"So are we going up or staying down?"
Knowing what I did about Brenden Miller, I genuinely didn't know his answer. We stood in a gravel parking lot at the foot of Peters Mountain, just south of Duncannon and about 10 miles north of Harrisburg in Perry County. The rocky, leaf-covered trail to the left would take us directly to the summit, one mile away at 15% grade. The relatively tame-looking road to the right followed the banks of Shermans Creek.
"Are you crazy? It's the Monday before states. We're not going up that trail."
A couple minutes later, my lungs were burning as the "tame" road brought us up the mountain anyway, albeit at a more gradual incline. Miller, meanwhile, was cheerfully chatting about having to plan his own meet schedule, punishing himself in dual meets to test his opponents' weaknesses, and renting a beach house with some of the state's best runners after his senior year finally came to an end. His coach, Clayton Bouchard, wordlessly followed along as we splashed through puddles and continued upward---I had no way of knowing if I was suffering alone.
It was the Monday before states, and Miller was in his element. For a kid that was raised in these mountains, there was no better place with the biggest race of his life just six days away.
North of Harrisburg, the Appalachians form a divide from the city that is equal parts physical and metaphorical. Primarily due to a lack of easy transportation routes penetrating the mountains, development has instead followed the path of least resistance, sweeping eastward through Hershey and westward down the Cumberland Valley. As a result, the region just got its first traffic signal in Marysville a few years ago despite being a stone's throw from Pennsylvania's seat of government.
It's beautiful country---the unspoiled views and abundant wildlife provide an escape that city-dwellers and suburbanites are fortunate to have---though most remain utterly oblivious to it.
Some people are lucky enough to call Perry and upper Dauphin Counties their home. And though Miller resides just a handful of miles north of the state capital, he's a world away. And, like most of his neighbors, he likes it that way.
"I think a big part of Brenden's character has been his love of nature, hunting, fishing," Miller's mother, Beth, said. "That's where a lot of his passion lies. A lot of times he'll go up in the mountains, do some running, then stop and fish."
"I was more serious about fly fishing," Miller said with a laugh---as a high school freshman, he didn't even know what cross country was.
Miller's father, Jeff, grew up in Elizabethville, where Upper Dauphin High School and its 304-student enrollment is located. When he and Beth got married, the couple settled there, deciding it was a great place to start their family. It also served as a convenient location for their places of employment---Jeff does HVAC in Harrisburg while Beth is a veterinarian in Selinsgrove.
"We didn't have street signs, it was before cell phones," Beth, who spent most of her childhood living in cities, said of upper Dauphin County. "I was just dying, it was hilarious. But it's evolved. We have street signs now, and of course there's some stoplights, McDonald's, Wal Mart.
"The small community atmosphere, I mean everyone has been so supportive of Brenden from the beginning with his running," Beth Miller added. "In a city, you don't get that small town feel where everyone knows you when you go to the grocery store or pharmacy."
To be sure, the small-town feel has its perks. But from an athletic standpoint, it presented some obstacles as Brenden Miller started to fall in love with running.
Namely, his school didn't have cross country.
Brenden had grown up dabbling in competitive sports such as baseball, which his dad had excelled at. But it never really struck him so he decided to give track a shot. By the end of sophomore year, he had progressed enough and had enough fun doing some local 5Ks that he decided to attend a summer running camp at Bucknell University.
The relationships he made with fellow campers there, as well as with Bison coach Kevin Donner, were enough to convince him to start competing in the Trojan uniform year-round.
Like most schools of its size, a full athletic program at Upper Dauphin simply isn't realistic. And in a region where football and wrestling dominate, cross country was never on the table.
"A lot of parents don't even want to let their kids do cross country," Miller said. "I know for a fact that Upper Dauphin, if we all ran cross, we could win states. There are string beans like me that do wrestling instead."
Still, all he had to do was convince his school's athletic director to let him throw on some spikes and run. Miller's initial attempts to start up a program were rebuked, but---with the pledged support of Donner should he need it---Miller was finally able to hold court with Upper Dauphin's decision-makers. The then-sixteen-year-old's commitment to pay for his own travel and gear, as well as plan his own meet schedule, were enough.
(Photo by Ethan Rissell)
With the support of other area coaches---particularly Susquenita head coach Rick Knepp, as well as the staffs at Lewisburg and Middleburg---Miller started cobbling together opportunities to compete. By this fall, Miller had a full slate of invitationals, and was racing as much or perhaps more than he would in a typical program.
Now, with the exposure and excitement generated by Miller, other students in the area are starting to take notice.
"I don't want to say I started it, but there have been a lot of kids from all the schools up here popping up," Miller said. "Almost every school has at least one or two kids that run cross. The community's starting to take a hold of it."
"He's crazy, though! That was the first person, in three years of running, that has ever---I mean, he smacked me on the climb."
Spend just a few minutes chatting with Miller about his competitive running career and it's clear what sustains him---the opportunity to compete. The almost maniacal need to punish himself---and others---is a recurring theme.
In this case, Miller was referencing a "fun run" up a mountain where runners set off every few minutes in a time-trial format, encouraging the chasers to hunt down the leaders. Professional trail runner Matt Lipsey---who has won absurdly difficult trail races, featuring dozens of miles and thousands of feet of cumulative gain all over the country---put a hurting on the whole crew.
The defeat mattered little to Miller. Like most trail runners, he was just happy to test himself.
"He knows how to suffer," Bouchard said of Miller. "He can run through anything."
That run was just one example of what has become a common theme for Bouchard and Miller since they met a few years ago---finding ways to make it interesting. Bouchard is a factory worker sporting a belt-length beard and colorful leg-length tattoos---he started helping out with the Upper Dauphin track program a few years ago after he was approached by a teacher to run with the kids at practice.
At that time Bouchard had only a limited running background himself. But when he sensed Miller's potential as a gangly freshman, the pair started learning together as students of the sport.
To be sure, there were growing pains---often in a literal sense. By the end of his freshman year, where Miller trained in an old pair of tennis shoes and used the wrong spikes, he could barely walk. But the pair stuck with it, and started building informal training plans.
Still, the schedule is far less scientific than the average high school runner's. More than anything, Bouchard has been a fun-seeking influence on Miller that has allowed the pupil to satisfy his own innate adventurous spirit while continuing to develop. During our post-run conversation, Bouchard and Miller fondly recalled a day this March where they attempted to combine two of Miller's passions into one.
"One of my buddies said that one time he ran a deer down in the desert. [Miller] is a big hunter so I always tell him, let's go get a deer," Bouchard said. "So finally, this winter we tried. We didn't get very far."
"There was snow on the side of the mountain, we're running up and down trying to find a deer," Miller said, contradicting Bouchard and insisting that catching the wild animal was possible.
"It was fresh stuff, so we could at least track it," Bouchard said. "Maybe we just need more people. There were too many thorns.
"He's having more fun, I think, than the average cross country kid."
That isn't to say Bouchard and Miller don't appreciate the craft. They barter about mileage progression, fine-tuning top end speed at the end of the season with speed workouts and formulating race strategy.
Mostly, though, Miller's bread and butter remains his mountain roads. This past summer, he made frequent use of Diebler's Gap west of Berrysburg, where four convergent mile-long roads make an X at the top of the mountain. Miller would park at the top and then run them all, one after the other.
"That was probably one of my benchmark workouts," Miller said of Deibler's Gap. "When I think about the hard work I did this summer, I think about that run."
Ultimately, as both Miller and Bouchard would point out, cross country is about one thing once you're on the line---being tougher than the guy next to you.
"I didn't know anything about cross country except running stupid," Bouchard said cheerfully. "You know, just running hard, having fun."
After not getting many chances to run invitationals last fall, Miller entered the District 3 Championship meet well under the radar. But a surprise win announced the arrival of both Miller---and his never-before-seen TROJANS jersey---to a wider audience.
Miller was ready for states. Unfortunately, his body was not.
"My training was really bad last year," Miller said, noting that what he thought was a taper heading into states didn't give him the rest he needed. "I peaked in the middle of the season.
"But I wasn't going there to run. I was going there to win. I told myself 'This your first cross country season, you're here at states. What do you have to lose?'"
Before a traveling audience of 25 or so friends and family members Miller started off strong, coming through the mile with the leaders in 4:55. He was still holding on in medal position at two miles, but then the wheels started to come off. He barely had enough to stagger across the finish line, and finished 139th.
"I don't remember anything after [the mile mark]," Miller said. "I woke up in the medical tent covered in ice bags, and my body was just pins and needles for an hour.
"I just pushed myself too hard---I was sick for days after the race."
This time around, Miller is much more prepared. He ran a full slate of invitationals, and sought out top-level competition, such as 2A favorite Isaac Davis of Jersey Shore, in dual meets. Miller notched wins at the early-season Ben Bloser Invite in Newville, set a record on the Susquenita course he considers his home, and repeated as District 3-1A champ by a full minute---even preserving enough energy to go hunting and bag a turkey in the mountains after his race.
Now comes the biggest test yet---his senior year state meet.
"I'm right on the edge," Miller said. "I think that on Saturday I can win.
"It's just a footrace. You just gotta run."
Unsurprisingly, Miller's greatest interests revolve around leadership and the outdoors. He serves on the Governor's Youth Council for Hunting, Fishing and Conservation, and has taken an active role in coaching and mentoring his teammates on the Upper Dauphin track and field team.
Brenden also isn't wearing his team's jersey alone at meets anymore---he convinced his younger brother, Collin, to join him.
"I think he's a very well-rounded kid, he's very active and takes leadership opportunities," Beth Miller said of her Brenden. "Academically, he's been phenomenal---he's so disciplined.
"His dad and I have tried to expose him to as many different things as we can."
With such a wide background of experiences, Miller is already well-prepared for the next phase of his life. He recently committed to run at St. Francis University, where he'll study environmental engineering.
Because he isn't a classically trained runner, Miller tends to hold himself in lower regard than many of his peers that have been running competitively year-round since middle school. But in many ways, that has worked to his advantage---Miller is already one of the state's best runners, and remains an open book of potential.
"I know some of these kids, they're carrying more mileage now than I am," Miller said. "I told Tristan (Forsythe of Winchester Thurston), even if he beats me on Saturday I'll get him at regionals freshman year of college.
"I'm kidding! He knows I'm kidding!"
As Miller, Bouchard and I descend back down the mountain that at least one of us just effortlessly scampered up, the young runner rattles off race results and chatters excitedly about his interactions with friends and competitors from around the state. Although Miller cherishes the local running movement he's started, it's also clear that he's ready for the next chapter.
"Sometimes, it sucks," Miller said of training alone. "On long runs, I'm just out there beating my feet on my pavement, all by myself.
"But everyone's been supportive. I'm thankful. People see me running and honk at me. I can't go anywhere without somebody saying 'I saw you running out there!' It's cool."
"I think he kind of wishes he would have [had teammates], but he doesn't know any differently," Beth Miller added. "And he serves as an inspiration for the other kids that are there."
On Saturday, Miller will run his final cross country race for the Upper Dauphin cross country program that he, alone, created.
Given the footprints Brenden Miller has left all over the mountainous rural community that raised him, whether he wins feels immaterial.