MISSOULA — Isaac Schmidt couldn’t stop running.
Physically, the Hellgate senior could stop, but he wouldn’t let himself.
After winning the Missoula city title race on Oct. 11 at Linda Vista Golf Course, he decided to keep running. While his teammates snacked on cookies, he headed out to cover more ground at the course with his girlfriend.
“I’m not done yet,” Schmidt said after returning to the finish line again. “I only got three-quarters of a mile in. I plan on doing more.”
The city-title race was the Missoula schools’ final tuneup for the state championship this Saturday in Helena. Schmidt will be looking to end his high school career with his first individual Class AA state title, which would be the first cross country state title in the family of long-time runners.
His extra running that day came on top of the one-tenth of a mile that's been added to races this season when the Montana High School Association switched from a 3-mile race to a 5K.
He followed up that Wednesday race by running distances of 10 miles on Thursday, seven miles of hill runs on Friday and 12 miles on Saturday, he said.
“That’s pretty normal if I’m racing, unless there’s a race in the next two days or so,” Schmidt said.
His desire to push himself also shows up in practice and doesn’t go unnoticed by teammates.
“Most runners just do what the rest of the team does and what the coach recommends to do,” Hellgate junior Ella DeGrandpre said. “Isaac always go above and beyond. If (head coach) Anders (Brooker) says to do 5 miles, he’ll do like 6 (miles) or more. He always goes beyond what’s expected.”
That yearning to improve is one of the things that's most impressed Brooker during his four years coaching Schmidt.
“Every year, he’s increased his training intensity and training volume,” Brooker said. “We do some strength training throughout the year, and he’s been as consistent as anybody in that he’s gotten stronger. … Nobody has been more consistent over four years at plugging away and getting better each season and trying to make that next jump. His work ethic is as good as we’ve ever had. He’s putting in as many miles as maybe only one or two other boys ever have for Hellgate.
“He’s always been a great kid, but he’s taken the role of — I don’t even want to say leader because it’s more than that — more of the role of role model: here’s how a runner from Hellgate cross country should do things. He’s not the most vocal guy and isn’t going to stand up on the table and start screaming and yelling. He’s going to do work the right way. It’s fun to watch him understand that and take that role. I think he’s proud of his work ethic and proud of the kind of kid he is. I know other kids see that, and that’s been fun to watch.”
Schmidt wasn’t overly interested in running at first.
It was his older sister — Andrea Schmidt, a junior swimmer at Northern Arizona and two-event state-title-winning swimmer at Missoula Sentinel — who appeared poised to follow in the footsteps of their runner parents before settling on swimming in middle school.
“She was more pestering about getting into recreational runs than Isaac was when she was younger,” said Ben Schmidt, Isaac’s dad. “We actually told her ‘no’ for this one race in the Rattlesnake because it’s a 4-miler. We said, ‘You’re too young.’ She pestered us to the point where we let her finally do that 4-miler, and she did fine.”
Isaac would tag along to watch his sister and parents, Ben and Peggy Schmidt, run races. He eventually joined them in races around fifth or sixth grade, running shorter races while his parents ran the longer distances.
He soon found joy in “the essence of trying harder, and the harder you try, the faster you go,” he said.
It didn’t take long after Isaac joined them before he was beating his parents, who met while running cross country at St. Olaf College, a Division III school in Northfield, Minnesota, and still run recreational races.
“I think it was the Roots Run when he was in middle school, a 4-miler in August,” Ben said. “It would have been one of those where he started pulling away. The last one I can remember keeping up with him was the Homecoming Hustle, and that would have been the year before.”
In his four years running at Hellgate, Schmidt’s biggest area of improvement has been listening to his body and responding appropriately, Brooker said.
Brooker saw that when Schmidt, who also runs track in the spring, injured his Iliotibial (IT) Band during his sophomore track season. The overuse injury comes when the IT Band, which runs along the outside portion of the leg, becomes inflamed by rubbing on the outside of the knee.
To account for that, Schmidt has added extra stretches, taken more rest when appropriate and decided his distances on a day-to-day basis.
“He can understand ‘I can train at a really high level, but I also have to be honest with myself where maybe I got to take a step back,’” Brooker said. “It’s a hard thing to do for kids like him who are as driven as Isaac is. This August, he did a big block of training, and his IT band acted up again. Unlike two years ago, he was able to say, ‘OK, I need to cut back for a few days and then move on.’ I think he’s very well in tune with how he’s feeling and has progressed really nicely. That’s allowed him to train at a high level.
“When it’s time to back off, you back off. That’s a part of running, part of trying to be great. If you don’t want to strive for greatness, then you won’t take those chances, but Isaac does. He’s done things the right way.”
Schmidt is weighing a couple of options to run in college, at Montana State, North Dakota State or Minnesota. Wherever he goes, he plans on studying electrical engineering and computer science.
Right now, his focus is on the Class AA cross country state final race at 1:40 p.m. Saturday at Bill Roberts Golf Course in Helena. After that, he’ll run in the Nike Cross Regionals in Boise with a chance to make the Nike Cross Nationals.
Schmidt can become the second in his family to win a state title and the first to win in cross country. Neither of his parents won a state title — Ben didn't start running until he was a high school junior, and Peggy started in middle school but spent part of her high school years in England, according to Ben.
“It would definitely be a highlight in my life,” Isaac said.
In three state finals race, Schmidt has been all-state twice. As a junior, he was ninth with a time of 15:27.5, which was the third-best time of runners who didn’t graduate. As a sophomore, he finished 11th with a time of 15:33.1, which was a marked improvement from his freshman year, when he ran a 16:38.9 to finish 36th.
He’ll enter the state final with the fastest time in the state among AA runners. He ran a personal-record 15:18.5 on Sept. 9 at the Bozeman Invitational. Bozeman’s Duncan Hamilton is second with a time of 15:20.7. Only one other runner is within 20 seconds of Schmidt.
“I think I definitely have a chance to win,” Schmidt said. “I wouldn’t say I’m the favorite, but I think I have a good chance.”
Added DeGrandpre: “He’s really humble about how good he is although he’s actually really good.”
Coupled with Schmidt’s reserved nature is the even-keeled personality of someone who doesn’t get rattled on the big stage, Brooker said.
“Whether he wins state, I know he’s going to put his nose in it,” Brooker said. “You’re going to watch a guy who will run as hard as he can run. You never have to worry about him leaving anything out there. Whether he’s first or fourth, with Isaac you can walk away knowing he gave his best effort.”
If he wins Saturday and decides to run a few more miles after the race, it would be quite a fitting victory lap.