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Trojans star Kennedy takes cross country running to new level in Leesburg

Lee County's Jacob Kennedy has already run the fastest cross country time in Trojans history and has the 10th best time in the state this season.

Lee County's Jacob Kennedy has already run the fastest cross country time in Trojans history and has the 10th best time in the state this season.

LEESBURG -- The road stretches in front of Jacob Kennedy, infinite and limitless, like the runner himself who has embraced the sport the same way he embraces life, with passion and intellect, always looking beyond the horizon.

That's Kennedy, a senior at Lee County High School, who defines his own horizons and creates his own world.

It's always been that way for him, even back when he first discovered a love for running as a 9-year-old in North Carolina, and even more so today as he plans on becoming the first distance runner in Lee County to earn a Division I scholarship.

Kennedy has already run the fastest 5K in Lee County history, a 15:53 last week in the Monroe Invitational, which is the 10th-best time in Georgia this year. But that's not good enough for Kennedy, who hopes to run even faster Saturday in the 30th annual Westover Invitational, one of the best and most competitive meets in the state every year.

The field will be loaded with teams from all over Georgia, including 18 from the Atlanta metro area, and Tift County, where Hunter Honeycutt has run the fourth-best time in Georgia this year.

"They are going to push me,'' said Kennedy, who already pushes himself harder than anyone. "I know they are going to go out really hard. They will push the pace from the gun, but I know I can hang with them. My biggest strength as a runner is my aerobic strength, my endurance.

"This meet is big. I'm looking to go really fast. There's the region meet and the state meet. I'll have other chances to run a really fast time, but this is different because of the sheer level of competition.''

Kennedy believes this is his time, his year to make the move to the head of the pack as a distance runner. Injuries slowed him down last year, but he took it upon himself to prepare for his senior season and to make the leap into the elite.

He looked at a nagging knee injury that destroyed his times in cross country last year and a back problem that hindered him during track season last spring, and decided to do something about it. He took notes during his physical therapy, and then read everything he could find.

"I read articles in Running Magazine, and went online to find out why my knee was breaking down and what to do to correct the problem,'' Kennedy said. "I looked up the injury. If this is the problem, then this is what you do to solve it. I found the right aerobic and conditioning exercises to do in order to get stronger.''

He came up with his own exercise regimen that he practices religiously, and Kennedy said he has seen a dramatic difference in not only his knee -- which is stronger than ever -- but his entire body, which Kennedy said is stronger and better prepared for running.

Hence, the new times -- all personal bests this year.

"He wants to be Lee County's first Division I runner, and I think he can do it,'' Lee County cross country coach Tom Matheny said. "He's just that hard of a worker. He has a lot of integrity and a lot of character. His dad is a 30-year retired marine, so you know he knows a little bit about honor and integrity.''

And a little about everything else.

Kennedy is brilliant student with a weighted 4.371 GPA. He's taking AP classes in literature, psychology and MACRO economics this year.

But his first love?

"It's the humanities,'' he said. "I believe running is to be human. It's such a humanitarian sport. Through your efforts you can be more of a human, to push yourself, push your limits. That's what being human is all about, giving it your all and conquering whatever is in front of you with the human spirit.

"I look at it like the mountain climbers, the ones who climb Mount Everest. You know it's there, and you know it's a difficult task, but when you're doing it you have that desire. As long as you give it your most sincere effort, you're going to be a better human being. It's a silent victory.''

Kennedy believes running is not only natural, but is an activity that is all but preordained.

"I believe humans were made to run,'' he said. "The way our muscles in our legs are made, and humans have a ridge in the back of our necks that keeps our heads from bobbing when we run. We are the only mammal with it.''

Kennedy discovered his love for running back in North Carolina when he was 9. He took the standard national fitness tests and stunned everyone.

"I ran the mile in 6:30 when I was in fourth and fifth grade, and my teachers and my peers all encouraged me to keep running,'' Kennedy said. "They would all say things like, 'You run like a deer,' and, 'Man, can Jacob run.' "

By the time Kennedy was in the sixth grade, he would spend his free gym periods at the track, running up to two and a half miles. There were no cross country or track teams at his middle school, so he just ran on his own.

He played baseball and football growing up, but said he was bored with both and enjoyed running so much more. When he was in eighth grade, his mother told her lanky 6-foot-1 soon he had to choose one sport -- either football or running.

"I was bored with football,'' he said. "Running was so different. I just like to be able to challenge myself, to be myself. There is a feeling of accomplishment like no other. Not only being able to beat an opponent, but more importantly, to defeat your own self doubts.''

Distance runners almost always hit the wall at some point in a cross country race.

"Yes you do,'' Kennedy said. "When it happens you are chanting in your mind over and over to fight back, to overcome, to keep fighting and keep going. There's only you, and you have to be able to push yourself.''

That's Kennedy.

"I think he will be the first Division I runner at Lee County,'' said Matheny, who has been the Trojans' cross country coach for eight years. "And he will be a better runner in college than high school because of his endurance (because the distance is so much longer in college cross country)."

Matheny then added: "He has the discipline and the self-drive. He sets his own goals. He does his own exercises, and he is helping all the other kids on the team. He's been the captain of this team for three years. You have to be self disciplined and be willing to do the work to win, and he's willing to do the work to prepare to win. That's why I think he'll do it.''