University of North Florida's Noah Perkins' focus was lost for a moment in Saturday's 5K at the NCAA East Preliminary on his home track at Hodges Stadium.
He had been among the leaders through 3 kilometers, but at 3,800 meters, he had slipped to a non NCAA qualifying 10th place. With only the top five automatically qualifying and the next two fastest times from both heats qualifying for the NCAA Track and Field Division I Championships in Austin, TX in two weeks, his goal of reaching Austin were slowly slipping away.
"I'm a pretty patient guy, but at that point, I was thinking 'this has been a good race. I may not be going to nationals. I put myself into a chance to go nationals, but now I'm in tenth so 'oh my gosh, I have to make up some ground,'" Perkins said.
A lot had gone into this opportunity for the former FHSAA 1A 3200m State Champion and 9:08.54 3200m Seffner Christian alumnus. Perkins had entered his junior season with a "sour taste in his mouth." Last year, he had missed qualifying for regions by three seconds.
A consistent trainer since high school, Perkins had continued to improve since his freshman year and this winter logged 80-90 miles per week. He credits his consistency and his emphasis on recovery as the main reasons for his improvement.
"It's the slow, steady, consistent training. I think that is really important and has helped me get forward," he said. "I think the big thing to add that is really important is recovery. In high school, I never took recovery very seriously. I'd eat whatever I wanted. I'd sleep however much time. I never would take the time to pay attention to the little details that can come with everyday mileage and workouts. Recovery is just as important as the workouts is what I always say. The big difference this year was I got nine hours sleep during winter break when I was hitting 80-90 miles per week. I kept that going through indoor and outdoor."
Osprey Head Coach, Jeff Pigg, concurs, "He is a great kid who works hard and backs it up with recovery through clean living. He takes care of the other 22 hours he is not at practice. Now that he has done the work, he has developed confidence and expects to run well. There is a big difference in hoping to run well and planning to succeed."
Before Saturday night's second heat, Coach Pigg and Perkins came up with strategy which was pretty heady for a guy coming in with the 25th ranked time. They thought if he could top 1/3 of the field and be near the front that he would keep engaged.
"He likes to feel 'in the race," Pigg said.
Pigg reduced the anxiety of qualifying for NCAA final by trying to take some of the pressure off by not setting an expectation.
"For the past couple weeks my message has been to enjoy this time," said Pigg who has had multiple NCAA qualifiers at Missouri, Florida, Georgia. "The work is done and there is no pressure just opportunity and that if you do what you did to get here you will be fine. We don't demand success. We celebrate it and that has taken the pressure off of these guys and allowed them to enjoy the opportunity."
A better script could not have been written for Perkins' second heat. In the first heat, the field had gone out slow due to the stifling heat and the door was left open for two of the time qualifiers from his heat with the 6th and 7th placers finishers running 14:16.14 and 14:21.53.
Perkins' season best was 14:02.65 which he set at the Florida Relays on March 30 and he knew he was in better shape to run faster. His heat was stacked with some fast performers and he thought there would be an opportunity to get 1 or 2 of the time qualifiers.
"After seeing the first race, I thought my race was going to be quick. I also saw the names in the second heat. Kigen, Seufer and Mau. All those guys are studs. They've all run 13:40s or 13:30s. I was pretty sure that the race was going to go faster. So after seeing the first heat go off, I thought 'There is going to be seven people going through in this heat so I need to make sure I am in contention for that seven.'"
As the race started, Perkins realized his race was also going to be slow. "I wasn't super surprised that we ended up going slow, but I thought it would wind up pretty fast."
The pace picked up and it was a familiar face who took the lead. Azaira Kirwa, of Liberty, who had beaten him at the ASUN Conference 5K and 10k championships took the lead at 2,200 meters and began to keep the pace steady, not slowing down as in the first heat.
"I've raced Azaira Kirwa from Liberty so many times that I knew he didn't like slow races," Perkins said. "It was kind of cool seeing him [Kirwa] up there. When he took the lead, I was getting PTSD 'cause two weeks before he did the same thing at the conference meet and I was sitting right behind him. He just dragged it out and I thought, 'this is not going to be fun."
Perkins hung tough though through 3K as Kirwa pressed on at the front, but then Ian Shanklin of NC State, Peter Seufer of Virginia Tech, Kyle Mau of Indiana and Euan Makepeace of Butler went by him over the next two laps.
"I lost focus for a little bit, I had to refocus. I thought 'I have three laps left. It may hurt a little bit but I have to push through.' The thought that came into my head was 'am I going to give up and regret later and maybe have a decent time of 14:10 or 14:15 and get like 10th or am I going to push it and risk maybe blacking out or dropping out of the race?' That's kind of a choice that I made with a 1k to go. 'I'm going to send it and we'll see what happens."
With the split-second decision made, off Perkins went. He forged back into 7th in the next 400 meters and then to 6th with 400 meters remaining.
"I think I got a second wind there somehow. When I realized I could actually make it. I thought 'I'm up here with these guys. I'm competing.' That gave me an extra breath of fresh air," he recalled excitedly. "Don't get me wrong, I was hurting really bad, but going into the last lap, I was like 'I'm doing this. I just have to survive every hundred meters.' That's what went through my head. 'I'm at 200 meters, I have 100 meters to go I can push through.' It's that what brought me through the line."
Once Coach Pigg saw him move up, he knew Perkins had a chance.
"He knows he has a good finish but he also respects his opponents and the race itself so he doesn't take anything for granted. He earns it every lap but we both knew if he was in the pack with 3 laps to go that he would be tough to beat. Once he moved back into the pack at 3400 I thought he would be in top 7 and I knew it was faster than the previous heat so it [making NCAA final] began to become a reality."
With his teammates, friends and family screaming, Perkins got inspiration from teammate Anderson Bobo with 200 meters to go.
"He was on the 200 mark and he said 'protect this house, you got to go, you got to make nationals!' I said alright, 'I have to protect this house so I have to finish strong.'"
The effort to make the top seven was not lost on Perkins. Though he trains in the hot weather that he faced Saturday night, he said he has never felt this exhausted before.
"I think it was just how hard I pushed myself," he said of his effort. " Making that move. I felt I was all out sprinting the last three laps honestly. That's how I felt. It pushed myself over that limit and I felt 'woof.' I had a headache afterwards. I had dry mouth," he said.
He ended up in the locker room afterwards seeking the air conditioning to bring his body temperature down and get some ice on an Achilles that was tight from the effort.
"I think that is the furthest I've ever pushed myself in a race. I just found another level….another depth to the well. It was crazy. I was knocked-out on the ground for a good 15 minutes. It was tough. I really pushed myself."
Perkins' time of 14:02.27 for fifth place broke his school record of 14:02.65 set at the Florida Relays in eerily similar splits. He also became the first NCAA DI qualifier on the men's side for the Ospreys in the Pigg era.
With Nationals looming in less than two weeks, Perkins is using the NCAA Preliminary race as a spring board for the NCAA final which will be held on Friday, June 7 at 9:25 p.m.
"It's surreal. I'm going to racing guys that I have watched on FloTrack, FLRunners and MileSplit for years. That's kind of crazy and it can be intimidating. I think I am going to go in there with the same mindset," Perkins said. "These are just other runners and they belong here as much as I do. I'm just going to go in there and do the same thing I did here."
Only a week separates Perkins from some of his biggest goals of his career, and Nationals will be a stage set for success for the Osprey.
"I'm just going to put myself out there and put myself in position to do something. A big goal of mine now that I made nationals is to make as close to first team all American as I can. If I can get in the top 16, that would be pretty cool," Perkins said. "To know that I competed with the best and I didn't slouch when I did it. I stayed up with the best guys. That would give me some serious confidence coming in to race my 2019-20 year in cross country and track."