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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Riverside distance runner Jamar Distel learning when to go hard, when to back off

Riverside’s Jamar Distel has won two consecutive Highlander Invites.  (Keenan Gray/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Keenan Gray For The Spokesman-Review

The perfect running stride looks effortless, relaxed and focused.

It’s what all runners strive for when perfecting their racing to perform at their highest level.

Riverside’s Jamar Distel showed what it really looks like to run effortlessly when he dominated the senior boys varsity race at this year’s Highlander Invite.

It’s taken years of hard work and dedication.

Distel began his high school athletic career much like any young ninth-grader would – not a clue in the world as to what they are doing – something former Riverside cross country coach Tim Hart had noticed every season when new runners joined the program.

“Coming in as a freshman, he did put work in the offseason, but he didn’t necessarily know what that meant,” Hart said. “A lot of times kids either run too fast or too slow when they are starting out, and he was on the too slow side.”

If you were to ask Distel, he would have never considered himself to be slow just because of where he was originally from – Ethiopia.

“That’s the reason I started running,” said Distel. “When I was young, I didn’t think I had to try because in my mind I knew Ethiopian guys were fast. That’s what inspired me to run.”

And he was right. Distel was one of the top freshman runners in 1A during the 2018 season, posting a 5,000-meter time of 17 minutes, 18.5 seconds and managed to qualify for the state meet.

His sophomore season was the beginning of a breakout year as he won his first Highlander Invite title. The following week he finished as the runner-up at the Battle for the 509 in 15:32.6, the fastest time in 1A at that point.

All was well, until it wasn’t.

While racing in Portland at one of the largest high school cross country meets in the Pacific Northwest, Distel’s hip began to flare up midrace – his IT band was in gruesome pain.

“The racing was really putting a toll on him, so we had to back him off from it,” Hart said. “His mechanics were wonky, and we determined there needed to be some changes in his stride.”

The injury forced Distel to sit out for a good chunk of the season, including two invites he was eager to attend.

“I knew I could be a lot better than what I was showing,” Distel said. “Missing out on big races that I knew I could perform and show how good I really was – it was terrible. I had to back off completely because it was actual pain when I was running.”

After missing a month of racing in October, Distel made his return at the district meet and won to automatically qualify for the State 1A meet. He went on to place 13th the following week in Pasco.

Even with a comeback, a year of high expectations fell short in his eyes.

“That state race was one of the most disappointing ones I’ve ever raced,” Distel said. “Races like that motivated me for the winter of my sophomore season to work hard enough so another race like that didn’t turn out ever again.”

Distel wanted to make the changes right away. He took full advantage of the offseason working on his running with professionals to ensure his hip didn’t bother him again. After a long winter of training and strengthening, the results showed at the first week of track in the spring.

“Since he was putting a lot of stress on his stride, he went to physical therapy and put in a whole ton of work to strengthen everything,” Hart said.

“He completely changed his mechanics between his sophomore year of cross country to sophomore year of track.”

Then COVID hit. All the hard work Distel put in to get healthy again for the track season was completely shut down by a global pandemic. On top of that, Hart had also resigned from coaching at Riverside.

“The whole 2020 season was an emotional roller coaster for me,” Distel said. “Hart had stepped down as a coach, I didn’t know if the season was going to actually happen, and I was just running by myself.”

The 2021 spring cross country season rolled around in March, but Distel wasn’t as prepared as he hoped he would be. Instead, he treated the short six-week season as preparation for track.

Following the final meet of cross country, Distel stepped onto the track against other runners for the first time in three years – a 3,200-meter race in Olympia featuring Washington’s fastest distance runners.

It was the first time in a while he finally felt he was more than ready to run.

After a night of running his fastest 3,200 time, Distel had learned so much about himself and got a better understanding of what his future had in store – an offer to run for the University of Washington.

“The idea of winning for me changed after that night,” Distel said. “It wasn’t just about winning the race – it was about getting a chance to run at the next level, something I hadn’t really thought about as much as I should have.”

While the journey back to success has been a long, slow process, Distel proved he will do whatever it takes to become great again, even if it means backing off from doing too much.

“I learned to really focus on recovery,” Distel said. “It’s always better to do a little less than to do too much.

“There’s a lot of stuff I could say I regret. As long as I learn from it and don’t make the same mistakes, then it’s a valuable lesson that I wouldn’t want to erase.”