TAMPA — Three of the fastest young runners in the country — Cambridge Christian juniors Mary Ellen Eudaly and Caroline Lehman and seventh-grader Elli Black — sit side-by-side, answering questions thoughtfully and sincerely.
None showed any signs of being particularly tough or relentless.
Yet, as their coach Ray Friedman says, things change dramatically during a race: Something takes over, pushes them to the limits.
“It’s something that separates them from other athletes,” Friedman said. “All three of them have some sort of obsession. It’s not something that makes them want to be the best. It’s just something within them that drives them beyond the breaking point, and it’s abnormal. They are so tough in a race it’s downright remarkable.”
When Friedman said this, all three girls chuckled and seemed surprised, offering a couple of shrugs and humble explanations.
“I just want to be the best I can be,” Eudaly said.
“I’m very competitive,” Lehman said.
“I like to challenge myself,” Black said.
Whatever it is, it sure is working.
Last month, Eudaly won the district 1,600 meters race in four minutes, 44.80 seconds, or the second fastest in the history of the state for a high schooler (Jacksonville Bolles’ Caitlin Collier set the record at 4:44.51 in 2018). Right behind her, Lehman finished in 4:46.03 for the fifth fastest 1,600 in state history.
In the 3,200, meantime, Eudaly ranks fourth all-time in the state with a time of 10:17.36 (run in March at a New Balance meet) and Lehman sixth at 10:18.20, a time she ran last Saturday at the Class A, Region 3 meet.
As for Black, she has run the fastest 1,600 for a seventh-grader in the nation this year at 4:58.
All three runners agree that their collective burst of speed is partly because they are running together almost every day at practice. Before they transferred to Cambridge this past school year, Eudaly was at Plant and Lehman was at Bradenton Manatee, sometimes competing against each other.
Now, together as friends, “We push each other.”
They saw how Friedman raised the performance of former state champion Alyssa Hendrix of Riverview, and they simply wanted to give his coaching a try.
“Coach Ray has been awesome,” said Lehman, who makes the hour-plus drive every day to Cambridge from Manatee. “He caters the workouts to each of our needs. I’m very happy with the results.”
Lehman, who won the Class A state cross country title with Cambridge in the fall (adding that to a 4A state title with Manatee from 2019), may have had the most incredible drop in time of any runner when she won the Adidas Indoor National 5K in 16:53, knocking well more than a minute off her personal best.
That said, Friedman thinks Lehman is more of a 5K runner and Eudaly more of a 1,600 racer: Lehman is stronger over the long haul and Eudaly is better at turning on the speed in a shorter race.
As for Black — who at age 11 won the 2020 Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 8K in 30:57 — Friedman said he is being extra careful with her training.
“I am constantly aware that she is in seventh grade,” Friedman said. “Sometimes I have to hold her back.”
This weekend all three will run at the Class A state meet in Jacksonville: Eudaly and Black will run the 1,600 and 4x800; Lehman will compete in the 3,200 and the 4x800; and Friedman’s daughter, junior Moriah Friedman, will compete in the open 800 and the 4x800.
Friedman said the goal for the weekend is simply to win the races, nothing more.
“We have some really big races that follow the state meet,” Friedman said. “It’s all part of the process.”
The biggest one of the summer is easily the Brooks Invitational in Seattle, Wash., where Eudaly and Lehman among eight invites in their respective events.
“We are so excited,” Eudaly said.
“We are so honored,” Lehman said.
Thoughtfully and sincerely, of course.
State track and field
University of North Florida, Jacksonville
8 a.m. (goes all day) Friday-Saturday