Rock Bridge distance runner is track team’s unlikely leader

Friday, May 28, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:33 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 28, 2010
Rock Bridge High School sophomore Caleb Wilfong, 16, and his team mates, Nick Dale, 16, Chris Cornell, 18, and Timothy Questsch, 18, train on May 26, 2010 for the state track and field meet in Jefferson City, Mo. Wilfong currently holds the second best 1600-meter run time in the state.

*CORRECTION: The Rock Bridge track coach is Neal Blackburn. A earlier version of this story misstated his name.

COLUMBIA — Before the Rock Bridge track practice started, distance runner Caleb Wilfong was laughing and rolling around in the grass. He talked during stretching, during warmups and even during his “casual” 50-minute run, all the while high-fiving everyone in sight.

“I joke to combat everything,” Wilfong said. “If anything gets difficult, I joke.”

Class 3 and 4 State Track and Field Finals

WHEN: 11 a.m. Friday and Saturday

WHERE: Dwight T. Reed Stadium, Lincoln University in Jefferson City.

COST: $7 per day for anyone older than 6. 

For more information go to the Missouri State High School Activities Association website

Other Rock Bridge athletes to look for:

  • Mallory Short - 100-meter hurdles
  • Nick Sublett - discus, shot put 
  • Lauren Flaker - 100-meter dash, 400-meter dash
  • Quinn Gray - 400-meter dash, 200-meter dash
  • Colin Sees - 800-meter run

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In the waning days of high school last year, the then-freshman walked five miles to school in a Speedo as a joke. That wasn’t his first time he wore a Speedo in school, either.

“I’m pretty much always joking, even before races, I’ll still be joking,” said Wilfong, who will run the 1600 and 3200 meters at this weekend's Class 4 state meet for the Bruins and also compete in the 4x800 relay. “But, when the gun shoots, I’m serious.”

At 135 pounds, what Wilfong lacks in size, he says he makes up for mentally. Before some races this year, Wilfong introduced himself to his opponents and claimed his 1600-meter time was over six minutes when in reality he ran the 1600 in 4 minutes and 22 seconds last weekend, which was the second-fastest time in the state.

In the moments right before a race, Wilfong has said, “Shoot the gun, shoot the gun,” over and over to prompt other runners into a false start. Even when he’s running, Wilfong is thinking about his opponents and not his own limitations.

“What I think about is not – ‘Oh, I’m tired,’” Wilfong said. “If I’m in front of them, I know they’re thinking that this guy is strong. Knowing that helps me.”

Rock Bridge coach Neal Blackburn* is all too familiar with Wilfong and his amusing behavior, but he thinks Wilfong’s personality works to his advantage.

“Sometimes if he were to actually realize the magnitude of the things he’s done, or some of things he’s been asked to do, those things could have been detrimental to his performance,” Blackburn* said.

According to Blackburn,* Wilfong doesn’t act like he’s better than anyone else on the Rock Bridge track team. Although Wilfong wins a lot of races, it doesn’t prevent him from talking – or more likely joking – with anyone on the team, even if they’re not one of the better runners.

“I love everyone,” Wilfong said. “I try to keep everyone smiling.”

More than for himself or his opponents, Wilfong jokes for his teammates. In his light-heartedness, he has become a leader for the Rock Bridge team.  

At a recent practice, Wilfong stepped up when there was tension between two equally talented runners vying for the last spot on the championship 4x800-meter relay team. When things got heated, Wilfong tried to calm everyone down.

“I asked if we could have a five-minute break by not talking about the event to just throw out jokes, have some comedic relief,” Wilfong said.

At a distance Wilfong might seem like someone yearning for attention, but behind all of his antics is someone who likes to have a fun.

“He’s got a big personality. I think a lot of folks love him or hate him, but when he’s wearing green and gold you have to love him because you know he’s going to give you everything he’s got,” Blackburn* said.

Though Wilfong’s personality might not be changing any time soon, his running definitely has. Blackburn* said the sophomore is starting to run much smarter races by not sprinting out to an early lead.  

“His running style is absolutely more mature than his personality,” Blackburn* said, chuckling. “He likes to lead, he’s front a runner. But when it's 90 degrees and you’re running a 5K, you have to watch yourself. He’s starting to trust his training more and more by pacing himself in the races.”

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