Though Calvert Hall's premier harrier, Cory Smith, loves running over even the most treacherous terrain, he'd be just as happy hanging high above it.
"Being 300 feet up on a vertical cliff, looking out at the woods and down below, the view is great from up there," said Smith, who practices on the rock climbing wall in his attic about an hour a day and ascends cliff faces about twice a week.
"In rock climbing, everything's changing. Always a different move or hold. It's tougher, mentally, because of the fear of falling, and it builds upper-body strength," said Smith, who is considering Villanova and the University of Boulder (Colo.) among others -- the latter because of its mountainous surroundings.
"Like cross country, there's a feeling of accomplishment at the top. But in cross country, others are trying to climb up and reach me. I've got to keep on climbing to stay ahead."
So far this season, no one's even come close.
Smith, 5-foot-7, 135 pounds, opened the year by setting a course record (15 minutes, 58 seconds over 3.1 miles) to win the Jack Griffin Invitational in Frederick. His closest competitor, Oakland Mills' Steve Petro, was more than 10 seconds behind him.
It was an improvement over last year's runner-up effort when he finished "in the 16:40s," according to coach Jim McCoach, whose Cardinals are top-ranked in the area.
"Coach said he expected some amazing times from me, and so far, I'm pumping them out. Last year was more like a team effort, but now that I'm looking at colleges, I'm going for more individual times," Smith said, who has a win over last year's All-Metro Performer of the Year, Greg Curtis (Oakland Mills).
"I've come out more aggressively -- getting the lead, gaining yards, and by halfway through the race, being so far ahead that I can just relax and go."
Smith did even better in the second race, setting a course record at the North County Knights Invite (15:35) -- about 15 seconds ahead of runner-up Anders Fristedt of McDonogh.
"I've been around a long time and I didn't think we'd seen times like that since the early '70s," McCoach said. "But just to make sure I wasn't blowing it out of proportion, I called [Perry Hall coach] Jerry Martin and Bob Dean [of Dulaney] to make sure that was true, and they agreed."
The victory carried a symbolic significance in that Fristedt, winner of this year's Johns Hopkins Spiked Shoe invitational in a course record 16:31, had beaten Smith in the mile during last spring's track season.
"I was a little nervous entering the season because of Anders beating me last spring, but I'm more confident knowing that I can beat him," Smith said.
In last weekend's Meade Autumn Classic, Smith set yet another record (16:35) -- 23 seconds faster than the standard of a year ago by Mike Recek (Westminster).
"Cory's got all the elements it takes to be a great runner: Incredible speed, great endurance and that killer instinct that he doesn't want to lose," said All-Metro teammate Doug Stewart. "When he puts it all that together, he can be unbeatable."
Said McCoach: "Once in a while you get a natural cross country runner, and Cory's probably the best I've had."
Stewart's dream is to beat his teammate, but admits that may be far from being a reality.
"If the chance was there and we were both in position to win, it could be interesting," Stewart said. "But I've never beaten him. And right now, I don't know if anyone can. Cory's too good."
Favored in this year's Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association meet, Smith aspires to reach much higher.
"The next big challenge for me is the Foot Locker Invitational on Thanksgiving weekend up in New York. As a sophomore, I was third in the fresh-soph race, and 14th in the seeded race last year," he said. "I'm big on competition and I like to win. I don't like someone being able to do something I can't."