Anish Nanjappa’s race routine during cross country season is almost always the same.
Beforehand, the junior distance runner is motivated and focused. “This will be a good race for me. Nothing is distracting me,” he thinks to himself. “If I race, I can put in 100 percent. I’m not feeling bad.”
During the race, he sometimes listens to spectators. Other times, like in frigid temperatures, he’ll play certain songs in his head to steady his breathing. But mostly he keeps a blank mind. It’s hard for him to explain, but he trusts in his preparation and his race plan.
After crossing the finish line, Nanjappa usually falls to the ground due to exhaustion. Then he’ll congratulate his competitors. All the while, he’ll be flashing a big smile.
“Generally I’m really, really, happy with my performance,” Nanjappa said.
In nine meets this season, only six runners bested Nanjappa by a combined total of 1 minute, 38.78 seconds. He won his final five races during a run that included a sweep of counties, regions and states, the last of which came by more than 10 seconds.
All in all, it was one of the most dominating cross country seasons in Howard County history, making him the clear choice for Howard County Times/Columbia Flier boys cross country Runner of the Year.
“He’s not the best yet to come through River Hill,” coach Paul Hugus said. “But he’s certainly had — I said this at the banquet last week — he’s had the best cross country season a River Hill runner has had since I’ve started coaching, so for the past 10 years.”
Nanjappa is the latest star athlete to come through the River Hill boys cross country program, which won three consecutive state championships from 2014 to 2016. They’ve also had four of the past five Runners of the Year, starting with Chris Heydrick in 2014, Trent Rose the next year and Rahul Reddy the fall after that. Howard’s Nick Deamer, the 2017 winner, was the only non-River Hill runner to earn the honor during that span.
Nanjappa was a freshman during Reddy’s senior campaign in 2016 and the No. 4 runner on a stacked Hawks’ squad. At the state meet, Reddy finished second while fellow All-County seniors Jacob Parker and Benjamin Oldhouser earned fifth and seventh, respectively. Nanjappa, meanwhile, led all freshmen with a 15th-place finish to help the Hawks obliterate the rest of the field.
It was also during that freshman campaign, specifically after placing eighth and his first county championship meet, that Nanjappa realized just how successful he could become.
“Coming into high school after the county race, I was like, ‘I should be able to win counties, regions and states eventually. Maybe not junior year but senior year, I should be contending for the win,’” Nanjappa said. “I came in eighth during that race, and everyone ahead of me were seniors except for one person, and the person was [Reservoir’s] Kai [Muniz], so he was a junior at the time. So, I was like, ‘I should win this based on what I did there.’”
River Hill looked for Nanjappa to be its No. 1 runner during his sophomore year, and he did not disappoint. On his way to earning first-team All-County honors, Nanjappa won two league tri-meets, took fourth at counties and finished as the runner-up at both the region and state meet.
By this point, Nanjappa had already set his sights on postseason championships, and he earned them during indoor track and field that winter. He won the 3,200-meter race at the 2A East region meet, then turned around 10 days later and secured his first-career state championship in the same event. In the spring, his led the Hawks to a 4x800 state title.
These wins set up Nanjappa for a victory-filled fall during which he never lost to a county opponent. His season began at the Seahawk XC Invitational when he placed third but ended up running his second-fastest three-mile time (15:40.27) of the season.
Three weeks later, his runner-up performance (16:09.30 at the Bull Run Invitational turned out to be his favorite race of the season.
“I really liked how it played out, even though I came in second, but the guy was clearly faster than me,” Nanjappa said. “That race it was nice conditions. It was a good race for me.”
From there Nanjappa finished second to nobody. He ran a personal-best time of 15:23.90 at the three-mile Frank Keyser Invitational on Oct. 13., dominated a tri-meet with Centennial and Mt. Hebron four days later and then ran away with the county championship race a week after that. His time of 15:54.44 beat second-place Frederick Eiland II of Oakland Mills by more than a minute.
Once he claimed the 2A South region meet in 16:45.31, he was one win away from accomplishing the goal he envisioned his freshman year: to sweep the postseason championships.
“What has made him a great runner so far is that he really wants it,” Hugus said. “He’s not your stereotypical longer, lanky runner. You shake hands with him, and you’re like, ‘OK, you’re solid.’ “He doesn’t fit the mold necessarily, but I think when he lines up against the other best runners in the state and it’s like, ‘Look, I want this and not that I want it more than you do, but I’m going to do things to get to that point, and I don’t think they’re things that you can do.’
“It’s a combination of mental strength and physical strength that I think he has in just the right balance.”
Nanjappa went up against some of the best runners in Maryland during the 2A state championships at Hereford on Nov. 10 and accomplished a feat that no one else could match. He separated himself from the pack during the daunting “dip” — a steep ravine in the middle of the course — and crossed the finish line in 15:58.08, more than 10 seconds faster than the runner-up.
Nanjappa has since started training for indoor track events like the 1,600 and 3,200, but he’s already mapped out his aspirations for his final cross country campaign.
He’s aiming to repeat as a county, region and state champion and then hopefully have a better showing against nationwide competition. While he was pleased with his 29th-place performance at the Foot Locker Northeast Regional in New York on Nov. 24, he’s optimistic he can improve his time enough to qualify for either Footlocker Nationals or Nike Cross Nationals next fall.
“It’s kind of like, ‘How good do we want to be? How far do we push this?” Hugus said. “I don’t have the exact times written down, but basically it’s, ‘Can you be the best runner to ever come through River Hill? Can you be the best runner to ever come through Howard County?’ I don’t know. And so a lot of that has to come from Anish, and we’re going to put him in positions to do that.”
Also named to the first team:
Jacob Cole, Centennial, sophomore
Cole finished as one of the top young runners in the county this season. His success began with an eighth-place finish (16:29.14) at the league championships and continued with a third-place result (16:45.00) at the 3A East region meet. At states, his 14th-place finish (17:24.15) was second best on the team and went a long way in helping Centennial win its first state championship since 1993.
Javon Daniel, Atholton, senior
Daniel had a breakout campaign this fall with top-10 marks at the three postseason meets. He ran a personal-best three-mile time of 16:08.14 at counties to place third and then ran away from the competition at the 3A East region meet, finishing in 16:23.00. To cap his cross country career, Daniel (seventh, 17:05.24) was the fastest county runner in the 3A classification at the state meet.
Graham Dilworth, Glenelg, senior
Dilworth turned in some of his top performances this fall in some of the biggest meets. In the county championship race, Dilworth snagged seventh with a personal-best three-mile time of 16:22.78. His next race came on a 5,000-meter course at the 2A South regionals, and he set a personal record there, too, placing fifth in 17:01.01. However, he saved his best race for last. His time of 16:37.35 at the state meet, which resulted in seventh place in the 2A classification, was the second-fastest time among all county runners behind Runner of the Year Anish Nanjappa.
Frederick Eiland II, Oakland Mills, senior
A two-time first-team All-County selection, Eiland was routinely the county’s second-best runner behind Nanjappa. He finished as the runner-up at counties with a personal-best 16:04.51 and then ran the fourth-fastest time (16:56.24) at the 2A South region meet. His state-meet performance (16:49.39) was good enough for 11th.
Jake Perret, Atholton, senior
Perret followed up a second-team All-County campaign last year with a season worthy of first-team recognition this fall. He set a three-mile personal record at the county meet (16:14.09) to secure fifth, and if not for teammate Javon Daniel, he would have won the 3A East region meet with a time of 16:39.00. Perret then capped his cross country career with by finishing 21st (17:35.51) at states.
Kendall Phillips, Howard, sophomore
Howard won its second straight state championship this fall, and Phillips and fellow All-County runner Alex Strawley were big reasons why. Phillips paced the Lions with a fourth-place finish (16:12.99) at the league meet before setting a personal record at the 4A North region race (16:29.20) to earn seventh. He then finished 37th (17:08.48) at states.