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Carroll County Times
Carroll County High School Sports

Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year: Man Valley’s Aiden Neal used ‘be the best’ attitude to accomplish new feats

Manchester Valley's Aiden Neal is the 2021 Carroll County Times Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.

During the pandemic, with no meets to compete in and no first-place finishes to chase, athletes could be forgiven for taking a step back with their training regimen.

Aiden Neal is clearly no ordinary athlete. During the break, Neal dedicated himself fully to cross country, ramping up his training and earning his spot as Times Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.

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Neal’s win at the Carroll County Athletic League meet made him the first boys runner from Man Valley to be crowned champion.

“I could’ve stopped training, but once COVID started that is really when I started training like crazy,” the Manchester Valley junior said. “I always had a passion for it, but I really started to develop a strong love for running and a dedication to get better.”

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That dedication carried over into the summer as Neal picked up the quantity and intensity of his workouts. Instead of looking at the pandemic as downtime, he looked at it as an opportunity.

“I started to realize if I push myself harder that I can really just become a better runner,” he said. “I feel like I kind of took advantage of a bad situation. I realized I’m alright right now but why not just train harder and get so much better. It was just kind of like why not take the next steps needed to get so much faster.”

That hard work started to pay off for Neal in the fall. While the Carroll County fall season was postponed due to the pandemic, that didn’t stop him from competing. Neal traveled to Tallahassee, Florida and placed 10th in his age group (15 minutes, 36 seconds) in the 5K race at AAU Nationals.

The success carried into the spring season as Neal competed at Nationals. Neal impressed by finishing the 3,000-meter race in 8:36.26. It was the fifth best time in the U.S. this season, and the fifth best all-time finish for a Maryland high school student.

He continued to get better from there, setting a personal record at the first meet of the spring season between Man Valley, Westminster, Century, and South Carroll. Neal took home first in the 3-mile run in 16:09.

Later in the season, he set another PR at the Manchester Valley Quad Meet on March 27 with a time of 17:04.8 (that race was 3.1 miles). A few weeks later, he capped off his dominant campaign with a first-place finish in the event at the Carroll County Athletic League meet at Carroll Community College.

Man Valley coach Jim MacDonald marveled at how far Neal has come as a runner.

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“Every day, running. On his own. Every day. Incredible. Out of season, in-season, just because he just wanted to get better,” MacDonald said at the county meet. “Between sophomore year and his junior season, he just raised it to another level because he worked so hard.”

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MacDonald continued that Neal’s teammates see his dedication and work ethic and they can’t help but follow his example. Neal sets the tone and is helping to develop a culture of hard work that will help the program for years to come.

“The other kids see how hard he works,” the coach said. “That is a huge impact on the other kids. Seeing him work so hard and seeing the results that he gets.”

Manchester Valley's Aiden Neal leads the pack at the beginning of the Carroll County Cross Country Championships at Carroll Community College in Westminster Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Neal finished first in the boys race with a time of 17:38.25.

It’s that strong work ethic and willingness to push himself that set Neal apart. The pain and exhaustion of pushing through an 8-mile run on a humid summer day in Maryland can cause a lot of athletes to tap out. When asked about how he deals the pain and pushes through to complete his workouts, Neal offered wisdom that seemed beyond his years.

“Pain is mainly in your head,” Neal explained. “When you are hurting, you really can go further. It is so much more mental than it is physical. When your legs hurt, that doesn’t mean your race is done. Your body can be dying, and you still have so much left to give.”

Neal has lofty aspirations, intending to continue his running career at a Division-I school after graduating in 2022. With his passion and dedication to running, he could just be getting started breaking records.

“It’s a ‘be the best’ mindset,” he said. “Be the best athlete you can be and try to just win.”


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