LAKEWOOD - Before he won the Class 3A state title in the 3,200 meters, he did something he's not supposed to do. He chased shadows.
That's so Conner Wilburn. His track coach at The Classical Academy calls him a "free spirit." Superstitions? Conner has none, because everyone else has them, and if, before a race, he were to forget his superstition, he worries that would throw him off.
"My superstitions are not having superstitions," Wilburn said beneath a setting sun Thursday inside JeffCo Stadium at the state track and field meet.
He is his own guy, this Wilburn cat. On June 26, he reports to basic training as a freshman at the Air Force Academy, where he will run track. Between now and his first day as a cadet, he plans to do what he's not supposed to do.
"I'm going to eat bad," he said, starting with a lobster he will purchase with the graduation money he got from family and friends. No more bagels for breakfast, turkey sandwiches for lunch. (Mom's delicious dinners? Yeah, that's still on the table.) He's going to sleep in, maybe stay up a little later. Maybe he won't run the 30-35 weekly miles he ran during the high school track season.
"I'm going to do everything I couldn't do during the season and everything I won't be able to do at the academy," Wilburn said. "I basically have one month to live."
But back to chasing those shadows.
"I was running for my life," he said, about the final lap of the 3,200. To that point, Wilburn was heaped into a pack of seven long-distance runners, a jostling jumble of skinny. Then he broke free, almost. Manitou Springs' Marcus Rodholm, who ultimately finished second after a senior's effort, pushed Wilburn to the limit.
Well, Rodholm's shadow pushed Wilburn. Over his right shoulder, Wilburn saw the shadow of Rodholm's head bouncing stride-for-stride. Time to kick, he thought.
"I was watching his shadow," Wilburn said. "Everyone tells me not to do that, but I do it anyway."
The end result: Wilburn's time of 9:44.02 scored a personal best and, after four years of almosts at the state meet, handed the senior his first individual title.
"I was awful as a freshman," he said.
"So this year it feels magical," he added.
Wilburn's first-place medal came in an event he loathes more than he loves, a perfectly odd twist considering no one in Class 3A is better at running it.
"In Conner's ideal world, he would just be running the (1,600) and the (800)," said his coach, Alan Versaw, who oversees the powerful TCA track and field program.
It's not a perfect world, however, and TCA hasn't won four of the past five boys state titles and seven of the last eight girls state titles by trumpeting individualism.
"We've had kids set aside personal interests for the greater good of the team," Versaw said. "It may sound odd. But we make this a team sport."
Not too odd, really.
Not more odd than a future cadet joking he wants to major in tiger taming or light-saber defense at the Air Force Academy. (In reality, the 3.78-GPA student hopes to pursue a civil engineering degree.) Not more odd than a 17-year-old who said, "I've thought it would be cool to serve my country" since he was 5 or 6.
Definitely not more odd than the state champion who said this about running the 3,200: "I don't really have a strategy in that race. I just wait 'til the end and kick."
Keep kickin', Conner. Keep chasing shadows.