Boys' Cross Country Peak Performer of the Year

When Chandler Wilburn first started running at The Classical Academy as a freshman in 2019, he looked at the upperclassmen in awe.

"Man, I want to be like that when I get to their age," he recalled thinking. 

Fast forward and the sleeves of the senior's TCA Titans letterman jacket is adorned with patches and honors from the school's numerous trips to cross country and track and field state championships. Underneath, he wears a green sweatshirt with the coordinates of the school. It's a little something special for this year's seniors designed by the student council and Wilburn, who was involved as class president. 

Now the underclassmen look to him. It's just the way things are at The Classical Academy. 

"This program has been so successful because we've had talented guys come through, hard-working guys come through who have just inspired the kids who have come up after them and just been replaced by them," Wilburn said. "I really hope (my legacy) is about what the team looks like next year, two years from now, three years from now and how the upperclassmen then two years from now are some way marked by what they learned from me just as I am by what I learned from upperclassmen when I was a freshman."

This year's Peak Performer for boys cross country, Wilburn won the 3A state championship in the boys 5,000-meter run with a time of 15 minutes, 46.3 seconds. He was one of four Titans to finish in the top 20, leading to the school's second consecutive team title and eighth since 2004.

Carrying the TCA torch is no easy feat. Wilburn's personal victory is the product of consistent improvement that the veteran runner has sought for himself.

Running is a year-round pastime for him, including cross country season in the fall and track and field in the spring. Even in the offseason this year, Wilburn found time to run about 70 miles over nine runs per week, often doubling up with a morning and evening run. 

During this school year, Wilburn's alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. for an early run.

Despite the countless hours he puts into it, running is not always fun. But the opportunity to block out the noise of life and just push himself is invaluable. 

"The daily improvement is so fulfilling. There's also just the undistracted space to just think and I can't tell you how many days where the day hasn't gone great, stuff just hit the wall, been whatever it is and then I get to run and just have that space to clear my head. ... And not have anything that's pressing me right at that moment," he said. "To have that time of day where I'm truly just in my own thoughts, undistracted, just getting time to pray, that's so valuable to me."

One thing that's immediately clear when speaking to Wilburn is his eloquence. Seemingly without effort, he answers questions asked of him with a level of poise, thoughtfulness and insight.

It's one of the first things coach Matt Norton noticed about him when he met him as a freshman.

"Just the way he carries himself and his confidence and his ability to interact with people and talk as a 14-15 (year-old) freshman was truly unique," Norton said. "So when I think about Chandler, I think about that. ... Everything that he does. He's one of our top students, he's involved in every activity here at school, he's the student body president and he's been a leader on our cross country team for the four years that he's been here. ... He's just hyper-focused and when you combine that with his talent you get a state champion." 

Wilburn's mind is likely one of the reasons he's headed to Colorado School of Mines to run and study next fall. He plans to study engineering physics for his undergraduate and then quantum engineering for a master's degree.  

"I applied to one school. It was Mines," Wilburn said with a chuckle. "That's what my sights have been set on for forever."

While Wilburn needed only one try to get into the college of his choice, it took more tries to capture the individual state title.  

He finished 25th in the event as a freshman, 17th as a sophomore and came in fourth last year. Then something changed. As a junior in track and field this past spring, Wilburn was having what he said was one of his worst seasons of running. He was flat, perhaps spread a bit too thin across the events he ran and was getting average results. 

Norton called him into the office one day and gave him some advice that clicked. He was too focused on his times and not enough on just winning races. 

"He's always Mr. Positive and he's always the one who kind of provides the energy to everybody, so balancing that with his own personal disappointment is difficult," Norton said. "I think the thing that allowed that conversation to flip the switch was him just realizing that he was one of those guys that he was chasing. When you're racing the clock, it's a little bit like not quite sure that you're at the caliber of those guys and you need the time to justify it."

Norton told Wilburn that he was of the same caliber of the runners he was competing against, that he was one of the best and he just needed to go out and run, without worrying about times. 

The messaging worked. He set a personal record his next race and finished second in the 3200 meter, the 1600 meter and the 800 meter at state that season. The second-place finishes were somewhat bitter for a competitor like Wilburn, but the value he placed on the turning point and the lesson his junior track season provided was unmistakable. 

"Those were hard races, but it was my best performance," Wilburn said. "I was seeded well in all of those, but to be able to compete well in all three distance events like that was something I was definitely very proud of and what did it come from? It came off of the back of a whole season of just average but learning from it."  

The lesson wasn't wasted as evidenced by Wilburn's cross country victory. Now, the senior moves forward into his senior track season and beyond knowing he stands as one of the best at his school and in the state.