When Elijah Inuwa crossed the finish line of the 1600-meter race at the Union County Championships on April 26, he added another mark to his already impressive resume. The speedy Central Academy of Technology and Arts’ junior finished the race in a blistering 4 minutes, 25.85 seconds, breaking his personal record and setting a new county record for the 1600, while besting the second-place finisher by six seconds.
During indoor track season, Inuwa had won the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 1A/2A state title in the 1000, running an astounding 2:37.23. As a sophomore, Inuwa had a breakthrough outdoor season, winning the state title in the 800 (2:02.74).
But success on the track wasn’t always a given for Inuwa. When he began his freshman year at CATA, he was a different person than who he is now. Aware of his talent – but weary of the amount of time and dedication he knew would be involved in running cross-country and track – Inuwa decided not to go out for the cross-country team until a month after the season had started.
“It was hot and I was lazy,” Inuwa said, candidly. “I didn’t want to run, I didn’t want to practice, I didn’t want to put any effort into it until I had to.”
His mom, Kim, who was a 400-meter hurdler at Fresno (Calif.) State University and remains on the school’s top 10 performers list, encouraged Inuwa to put his efforts into cross-country despite his hesitancies and use the season to train for track, aware that he had the talent to carry him far. And with her encouragement, Inuwa did just that.
“I really didn’t like cross-country that first year,” he said. “I never trained for it. I remember my first workout and it was brutal. But then I thought to myself, ‘What’s the point in doing something halfway?’ So I realized my potential and decided that I was going to work hard and get after it. It was an Olympic year then and I remember watching the 800 and 5K and I got really pumped. I wanted to get after it and it’s like I fed off of that and wanted to get better and better.”
After his freshman cross-country season wrapped up, Inuwa used his newfound discipline to look toward the track. Originally wanting to compete in sprint events, coach Field Miller started training Inuwa as a distance runner, wanting him to compete in the 800, 1600 and 3200.
And he quickly found his niche.
During his first-ever outdoor meet, Inuwa ran an impressive 2:09 in the 800, meeting the exact time requirement to qualify for states. At the Class 1A state meet on May 12, 2012, Inuwa shaved three seconds off his time, running in 2:06.84 which was good enough for an eighth-place finish – a rare feat for a freshman.
“From then on, I got really pumped,” Inuwa said. “I knew I was better than that time and that the potential was there so my coach and I started working to get down to 2:03. Every week from then on, I wanted to get out there and compete. I was ready for that hard work and the discipline.”
His enthusiasm carried over into the off-season and Inuwa spent his summer training on a daily basis to cut down on his 800 time and reduce his time in the 1600 and 3200 as well. By the time his sophomore outdoor track season rolled around, he was a state champion in the 800 (2:02.74) and finished the 3200 in 10:20.83 for a solid sixth-place state meet finish.
With his confidence at an all-time high, Inuwa said he couldn’t wait to get back into cross-country to continue training for his junior outdoor season. But even Inuwa couldn’t have predicted what happened next as his confidence got the best of him.
“Cross-country this year was really, really tough,” he said. “I remember every single workout was super frustrating. I thought I was going to come out and drop a 15:30 in the 5K, break all these records and all the focus was all on myself. I was really wrapped up in that and I think that kept it from happening.”
At the state cross-country meet, Inuwa came in with the third-fastest seed but ran in 16:38.37 – over a minute slower than what he anticipated, a time which earned him a ninth-place finish. At the prestigious Foot Locker South Regional, he faired better, running in 16:21, but still wasn’t anywhere near where he thought he’d be.
“I didn’t run well at states or at the Foot Locker meet,” he said. “I never even got close to breaking 16:00. After that, I was in almost like a three-month depression. I was questioning, ‘Alright God, should I be running? Am I doing this for my own glory? Am I doing this because I’m good at it and that’s it? Am I doing it because I want the attention?’ So I went back to God and realized that if my focus was always on myself, I wouldn’t get where I needed to be because really, it’s not about me at all.
“I went back to the drawing board and just told myself that I’ll see what happens. But I knew I had to be content with God and that’s all, not myself. So running became more spiritual for me than physical.”
Inuwa went into his junior indoor season with a fresh mind and selfless attitude and it paid off in big ways. Just a few weeks into the season, he dropped a 2:30 in the 1,000, recording the seventh-fastest time in the nation – an occurrence that Inuwa said was completely unexpected. At the Class 1A/2A state indoor meet, he finished first, running
And his outdoor season so far has been his best yet. He recorded a new personal record in the 800 (1:54.07), set a county record in the 1600 (4:25) and won both events at the Class 2A Midwest Regional on May 3. With the state meet beginning on Friday, May 9, Inuwa hopes to run under 1:54 in the 800 and become a back-to-back state champion. But this time, he isn’t letting his head get the best of
“It’s a daily reminder that my talent isn’t about me,” he said. “It’s a gift and something that I can’t take for granted. All I have to do is perform to the best of my ability and train to the best of my ability.”
With his junior year wrapping up and his senior season on the horizon, Inuwa hopes that his times will be good enough to garner the attention of college coaches from around the nation, specifically his dream school, the University of Oregon.
“I’ve been anxious lately, about my times of 1:54 and 4:25,” he said. “I could run for a D-1 school still but to get into Oregon? That won’t cut it… But I’m continuing to learn patience and I put my strength in God. I could be injured today and then what? But hopefully I’ll win states this year and run well next year and go to Oregon but even if I don’t, or even if I don’t run in college at all, I’m perfectly fine with that because I’ve become very content knowing that there’s more to life and more to me as a person.”