Early this past summer at the Jim Ryun running camp in Pennsylvania, Howard's Danny Rau found himself a scrap piece of paper and wrote out a to-do list.
There were just two items on that list — win a state championship and get into the Naval Academy.
The first seemed a bit lofty entering the fall, considering he had placed 15th at the previous year's Class 3A state championship meet, but ever since entering high school Rau had never been one to back down from a challenge.
"At the time it seemed crazy, like I could never actually do that," said Rau, who was the sixth- or seventh-best runner for the Lions as a freshman. "But every day I saw the list and probably thought about it subconsciously … I ran every day and worked hard. I came really close to realizing that goal, and I'm really happy with how things went. It's amazing that I made that much progress."
In fact, Rau came within a single second of capturing the 3A state title, edged by rival Hale Bullen of Annapolis.
Despite the state loss, the season was far from a failure as Rau captured the county championship and also placed second in the 3A East regional meet. He didn't lose a single race to a county competitor this season, and for that effort, he's the Columbia Flier/Howard County Times boys cross country Runner of the Year.
"Since I started coaching during his sophomore year, Danny has demonstrated relentless dedication to success and to achieving even the loftiest goals that he sets for himself," Howard coach Nathan Farrell said. "His work ethic at practice was never lacking. He is a leader and a model to others and did so without the official title of captain."
After attending the running camp, Rau ran in the Summer Striders program. Led by county coaches Phil Lang (Oakland Mills), Phil Rogers (Reservoir) and Kevin McCoy (Centennial), the program gave high school and college runners a chance to come together with their peers and hone their craft.
"Danny is a great kid that had a great plan from the beginning of the summer. He knew what he wanted and remained focused," Rogers said. "I am so proud of Danny. He worked really hard, and he kicked my butt all summer long."
Rau ran 50-55 miles per week leading up to the season and saw that hard work pay off once he reached the county championship meet.
Running neck and neck with last season's Runner of the Year Tim Virostek, of Wilde Lake, Rau's finishing kick allowed him to hold on for a six-second victory.
He finished with a time of 17:10, knocking 14 seconds off of his second place finish at the Howard County Invitational several weeks earlier that was also run at Centennial High School.
During that county run, he thought back to something that he learned from Lang during the summer program.
"Phil Lang always told me that the race isn't won in the first mile," Rau said. "You have to be relaxed through two miles and really start racing there."
He implemented that strategy again in his runner-up finish at the 3A East Region and state meets. Rau knew these two races would be huge if he wanted to accomplish his second to-do list item.
Bullen was the favorite in both races, and he already possessed an offer from the Naval Academy to run next year.
"It's always been in my head that if I can stick with him, I can get the coach from the Naval Academy to recognize me," Rau said. "It's been about running with him and seeing how close I can get to him. He's a great competitor and a great runner."
At regionals, Rau broke the 17-minute mark, finishing in 16 minutes, 59 seconds. At the state meet, he caught up with Bullen down the stretch but just came up one second short with a time of 16:20.
Over the course of the last three state meets, Rau lowered his time by a minute each year. As a sophomore he finished in 18:20, last season it was a 17:20 race.
"Each year I've been making a lot of improvement," Rau said. "When we ran at Bull Run earlier this year, I ran a 16:50, and I thought that was a great race. So to improve 30 seconds upon an already great race was crazy. It was super exciting."