It's unusual for already established stars to enjoy eye-opening breakthroughs. But Flagler Palm Coast High School junior Justin Harbor did just that when he recently ducked under 9:00 for 3200 meters in a meet in which he defeated former FPC star Sam Vasquez and Florida Southern College standout Tyrone Bell. "When I came through the finish, I was tired, but I definitely had something left," Harbor says. "I went out in 4:35 and came back in 4:24, so I know I can go faster."
Frightening to consider is that Harbor is barely halfway through his high-school running career. He has, however, been around running for quite a while, his introduction to the sport occurring in his third-grade gym class. "The gym teacher used to have us run two laps around a pair of soccer fields," says the lanky athlete. "I used to race these two other kids, and the teacher said I should enter a 5K. So I did -- it was a Jingle Bell Run, I think. But when you're that age, it's like, 'when is this ever going to end?'"
As a freshman at DeLand High School, his career got off to a rocky start, as a tibial stress fracture knocked him out for the majority of the cross-country season. The next spring, he ran the frosh mile at the Golden South Invite and also at the adidas High-School Outdoor Championships in Raleigh, N.C., notching respectable 4:34's in each.
As a sophomore, Harbor, now at Flagler Palm Coast and training under nationally renowned coach Peter Hopfe, was healthy and ready to make an impact. It didn't take long. He easily won the Five-Star Conference Freshman-Sophomore Championship in DeLand, then took eighth at the flrunners.com Invitational IV in 15:45 (where he was the top sophomore). He led FPC to easy team victories at conference championship meet (15:49) and at the 3A Region 2 Meet, in which FPC's lead foursome ran as one until the final strides. At 3A States, Harbor was fifth in 15:45 and second on the runner-up (to Chiles) FPC squad. Harbor strode away with the 12th-fastest boys' time of the day.
Two weeks later, Harbor made perhaps his greatest impact of the fall of 2003 with a 9:18 3200m at the Florida Milers Club All-Comers Meet in Gainesville. This run was overshadowed by the 8:51 thrown down by Ryan Deak, returning to his former home state from Colorado for a time trial, but was still a breakthrough. However, he slipped to 137th (16:31) at the Foot Locker Regionals a week later. "I could have just run the sophomore race there (at Footlocker)," he notes. "But I wanted to get the experience of running in the seeded race."
Last spring, Harbor opened his track season by shredding the field by 8 seconds at the Lyman Classic in the 1600m (4:26 PR); later in the day, he came back to win the 3200m as well. He then ran 9:27.8 for two miles (equivalent to a 9:24.4 3200m) at the Florida Relays, earning fourth. He easily swept both the 1600m and the 3200m at the 4A District 2 Meet, then was edged out by Hoover in a great 1600m duel (4:16 for each) at the 4A Region 1 Championships, coming back to grab the win in the 3200m (9:37). At 3A States, Harbor capped off his season by taking 3th in the 1600m in 4:21.5 and winning the 3200m 9:31.3.
Harbor logged a slew of base miles in anticipation of a super junior campaign this fall, and the work has paid dividends. Harbor won the flrunners.com Invite V, pulling away from Criscione, Hoover (whom he had never beaten in cross-country) and others with an extended kick in the final 1200 meter. He is undefeated this year with the exception of a 35-second loss to Criscione at the Buchholz Bobcat Invite, where he purposely went out recklessly (4:38 at the mile) so as to mimic Foot Locker-type conditions. Recently, he romped to wins in the conference, 3A District 3, and 3A Region 2 meets, with FPC also triumphing in all three.
His primary aim for the fall is to peak at the Foot Locker South Regional, where he came up distinctly short last year. "I'd like to get somewhere in the 14's there," he says, acknowledging that his 8:59 on the oval opened his eyes to both 14:30 5K potential and his ability to run with the best juniors in the country. "To get to Nationals would be a bonus this year." Perhaps, but the way the dedicated Harbor has been running lately, one thing seems certain -- nothing he does will surprise people anymore.