Junior runner sets new cross-country mark at Mason County Invitational –
By Mark Carpenter –
Photo by Michelle Bilyeu –
Sometimes achieving a goal is not an easy task. There are obstacles in the way which sometimes move that goal farther and farther away, but for 16-year old Manchester High School junior Ethan Pennywitt, a lifetime goal came to fruition last Saturday afternoon. Reaching a goal that he had set as a youngster, Pennywitt is now the school record holder in boys cross-country as he broke the previous mark with his time of 17:03 in last Saturday’s Mason County Invitational.
“I was four years old when I ran my first race,” said Pennywitt. “We ran in something called the Dog Pack Challenge and it was just a one-mile race and I think I got second running with elementary kids. When I was like seven or eight, I ran my first 5K at the Shawnee Bear Run and I just kept running 5K races after that and I have never stopped.
“I guess it is just something that I have always done and I have probably run in well over 100 races. I have over 60 medals in my room plus a bunch of trophies for winning.” The junior runner ran six 5K races this past summer and won all six of them.
The previous Manchester record was set by Jason Barr in 1997 (17:07) and Pennywitt has had his eyes on that mark for a long time, but the road to the top has not been an easy one for the last few years as he has battled a serious case of celiac disease, which has totally changed the lifestyle and eating habits of he and his family. Celiac disease is something you are born with but it often takes a stressor of some sort to trigger its symptoms. For Pennywitt, that was a dirt bike accident when he was a high school freshman.
“I always had these rashes during the summer and we thought it was just poison ivy,” Pennywitt says. The rashes always seemed to be on the back of my legs and I had never been around any poison ivy. The dirt bike accident started all the pain and sickness and I was so sick for about two months, in an out of hospitals and doctor’s offices looking to get straightened out. I had every kind of blood work done, ultrasounds, ER trips at three in the morning because I was in so much pain I couldn’t sleep. I had achy pain in my legs but my stomach just felt like being stabbed with a knife. Any time I ate it would hurt and I would just lay on the floor, not able to move. When they did the tests to finally determine the celiac, a high level on the test was considered to be around 30 and I tested out over 200. The doctors said ot was the highest they had ever seen.”
“They finally diagnosed me with celiac but it took me about a year to get back to even close to 100%.
That is when life in his household took on a major change as all hints of glutens had to be removed, which meant his parents Lonnie and Michelle Bilyeu had to buy all new pots and pans, clean out all the cabinets and make grocery trips totally different than anything they had done in the past.
“I try to have a home-cooked meal every night and the nights that I work late it’s a crock pot meal,” says his mother Michelle. “Everything has to be gluten-free and when I go to the grocery, I love coupons and comping, but unfortunately my items aren’t always discounted or ever on sale. I don’t like shopping or have much time for it with my work schedule so if a place wants my business they need to carry my favorite gluten-free brands. Sometimes we like an item and it gets discontinued. It can be very frustrating.”
“It was a hassle and it is still pretty tough,” said Ethan. “You have to read a lot of labels and ingredients and going out to eat is almost impossible.” While most teenagers can drive thru McDonald’s and grab a cheeseburger, you won’t see Pennywitt doing that. He even has to be careful about which aisles of the grocery he walks through.
About a month ago, his sister Sierra was home and baked a cake and just the particles of gluten in the air triggered another bad reaction. Another bad rash covered a majority of his body and another trip to the doctor meant a steroid shot and a supply of steroid packs to try and clear it up.
Despite all these obstacles, one thing has never stopped for the Manchester teen, and that is him continuing to run and run, culminating in last weekend’s record-performance.
“I’ve thought about this record since I first started running and I always saw the old record on the board at the high school,” said Pennywitt. “Before Saturday, my best time (17:24) was just the Tuesday before in an All-Comers meet at Mason County, and I was thinking that Saturday was my day, especially since I have cut off over a minute in my time in the last two weeks. I had about four different coaches telling me my time through the race so I knew I had a shot, even after I got caught in the pack in the first mile and ended up running in the tall grass to avoid the middle.
“I felt good but I thought I was running slower than the Tuesday before so I was shocked when I got my first mile item and I had to slow my pace some so as not to burn out. I just kept picking people off and moving up and realized I had a shot at the record. With about 150 meters to go, Lonnie yelled my time of 16:40 at me, so I just took off flat sprinting and I was dead when I crossed the finish line.”
Pennywitt finished seventh in the race which featured 164 runners, but on Saturday place took a back seat to a new school record.
“They had a clock near the finish line and I saw my time as I crossed and I knew that I had the record. It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but it feels good.”
Not to be satisfied as a competitor, Pennywitt hopes to continue to shave time off that record mark in his final two years of high school competition.
“My first goal is to get my time down into the 16’s and then I want to make it to state. That is my big goal.”
Manchester cross-county coach Vic Bowman has nothing but praise for his junior runner.
“Determined, dedicated, and gutsy are just three words that come to mind when I think of Ethan,” said Bowman. “He has always had the record as a goal, along with some others that he is still chasing. He has fought through his medical issues and injuries, but still run at very opportunity despite not being anywhere near his best. He knew exactly what splits he needed on Saturday to get the record and despite not being on the pace with about 800 meters to go, he willed himself to gut out that very last part of the race to grab the record. I am very proud of him, but fully expect him to push the record even lower as this season progresses.”
When he is not out running many miles each day, Pennywitt is a 4.0 student and is current enrolled in post-secondary classes at both the high school and Southern State Community College. He also has some big running dreams for his post-high school days.
“I’d like to run at someplace like Oregon or Stanford,” he says.
With his track record and determination, don’t put it past him.