Once a last-minute scratch opened up a slot in the cross country state championship runners’ lineup, the man on the cusp was Sealy’s Vladimir Hernandez but he didn’t exactly believe his coach at first.
“There’s no way, he’s pulling a prank,” Hernandez said of his initial thoughts following his conversation with head coach Anthony Branch, who similarly thought a joke was being played when he found out himself.
“He was kind of shocked, just as I was, so we very much had the same reaction,” Branch said.
The only problem with it being real was that Hernandez had hung up his spikes following the previous week’s regional championship after he thought his season was over.
“That was something that I hadn’t experienced since I had been doing this,” Branch said. “But I do know one thing that if I ever have a kid that’s the next one in that could get called, I already know what I’m going to do; I’m going to make sure they still prepare because you may get that opportunity. I’ve never had that happen, I’ve had a couple that were right there and never got out but he got the call and so I learned that lesson as a coach, you’d think I would have already learned that being in my 21st year but it’s a good lesson for me to learn to keep preparing those kids.”
Hernandez felt the same way by the time he finished the race although he added that Branch’s mantra had remained the same.
“After I crossed the finish line I was like, ‘Wow, I wish I had more time to train,’” he recounted. “I thought I never want to take breaks off like that again but it made me realize how much I love running still. It’s all mental, I knew my legs could give more but me thinking, ‘You haven’t ran in a while,’ kind of dragged me down but at the same time I’m like I can use this next year, screw that just go at it.”
He did just that and finished 120th overall in 17:41.55 against the best competition in Class 4A, an idea that was present even during the race.
“It was honestly such a surreal experience because I was talking with the people around me and they were saying, ‘Oh yeah, he’s the second-best in the nation,’” Hernandez said. “And I’m like oh shoot I’m running against them? But we got out there and it felt like a race but in the back of my mind I knew it was really important, it felt like I’ve been doing this for a couple of months now so let’s get after it.”
“Considering the circumstances, I think he ran a great race,” Branch added. “To find out the day before and he runs a 17:40 for a 5K, that’s pretty good. I was real proud, he had a good time, he enjoyed the course running against the best in the classification and he is one of the best. Like I told him at the end of the race, ‘There’s only one other time to run this race and that’s next year. After that, you’ll never have that surrounding again so enjoy it but still go out and compete to the best of your ability,’ and I thought he did.”
Hernandez added the expectation is to get back to that meet once again next year, just not by himself.
“(Next year) I see myself being a leader and I want my teammates to get the same experience I did and be up there with me so I won’t go alone,” he said.
Still, it was a great way to cap off a junior-year campaign that Branch noted Hernandez put in all the necessary work to get to the top of the mountain.
“He had a great junior year, he really prepared in the summer, he came up and got his running in when we were doing strength and conditioning and then on Fridays and Saturdays he ran on his own,” the coach said. “Vlad’s very driven, he doesn’t want to fail and sometimes failure will drive him so he really did a good job of being prepared for every race mentally and physically, he took care of his body so I was extremely proud and going forward into next year, he’s it, he’s one of the senior leaders, we’ll have two but it’s up to him whether he wants to come here by himself or with six of his other best friends.
“He understands that and he knows it,” Branch continued. “There’s not much that stops him from getting there next year, hopefully as long as everything goes according to the plan and he works hard and he takes care of his body, he’ll be fine. He wants to get back there and he wants to have a better showing than what he had so he’ll be driven to do even better next year.”
The junior agreed that he learned plenty to not only prepare him to get back there but to also push himself further.
“This definitely gave me some motivation to not only be up there next year but to be one of the top people, try and get top 20 or the best that I can,” Hernandez said. “I’m using that for motivation, I told myself that I learn more from my failures than from my successes so I use that to drive me.”