In high school, Conner Paez knew how to run hard. But as a freshman at Penn, he hasn’t been able to take a break.
After running 70 miles a week in the summer leading up to his senior year, the Solon, Ohio native quickly dropped down to a lighter mileage volume for his final high-school cross-country season.
But he can’t say the same for his first year in college.
The summer before he arrived in Philadelphia, Paez logged 85 — and was expected to maintain that level for most of the autumn season.
He did, but while Paez relates that “volume was the hardest part,” his task was made even more difficult in having to adjust to the increased intensity of all his runs. For his first few weeks at Penn, he remembered that very few of his 85 weekly miles seemed easy.
“I felt like I was going hard every single day,” the freshman reflected.
Paez ran very well in his first three meets for the Red and Blue, consistently placing among the top five finishers for his new team. His performances from the fall have proven that Paez not only has a future as an elite Ivy League harrier, but that he should also shine on the track.
His early challenges came, in part, as a result of his unexpected success. Initially, Paez trained with Penn’s second group.
“I didn’t expect to do as well [as I did],” he recalled. “My goal was mainly to make varsity [Penn’s top seven] by the end of the season.”
That goal was quickly realized in dramatic form with a top-five finish in the first meet of the year. Coach Charlie Powell moved the rookie up to the top training group, consisting of mostly of seniors — and Paez continued to impress.
With support and advice from seniors Chris Baird, Luke Grau and Phil Cawkwell as well as junior Ryan Cunningham, Paez placed 20th at Heptagonal Championships this October — fourth among Penn runners and first among all Ivy freshmen — and was Penn’s second harrier to cross the line at the Mid-Atlantic Regional meet two weeks later.
His stellar race at the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park, the perennial locale for Heps, significantly contributed to Penn’s best team finish in three years. Paez attributes his crucial, blazing finish to some late-race rousing words of encouragement from Cawkwell. The inspirational senior helped Paez overcome the pain and fatigue that accompany the final meters of a cross-country race.
Academically, Paez, a pre-med biology major, finds Penn’s workload a challenge, but sees it as a way to balance and regiment his time. This semester, he is taking five classes — up from four last semester — and feels he has adjusted well to his rigorous courseload.
On top of his studies and on the laurels of a stellar cross-country term, the freshman has also had an auspicious indoor track season. Eluding injury, Paez has already qualified for the IC4A meet, and has clocked a blistering 8:22 3k, under 4:30 per mile. Less than a year ago, his best mile time was 4:19. This weekend at the Armory in New York, he will compete in both the 3k and the 5k for the Quakers at indoor Heps.
By the end of this season, Paez, now with a better sense of his capabilities and what is required of him, hopes to shave even more time off his 3k personal best and bring his 5k under 14:20. If his tremendous performances thus far prove anything, he will not be disappointed.
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