It’s not hugely unusual that the winner of Sunday’s Credit Union Cherry Blossom 5K is a science whiz with an eye for wind patterns. But what’s really surprising is the fact that the winner, Nathan Davis of Frederick is only 12 years old. The seventh-grade running prodigy schooled veteran runners with an impressive 17:22 finish (for those counting, that’s a 5:35-per-mile pace). I personally ate his dust just after mile one on the out-and-back loop, and I saw him blaze past mile two, trailing a lone 27-year-old runner who was clearly losing steam.
But this soft-spoken tween, who celebrated his win with a cheeseburger at the American History Museum, isn’t about to let running define his life—at least not yet. Nathan recently won second place in a science and engineering fair for designing three solar-powered windmills as a school project, and he dreams of being an inventor when he grows up. He’s shy, rarely watches TV or plays video games, and hesitates when asked to identify his favorite movie, but he opens up when talking about his passion for science and the environment. No surprise: His favorite subjects are science and math. And as with running, he’s really good at both.
Nathan started running at five, when he would tag along at his older brother’s track practice. At first a bit leery of letting the young Davis participate, after seeing him run the coaches couldn’t resist. At six, Nathan began training with Darcy Strouse, an accomplished runner who’s the head coach of Lightning Running Club, an organization specifically designed for young, gifted runners.
Strouse taught him to closely trail the lead runners during a race to give his small 4-foot-9-inch-frame protection from rough winds. The strategy came into play on Sunday, as Nathan ran right behind 27-year-old Thomas Johnson. “It was very windy, and, being small, I can get tossed around, so I decided to draft off him,” he says. Strouse trained him to not break ahead until he’s half a mile away from the finish line, and he followed orders on Sunday. Johnson finished five seconds behind him, at 17:27.
Nathan’s siblings are also athletes, but Nicole Davis, Nathan’s mom, says she sometimes shakes her head when thinking about Nathan’s ability for speed. A neighbor of the family jokes that Nathan has the heart and lungs of a Corvette and the body of a Pinto.
He’s a fan of carbo-loading on spaghetti the night before a big race, and has a preference for pancakes in the morning, but that’s about it for his pre-race routine. Nathan doesn’t listen to music before or during a run and relies on himself to get centered: “I just pump myself up by going over and over my strategy,” he says, another technique he learned from Strouse.
When asked what it’s like to be faster than anyone in his family—and faster than most adults—Nathan laughs and says, “It’s cool. I don’t need age groups anymore.” And his words of wisdom to those looking to increase their speed are refreshingly simple: “If you love the sport, then work really hard.”
While Nathan, who says he’s a Steve Prefontaine fan, has loftier distance-running goals—like a 10K, for starters—and the future of solar power on his brain, for now he’s content being a kid who’ll celebrate his 13th birthday in May.