Twelve months of preparation, of regret and of second-guessing boiled down to 13 seconds for La Salle High senior cross-country runner Daniel De La Torre.
The Alhambra native trailed Sir Francis Drake’s John Lawson, the defending state champion, by that large margin at the two-mile mark of their three-mile race at the CIF State Division IV championships at Fresno’s Woodward Park on Nov. 24th in the season’s final race.
“When I saw how far ahead Lawson was in front of Daniel at the two-mile mark, well, you probably don’t want to know what I was thinking,” said Lancers Coach Fred Riley. “Daniel had put in so much work and had wanted to win so badly, thoughts began to race through my head of what I was going to tell him afterward.
“I really had no idea what I was going to say to him or his family.”
The cross-country season officially began Aug. 27.
For De La Torre, the 2012 All-Area Boys’ Cross-Country Runner of the Year, as voted by the sports writers and editors of the Pasadena Sun, La Cañada Valley Sun, Burbank Leader and Glendale News-Press, the 2011 season never really ended, at least in his mind.
“I never really stopped training since the beginning of my junior year. I run track and cross-country, but I only take a month off in between,” De La Torre said. “I have goals that I set for each and I fuel my goals and dreams with my failures. Every time I’m up, I remind myself that I was down, too.”
De La Torre had a successful track campaign in the spring in which he was named the All-Area Track Athlete of the Year and advanced to the state meet in both the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs.
In this just concluded cross-country season, De La Torre claimed individual victories at the two-mile Fastback Shootout Invitational (9:38.34), the 2.08-mile Mt. Carmel Invitational (10:01) and the three-mile Bellarmine-Jefferson Invitational (14:26).
Yet each victory and each joy was constantly tempered.
Each win served as merely a little relief from a growing disappointment that stemmed from De La Torre’s effort at the CIF State Meet in November of 2011.
That season, De La Torre cruised to a Division IV title at the CIF Southern Section championships and was on a roller coaster of momentum that crashed before the one-mile mark at the state race.
De La Torre, who led Lawson about a half mile into the race with a quick pace, felt his body tighten up and surrendered his lead, one he never regained in finishing third (15:42) behind Lawson (15:20) and Maranatha’s Kyle Bueckert (15:40).
“My gluts and back tightened up really bad and I couldn’t believe that I finished third,” De La Torre said. “Imagine working hard for an entire year for one event and knowing you were the best and then finishing third.
“I was disappointed that my body shut down, but also disappointed that I didn’t run my race. I tried to run at Lawson’s pace and messed up.”
The dread that accompanied De La Torre’s body locking up was an issue toward the end of the track season, but didn’t hit De La Torre as hard as it did at the Mt. SAC Invitational at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut on Oct. 20.
De La Torre competed in the Boys’ Individual Sweepstakes stacked with a loaded field that included race-winner Juan Gonzalez of El Toro, who later captured the state Division I crown.
In his zeal to measure himself among giants, De La Torre finished fourth in 14:53, but passed out at the finish line.
Low blood pressure coupled with a training regiment of 10- to 15-mile runs in the days leading up the competition proved too much as De La Torre waited in a tent for an hour after his race before he was cleared and released to his parents.
“I think all he had that day was a granola bar, one granola bar,” Lancers assistant Duane Norris said. “He pushed himself way too hard before and then ate nothing for breakfast. He asked too much from his body.”
De La Torre hit rock bottom.
“I remember how I sat there just wondering what happened,” De La Torre said. “I love my coaches and they’ve helped me with so much and I should have listened to them. I pushed myself too far.”
If there was an advantage for De La Torre, it’s that he had time to rest before the Del Rey League finals Oct. 30 at Santa Fe Dam.
Out of the break, De La Torre seemed refreshed, rolling to a victory at league finals in 14:58.9, well ahead of league runner-up Matthew Ruiz (15:23.7) of Los Angeles Cathedral.
“I want to say it was around the time of league finals where I think the message clicked for Daniel,” Riley said. “Before that, it seemed like every week he was looking to break a course record or set a school record.
“We sat him down and told him that he just needed to run his race and not worry about anything else. Success would come, but only if he ran his race.”
A week later, a humble and focused De La Torre did not look to set a course record at Mt. SAC in the Division IV prelims, but rather focused on qualifying.
That day, De La Torre finished first in both his heat and overall in the division in racing to a time of 15:14.
Part of his success was due to his crosstown “rival” Bueckert, who finished second in the heat, but more notably, asked his teammates to move over so that De La Torre, an individual qualifier, could be allowed spaced at the starting line.
“I’ll always remember that gesture because Bueckert is a class act,” De La Torre said. “He didn’t have to help me, but he did.”
De La Torre won his second consecutive CIF-SS Division IV championship, this time on Mt. SAC’s rain course, in a time of 14:23.
At one point De La Torre took a 25-second lead over Bueckert, but jogged to a victory with a four-second advantage.
“It wasn’t about trying to set a Mt. SAC record or anything like that,” De La Torre said. “My goal was to win a division championship and save myself for state. Once I knew I won the title, I didn’t push myself like I might have last year. I just ran my race and relaxed.”
Almost 12 months to the day of his great disappointment, De La Torre found redemption, although it seemed hardly obvious with a mile left to go in the Division IV race and a 13-second deficit.
“It was kind of crazy, but I saw how relaxed Daniel was at the two-mile mark and told Fred that he still had a kick in him,” Norris said. “I saw that his arms and legs still looked fresh and he wasn’t tired.”
On the flip side, Lawson ran out to an amazing, but unsustainable pace and quickly gave up ground to De La Torre up the final hill.
When both runners reached the summit that preceded the final 200 meters of street and grass running, De La Torre had caught up with Lawson.
“He reminded me of me. He went out too fast and started to get tired,” De La Torre said. “It was the reverse of last year. I just ran my race and finished hard the last 200 meters.”
De La Torre was four seconds faster than Lawson over the final sprint in beating the champ with a mark of 15:30.
This time, there was no collapse from De La Torre, either physically or mentally.
“Winning a state title is what I always dreamed of,” De La Torre said. “But the difference last year is that I tried to push myself too far. I tried to give more than I could. I ran someone else’s race, instead of my own.”