Brian Harris has not lost a race this season, but the C. Milton Wright cross country star was not always way out in front of the pack.
In his first race as a skinny 11-year-old, Harris got off to a rough start.
"He got knocked to the track," said George Helmers, then Harris' coach with the Harford County Glid- Cross country Track Club. "I still remember him falling and the rest of the pack running away."
But Harris didn't stay down for long. He got up and finished second in the 1,500-meter race.
"He was mad," said Helmers. "He had such plans of winning that race. We thought he was down for good. To come back from lying on the track, to get up and get back in that race -- and he almost caught the kid that won -- that's Brian."
That same determination has turned Harris into the top high school boy runner in the Baltimore metro area this season. He is the ace of the area's No. 1 team.
An All-Metro runner last fall, Harris is a favorite to win his first state championship Saturday at Western Maryland College. Last year, he ran third in the Class 3A state title race, but that's just not good enough for the Mustangs junior.
"Brian's got a lot of competitive spirit in him," said C. Milton Wright coach Bob Johnson. "He wants to be the best."
So far this season, Harris has been the best. Facing all of the area's top competitors, he captured titles at the Howard, Westminster, Harford and Anne Arundel invitationals.
Thursday, he led the Mustangs to victory in the Class 3A, Region III championship on a muddy three-mile Harford Community College course. His winning time of 17 minutes, 8 seconds was 50 seconds ahead of the second finisher, teammate Greg Stephen.
On Oct. 30, Harris set a course record of 16:11 at Harford Glen to win his second straight Harford County championship.
Harris has come a long way since that first summer of running. Not only has he grown into a perfect distance runner's body -- 6 feet 1, 125 pounds -- he also has learned a lot about running.
"He understands the sport," said Johnson. "It's not like he's just doing it this season. He runs all year-round. He likes to watch it on TV, he reads about it and educates himself about running."
Harris, who first played soccer and baseball, got hooked on running in a middle school mile. That summer he joined the Gliders and in a couple of months he qualified for the Hershey National Track Championships in Hershey, Pa.
No other Harford County youngster ever has qualified for that meet. Harris went twice in three years. At 11, he was third in the 800 meters. The following summer, he won the 800 at the national Youth Games in Baltimore.
"Brian has always been a standout," said Helmers. "When he really got a lot better, it was hard for us to find a good workout for him. He could not work out with the rest of the team, because he was at such a high level."
When Harris got to high school, he discovered his true calling -- cross country. As a freshman, Harris ran second in the county championships behind teammate Jeff Hankins, then a senior who ended up second in the Class 3A state championships.
"I beat him three times," said Harris, who won his first regional title over Hankins that year. "But it helped me a lot running with him. I really looked up to him."
Now Harris' teammates look up to him. He sprouted six inches in the past year, making him even stronger.
Harris trains hard, logging 45 to 50 miles a week. In the past year, he was sidelined only once -- with a broken collarbone after an accident in June. Goofing around with with squirt guns in a friend's back yard, Harris was strung out by a clothesline. He fell hard on his shoulder.
After a frustrating two weeks off, Harris started running 10 to 20 miles a week and slowly increased his mileage.
However, the injury came at a convenient time -- after track season, when he finished fourth in the states in the mile and early enough to get into top shape by the start of the cross country season.
Over the summer, Harris also worked hard on improving the psychological side of his running.
"A lot of running is mental," said Harris. "Last year, I got all worked up and nervous, and I think it showed. This year, I feel like a machine. I'm not nervous. I don't really think about the race at the beginning. I just run it."
After Saturday's state meet, Harris' next challenge comes Thanksgiving weekend at the East Coast qualifying meet for the Kinney National High School Cross Country Championships. He
must finish in the top eight to advance to the national meet Dec. 12 in San Diego.
"I'd be really happy if I make it, but I haven't had good luck there," said Harris, who lost his shoe last year on the course in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. He doesn't even remember how far back he finished. The year before, he was 18th in the freshman-sophomore race.
Johnson said Harris' time in the states will give an indication of his chances to qualify for the San Diego race. Then, they will be able to compare Harris' time with Marylanders who qualified in the past.
"He's got a shot, but it's not a lock by any means," said Johnson. "The competition up there is really top-notch."