Robert DiDonato has been paying close attention to what his competitors and friends across the nation have been running this fall, and he was eagerly awaiting his chance to show off his fitness.
The Germantown Academy senior and Stanford University commit finally got his opportunity on a breezy Thursday afternoon this week and he made the most of it. DiDonato ran an official 14:25.40 for 5,000 meters, currently the fastest time in the U.S. this season and the second fastest time over the distance on the track in Pennsylvania state history.
Different from many of his rivals across the country, though, DiDonato basically didn't have any competition, running 12 and half laps on the track on the campus of Germantown Academy in Fort Washington in a solo effort.
It's been a journey to Thursday's effort for DiDonato, whose performance takes him from a statewide talent into the conversation for one of the country's best.
While the PIAA's cross country season is back on, albeit in a much different landscape this fall, the same cannot be said for runners from independent schools, which operate outside of the PIAA's jurisdiction.
Both the Inter-Ac and the Friends League, two of the main leagues that make up the PAISAA, cancelled their seasons earlier in the fall. The Inter-Ac, the league that Germantown Academy is apart of, recently announced that it will be back on soon with a shortened dual meet season.
After losing out on a spring track season, DiDonato has been training hard through the summer and fall. He had some big workouts over the last few weeks that proved his fitness to himself. He circled Thursday as a day that he would chase a quick time and show the country what kind of shape he was in.
"I marked this day off and was like, 'alright, let's go for it and see what happens.'" DiDonato said over the phone on Friday.
He wanted to make it official, so that would require at least one other entry in the race. He convinced his friend and Haverford School senior AJ Sanford to race with him. They got the head of the PTFCA, Ron LoPresti, to officiate the meet and it was set.
A Quick Start
It wasn't hard to tell that DiDonato was pumped to be racing again. He went out in his opening 400 meters in 60 seconds flat.
"Going out in 60 flat woke up the legs a bit and not in a good way," he said of his opening lap.
He rolled through the opening mile in about 4:22 -- a blazing pace. He kept rolling through two miles in about 9:03, which is technically good enough for a PR over the distance even with over a mile of racing left to go. The pace faded a bit in the closing mile, but he still came home with a massive personal best of 14:25.40.
That time is a current US No. 1 and it puts DiDonato at No. 2 on the all-time Pennsylvania list, just behind Noah Affolder's 14:18.26. Affolder's record run came in 2017 at the Texas Distance Festival, a race where he placed third in a loaded field.
"I think I'm really fit right now," DiDonato said. "If I just run even, I think something like 14:10 is not out of the picture at all. It's not smart running positive splits like that."
While the positive splits weren't planned, the fact that it happened probably had a little bit to do with the fact that DiDonato did not want lap-by-lap splits called out. He wanted to let his body guide him and not let himself get stressed by being a tick off here or there.
"I told my coach before the race, 'please do not give me splits for my 200 or 400. This is my first real break-in race. Just let me go off feel,'" he said. "We're not trying to grab seconds here. I just want to see how I feel if I just go out and absolutely floor it on a 5K."
While perhaps an imperfect strategy for now, that race plan worked, and has set the stage for even bigger things to come down the line.
A Summer Out West
DiDonato's rise into the spotlight took a big turn last year during his junior season. In the fall, he won the prestigious Paul Short Run -- one of the top regular season invitationals in PA -- and then won his second straight PAISAA state title at Belmont Plateau.
From there, DiDonato placed tenth at the Foot Locker Northeast Regional, booking the last spot to Foot Locker Nationals, where he placed 31st. After a solid indoor campaign, all signs were pointing to a big spring on the track. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to that. So DiDonato went to the lab to prepare for his senior year on the XC trails.
His summer included a long trip to Colorado where he spent a few weeks training with a number of the nation's top distance talents to prepare for the upcoming season. He stayed at the home of Parker Wolfe -- one of Colorado's top prep talents -- along with eight other top runners from around the country, like his future Stanford teammate Thomas Boydon.
DiDonato nailed some tough workouts alongside those guys. It was there in Colorado that DiDonato gained confidence in his own abilities, and it translated almost immediately when he returned to the Keystone State.
"I came back from that trip unbelievably fit," he said of the trip. "I was crushing tempos and mile repeats and workouts on the track. I was like 'this is going to be a special cross country season.' I got so much out of it."
DiDonato also noted the effects the 9,000 foot altitude of Colorado had on his running.
"I kind of discovered that I'm an uber-responder to altitude training, because I came back and felt like a different runner," he said. "Obviously the physiological benefits should have worn off by now, but I think the progress I made is still lasting."
Big Things Coming
After the best summer of his career from a training perspective, DiDonato was surely looking forward to big things in his senior season. But with the initial cancellation of most major Pennsylvania meets, as well at Foot Locker Nationals, DiDonato has had to find other reasons to stay motivated in these fall months.
Fortunately for the future Cardinal harrier, that hasn't been much of a challenge. Knowing that he will have to take his running to a whole other level in California next year has kept the senior -- who only started running XC as a high school sophomore -- laser-focused on his training.
"I've been thinking a lot about college," he said. "I went to Colorado and I was working out with (future Stanford teammates) Thomas (Boydon) and Cole (Sprout), but they were so good and I was like 'I gotta get to this point by next year.'"
That mindset has already paid off in the form of his big race on Thursday. DiDonato knew the fitness was there, but he even said he was surprised by his 14:25.
"I'm surprised I am where I am. A lot of my Foot Locker friends were focused on breaking 15 and I thought that's sort of where I thought I would be," he added. "If I could run under 15 then that would be a great season, and now it's real."
DiDonato has his sights set on shaving off those few seconds to break Affolder's state record in the 5K. When that will come remains to be seen. Perhaps this fall, or maybe sometime in the spring. He also has some Inter-Ac XC meets coming back in the next few weeks, which he's excited to race in.
DiDonato also wants to take a crack at fast times in the mile and two mile. He suspects a quick two mile is on the horizon in the coming weeks, though nothing is confirmed yet. His splits from Thursday's solo 5K alone indicate that some very fast times could be on the way.
His 14:25 has him thinking about a lot of new possibilities for his final high school year.
"This was unintentionally my statement 5K," DiDonato said about his rapid entrance into the national spotlight.
When DiDonato thinks about where he's at now, he thinks about Judson Greer -- the runner he roomed with at Foot Locker Nationals last year. He placed fifth to DiDonato's 31st in San Diego, and Greer was the best non-senior in the Foot Locker field.
"I consider him to be one of the best guys in the country," DiDonato said of Greer. "I think I'm now in that group and I want to prove it. If I can run in that 14:20 area, that pretty much establishes me in that group, going from Foot Locker qualifier to contender."
While there won't be a Foot Locker Nationals this year, and no opportunity for him to spar against the likes of Greer, Wolfe, or Pennsylvania's Colton Sands, DiDonato knows his name belongs near the top of that pantheon.
Intentional or not, DiDonato's statement has been made.