CLEARWATER — Paul McKenna showed up at his first Countryside High School track practice two years ago wearing ragged jeans with silver chains dangling from the belt loops, a pair of Chuck Taylors and a Megadeth T-shirt.
Renowned area track coach Eileen Givens looked at her new distance runner and asked him to change into something else.
“I remember Paul telling me that’s what he planned to wear,” she said. “He kept saying he didn’t have anything else.”
Givens just shook her head.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘You have got to be kidding,’ ” she said. “I said, ‘Oh, child, we have got to help you out.’ ”
Then McKenna went out and ran, jeans and all — “I wasn’t going to turn him away, so I let him run. He actually did pretty well,” Givens said — to make the team.
And that’s when the legend of McKenna, appropriately nicknamed “Megadeth,” was born.
The senior has since traded in his jeans and T-shirt for a standard track uniform. His Converse sneakers have been replaced by slick running shoes, bought through fundraisers because he couldn’t afford them.
But the one thing from his original rocker attire that McKenna would not part with is his long, wavy hair, which often is tied back into his trademark ponytail.
It wasn’t long before McKenna moved from the back of the pack to the front in cross country, then the 1,600- and 3,200-meter races in track. Now, that ponytail has become a guidepost for other runners, the only marker they have to determine how far ahead of them he is.
“I tried running a little bit when I was in middle school, but I never took it seriously,” McKenna said. “And I had never run track before. I thought it was something that could be fun.
“I don’t think until I started dropping my times again and again the past two years that I realized I was getting pretty good at this.”
With many of the top boys distance runners in the area graduating, it was only natural for coaches to skip the formalities and tab McKenna the leading contender for state medals this year.
McKenna placed ninth at the Class 4A state cross country meet last fall and has won the 3,200 at every major track meet this season.
Because McKenna is often the pace-setter with few competitors, he has spent most races running under the tyranny of a clock.
Time, the medium in which all runners flourish or fail, is especially precious to McKenna.
His target in the 3,200 is nine minutes, 40 seconds, which would rank among the state’s elite. More importantly, it could land him an athletic scholarship to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a private school in Daytona Beach.
McKenna has academic scholarships but not enough to pay for full tuition. He plans to enroll in ROTC to help cover the costs.
“It’s a great school with one of the best engineering programs around,” McKenna said. “My coaches have done a great job finding it for me. It’s tough. I’m trying to do everything to pay for it.
“ROTC means my ponytail will be gone, but I’ll just have to make that something I’m known for in high school.”
To accomplish his goal, McKenna often logs more than 50 miles a week.
“Megadeth has been so dedicated, to getting his time and making this happen,” Givens said.
The time McKenna invested has resulted in personal records. Last week, he won the 3,200 at the Pinellas County Athletic Conference meet in 9:46, the first time he has run below 9:50 this season.
Still, that is six seconds away.
Problem is, time is running out.
There are just three meets left in the postseason, starting with Tuesday’s district meet at Clearwater High.
McKenna knows it’s within reach. He has thrived because of his experience, and has circumvented the mental pitfalls that come after brooding over the seconds he hopes to shave.
“I have confidence that he’ll get there,” Givens said. “And if he doesn’t, I think he has done enough to convince (Embry-Riddle) that he’s worthy of scholarship.
“It’s rewarding to see him work and achieve something he didn’t know he was capable of when he started out. I know one thing, he’s definitely taught me that you can’t judge a book by its cover, that’s for sure.”