By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD – Levi Thomas was a wide-eyed freshman on the Effingham County boys track team when he met school cross country record holder Kody Everett.
Everett and Thomas were with a group of distance runners finishing a workout around the track. They were at different skill levels and Everett, a senior, had actually run one more lap around the track than the ninth-grader.
“Kody lapped me, but I didn’t realize it and I turned to him and said, “Hey, we’re on the same lap. Isn’t that crazy?” ” Thomas said. “And he turned to me, “No, I lapped you.” I thought, ‘oh, you think I’m lying. You just don’t think I run fast.’ ”
Three years later, Thomas, now a senior, understands his unintentional slight and never in a million years would the Rebels’ new cross country record holder stick out his chest and say, “How do you like me now?” after topping Everett’s mark not once but twice this season.
Thomas’ time of 16:55.81 at the Augusta Prep Invitational on Sept. 24 is the Rebels’ new 5-kilometer standard.
“I just think it’s a funny story,” said Thomas, whose current goal is to qualify for the Class AAAAAA State Cross Country Championships on Nov. 5 in Carrollton.
A school can qualify its entire team by placing among the top four teams at its region meet or an athlete can qualify individually by finishing among the top six runners.
The Region 2-AAAAAA Cross Country Championships for boys and girls will be held Thursday at the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick.
“No offense to my team, but if worse comes to worst, I can get (to state) individually,” Thomas said.
Again, not a boast. He ran 300 miles on his own during the summer. And once school started in August, he trained with his school teammates throughout the week, then followed a workout plan from Scott Kieffer – the father of Candace Kieffer – on the weekend.
Candace starred at ECHS before joining the University of Miami’s running program this fall.
“This year, Levi just caught fire,” Rebels cross country coach Pamela Richards said. “He’s determined. This is complete self-motivated running. Put out a running plan and he does every bit of it.”
Thomas said he played soccer for about 10 years before high school. Then, during his freshman year, he suffered from anorexia and wasn’t medically cleared to play sports.
That spring, he was cleared and tried out for the soccer team, but was cut.
He decided to run track and had rapid improvement. As a sophomore, he shaved about a minute off his cross country times. He’s seen another minute peel away this year.
“I was running with Candace and Seth Moye and Will Collins and my results were pretty good so I kept pushing,” Thomas said. “Beating the school record was one of those big, lofty goals. You say you’re going to do it, but you really never know if you will. I figured last year, last shot.”
Then, on an early September morning at the Honey Ridge 5K at the Farm race in Guyton, he shifted into another gear as he approached the finish-line with the clock still ticking in the 16s.
Everett’s record was 17:02.82. Thomas posted a 16:57.0.
“I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, but I went to my mom and said, I think I just broke the school record,” Thomas said, re-enacting the whisper-like conversation. “Then Brooke (Maseda) and Ellie (Forwood) came up saying, “Oh my God, you broke the school record” in front of everyone.
“I was in a state of disbelief. Everyone was like, ‘How do you feel?’ and I was like ‘I feel the same.’ ”
A week later, he broke his record with a time of 16:55.81 in Augusta.
“My watch said 16:58 so I went home thinking I came close, that’s cool. I didn’t find out until Scott Kieffer texted me,” Thomas said.
What wasn’t cool was the announcement at school on Monday – if you see Levi Thomas in the hallway give him a fist bump because he broke the school record again.
“It’s two seconds, guys. I know every second counts, but it was just two seconds. I just don’t think you have to tell everybody,” he said.
In a way, that’s typical Levi Thomas, who sports blinding blonde shoulder-length hair, but is reluctant to stand out. He volunteers at the First Baptist Church of Springfield in the nursery watching 2 and 3 year olds.
He plans on going to Augusta University, getting a degree in biology and going to medical school.
“His dedication and commitment have really set the bar higher for other runners,” Richards said. “It’s been fun to watch him blossom. It’s so much fun to be at a meet and see that blonde hair waving in the wind as he pops around the corner.”
Thomas laughs when asked if he dyes his hair.
“Someone asked me if I spend a lot of time in the pool,” he said.