,” Harris said. “I was so dead after it, and I thought that I would never be able to run faster than that. … It was at New Balance Nationals. My goal in high school was to break 1:50 and I ran 1:49.6, and I remember being so dead and I thought I’d never run faster. I really believed that, until I started racing in college. It felt way easier than when I did it a year (earlier), and it was because I was switching into having a really good coach, the Penn State coaches are the best of the best, then I was training all year long. … I started doing the indoor training at Penn State, then outdoors, and that’s why I saw so much improvement.”

Harris’ progress hasn’t been without setbacks — specifically injuries, and sometimes at crucial moments.

About a month and a half before the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, last June, Harris tweaked his Achilles tendon. He didn’t think much of it at the time, but it became increasingly worse over the next couple of days, and Harris was forced to alter his training to rehab his injury.

“Things were going amazing, training was going great, and it was the longest I’d been pain-free for a while, and just one day randomly I came back from a meet and the next day my Achilles was sore,” Harris said. “I thought it was nothing, ran on it a couple more times, and then said, ‘This is something.’ I got some treatment. Wasn’t the ideal buildup (to the U.S. trials) but I got to the line and still raced. I was close to my PR and I was super happy with that.”

At the trials, Harris finished fourth — one spot shy of earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

“It stings, you know? Who knows … one more month of training could have been the little bit I needed,” Harris said. “You can’t live in the past or it will eat you up. Other than that, it’s really special. The environment out there is crazy, so fun, and it was a new stadium, too. A lot of my friends came up, and it was a really, really fun period of time.”

Harris bounced back quickly. 

He returned to competition in the Diamond League, a top-tier international professional track and field league. Three weeks after the Olympic trials, Harris earned his first Diamond League victory at the Muller British Grand Prix. He is only the fifth American to win a Diamond League race in the 800.

“That was amazing because it was a good confidence boost,” Harris said. “Especially it meant a lot to me because it was after the trials, where I got fourth. There were two of the guys that beat me (at the trials in that Diamond League race), and then a lot of other really good guys. To me, I knew I could race at that level; I had that confidence already, but it was kind of like showing people that I can do that, and it was good to have that on paper.

“It was a great feeling. I can’t say I was expecting to win, it was a shock, but when you go into a race like that, especially of that caliber, it’s like, it’s different.”

INSPIRATION FROM HIS ROOTS

While growing up in Lewiston, Harris said he moved from house to house in the downtown area. 

“Just being poor,” Harris said in describing his upbringing. “We moved house to house, downtown Lewiston, it had to be once a year. I’ve lived a lot of places, and it was just me and my dad. I have an older sister, she’s two years older than me, and my brother. (My dad) was bouncing around, job to job, unemployed, and so it wasn’t a great situation until I moved in with the Dillinghams my freshman year of high school.”

Harris said that moving in with the Dillinghams — Ann and Russ, who is a Sun Journal photographer, and their family — was the first time he had a semblance of stability in his life. 

Isaiah Harris runs across the walking bridge between Lewiston, where he grew up, and Auburn on Jan. 6. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

That stability has helped Harris thrive, but he also has drawn wisdom and strength from his years of instability.

“If you can survive it, then it can be beneficial,” Harris said. “You can relate to people, and when you get out in the world you can relate to more people. There are benefits, but, I mean, would I want my kids to grow up like that? No.”

Harris uses his upbringing as motivation when he’s racing. 

“I think the aspect of being from Lewiston, not just at the trials but everywhere, it gives me a little edge,” Harris said. “I want to win and I feel like I have a reason to want to win. I know where I’ve come from, and this is an opportunity to get away from that and be able to help my friends and family. The better I do, the more I can help people.

“I think it adds a mental edge that I think other people may not have. I think it’s that little grit at the end of the race that gives me the slight edge. I truly believe that that’s my little thing, the winning mentality. It’s really inspiring.”

While Harris has been back in Maine the past several months and deciding which running company he was going to join, he has used Lewiston as motivation to run on days he might not want to. 

“The support from Maine is amazing,” Harris said. “It’s such a small state and people here love when people from here do anything. People love to see that. I will get Facebook messages, Instagram messages, Russ will get comments and I’ll read those. I feel the love a lot. Just compared to my friends in the sport or my old college teammates, the love I get, not just in Lewiston but the whole state, is so much more than these other people from other states where it’s a lot more common for people to make it professionally.

“I love that about Maine. I talked about this when I did the Turkey Trot in Portland, it’s a fun way to toe the line to be out with those people that are sending me good luck messages. It’s good to see them.”

Harris is using his success to help other athletes from his hometown. As part of his new contract, Harris said Brooks will give $15,000 each year for the next four years to the Lewiston High School track and field program through the Brooks Booster Club.

GOING FOR WORLDS

Harris said that his “I made it” moment came at the 2017 World Championships in London. 

It was just packed,” Harris said. “I don’t know how many that stadium holds, but it was by far the most I’ve ever seen at a track meet. I was just walking onto the track through the tunnel and see all of that. For a track meet? It was unreal. Fans in Europe are unreal, too. We have track fans in the U.S., but they take it to another level (in Europe).

“It was kind of like, ‘This is really cool, I want more of this.’”

Later this year, after a couple indoor track meets, including the Millrose Games in New York, Harris will try to make the U.S. team for the 2022 World Championships, which will be held in Eugene, Oregon, in July.

Donavan Brazier earned an automatic bid by winning the 800 in the previous World Championships, so this year the United States gets four entries instead of three. 

“Basically, if you make the top four at nationals (June 23-26), then you will make the world team,” Harris said. “That would be cool, to go to Worlds in that stadium. The Olympic Trials were a lot of fun, but Worlds are going to be sick. It’s pretty long, so you have a few days when you’re done where you can go up in the stands and watch.”

Although Harris’ college and professional careers have been centered around the 800, he’s also interested in how fast he might run the 400 with some dedicated training

“I’ve never told anyone this, but I really wish I could train for the 400 for a full season,” Harris said. “Just see what I could do. I think I could do well, but it’s always risky. Things have been going well in the 800, why change? But maybe the Brooks coaches will let me hop into a couple 400s. … I used to run the 4×400 in college and we were really good. I split 44.8 and 44.9. It was a (Fully Automatic Time, recorded automatically by a computer and cameras) so I count it, some people don’t count 4×4 splits. I think, open I would probably run 45-low. I think if I trained as a 400 guy, I would run 44.”

Isaiah Harris holds his 6-month-old Miniature Australian Shepherd, Chief, at a family Christmas party at his home in Lewiston, where he had been training prior to leaving for New Mexico for high-altitude training with the Brooks team before heading to their headquarters in Seattle, Washington, where he will be living for the next four years. Russ Dillingham

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