Like the barriers he faces while running the steeplechase in track, recent South Whidbey High School graduate Michael Harwell cleared obstacles in life to become one of Falcons’ most successful distance runners.
“Michael has overcome incredible hurdles along the way…yet this kid just keeps running,” South Whidbey track coach Mark Eager said. “Some people run because they’re told to. Others run because they’re runners. It’s who they are; it’s their nature and their identity.”
Harwell began running when he was about 10 years old, tagging along on his mother’s four-mile walk/jogs on Bercot Road. Watching his sister Sarah run track in high school motivated him to give cross country a try in middle school.
“I started to take running a little more seriously once Cory Ackerman had called and asked me to come to summer training in the summer before my freshman year,” Harwell said. “Once track season came around, I made it to the bi-district championship meet in the two-mile race, beating out my senior teammates and role models. That was when I realized I could do well in distance running.”
Harwell’s work ethic was evident the moment he began his high school career, according to South Whidbey cross country coach Doug Fulton.
“Without a ride to 9 a.m. workouts at Putney Woods, he would simply bike the 10-mile round trip from his home. It’s that kind of determination and dedication which made Michael the most consistent trainer and racer over the last four years.”
Eager said, “When cross country is over, (Harwell) is one of the first kids to get back out there on the roads and trails (preparing for track season). I see that from my classroom window.”
Harwell said that Fulton taught him that training is like a staircase.
“Everyone starts at the bottom of the staircase, and the sooner you start training then the higher up the staircase you’ll be at the championship races.
“This means I start training in mid-late June for the cross country championship in November. After that I take a two to three week rest then start building my training for the track championships in late May.”
To be successful, one must consider distance running a year-round sport, according to Harwell.
“(It) is a big commitment that takes one to two hours (per day) and at least 330 days a year,” he said. “This includes having the work ethic and character to get outside to run and go the proper paces even when no one is looking.”
Harwell is a three-time qualifier for the state 1A cross country meet. He finished 46th as a sophomore, 10th as a junior and 24th as a senior.
Fulton said, “Despite falling short of his personal cross country goal last fall, I know that achieving the boys team goal meant much more to him.”
Harwell led the Falcons to fourth place in the team standings, their best finish in years, according to Fulton.
“He exhibits great character and does a lot of things behind the scenes that people don’t notice, always stepping up to do the jobs that few others want to do,” Fulton added.
When the track season was canceled last spring because of COVID-19, Harwell missed out on a chance to achieve his goal of qualifying for the state meet. He missed a spot in the state 3,200 by two seconds in 2019.
Harwell’s best track event is the 2,000-meter steeple chase, which isn’t among the events offered in high school meets. Running in invitational meets, Harwell set a school record in the steeplechase in the summer of 2019 and was ranked 36th among junior runners in the United States.
“The event fits him well,” Fulton said, “as he is both a mentally and physically rough competitor.”
Harwell said his running success is built on the relationships he has developed throughout his lifetime.
“My mom (Kathy)…has done amazingly to raise me, feed me, motivate me and so much more,” he said. “There is always such a feeling when I’m running a race and I can hear her voice distinctly through the crowd of noise.”
Harwell said it was an honor to run for Fulton, who served as “a teacher, teacher assistant advisor, mentor, counselor and friend.”
Fulton “helped me in the lows” and was the “enabler of my highs,” he added.
Harwell said Ackerman taught him how to be a team leader: “I believe that he left me the knowledge and example to follow that had a significant effect on my years running with the team.”
Eric Richmond “shaped me as a person,” Harwell said. “His work ethic, dedication, composure and humor are just a few of the many aspects of him that I enjoy being around…I’ve enjoyed every moment with him from early morning breakfasts to illegitimate father-son hair cut deals.”
And there are many more, Harwell said, who have influenced his life: sisters, friends, teammates and bosses.
The cancellation of his final track season was a disappointment, and he missed the opportunity to “make more memories and break personal records.”
“The health and safety of our community and world population is of paramount concern, one that infinitely outweighs our sports seasons,” he said.
He plans to attend and run for St. Martin’s University in Lacey, which will be his first time he lived off Whidbey Island.
“I have found such an enjoyment in running daily, I don’t think I’ll ever give it up.”