James Mwaura heads to Point Defiance Park most Sundays to run a more than 10-mile loop.
“On your left,” he says, passing a runner.
His younger sister, Patience Mwaura, has been on the receiving end of that.
“On your left,” he says again, making another pass.
“He lapped me on the five-mile loop,” Patience said. “I was so confused.”
So you could say James Mwaura is almost like Captain America.
He laughed when asked if he feels like he’s emulating the movie’s opening scene, with Captain America frequently running past Sam Wilson.
“They get to their second loop and I see them again and I’ll be like, ‘On your left,’ ” he smiled. “And I’ll hear this, ‘Wow, you’re fast.’ ”
No matter how deep you dig into the history books, the Tacoma cross country coaches who have been around the longest all say there’s never been a distance runner from the City of Destiny like Mwaura.
Wilson coach Sam Ring said that the last Tacoma runners to gain this much national attention were Lincoln’s Keith Tinner and Wilson’s Darrell Robinson, though they were both sprinters. Mwaura is ranked as the fifth-best cross country runner in the nation by Dyestat.
If he wins the 3A state cross country title on Saturday in Pasco, he’ll become the first from Tacoma proper to win back-to-back state titles.
“If I were to come back, years later, and people know me as a fast person and one of the top people in history to come out of Tacoma – that would be amazing,” said Mwaura, who said he is looking at the University of Washington, Gonzaga, Oklahoma State and Northern Arizona for college.
“A day without running is just a boring day for me. Running those fast times – it just feels amazing.”
It all started with soccer.
Mwaura (pronounced em-wara) was born in Kenya, but his family moved to Tacoma when he and younger sister were toddlers. His mother, Sophia, played volleyball and his father, Stephen, played soccer at Kenya Polytechnic University and James followed in those footsteps at Tacoma’s First Creek Middle School.
A friend persuaded him to try football and wrestling. He was a kicker and defensive back until his eighth grade year, and he won a 125-pound middle school wrestling title.
Patience laughed as her brother mentioned that.
“I know he did those things,” she said. “But it doesn’t come to your mind when you look at him that he did those things. You always just think he’s a runner.”
He also excelled in track and field, though. James caught the attention of Lincoln coach Andrew Fuller when he ran a 4:51.97 1,600-meter time as an eighth grader, and finished second in an 800 race at 2:08.93, despite tripping and falling.
“To do that, to get back up, that there just showed me what kind of grit and passion he had for winning,” Fuller said. “I told him the day I met him, ‘You have all the qualities to be a national champ.’
“He looked at me and he didn’t even know what that meant.”
So James decided to give cross country a try.
“At first I was like, ‘I don’t know,’ ” James said. “I had to step back and think what I should do. But then I was like I’ll give it a try and see how it is my first year. If I don’t like it, I’ll stick to soccer.”
And he was hooked.
Last year he became the first Lincoln athlete to win a cross country title since the original Tacoma state champion, Paul DuCharme, in 1974. The first Pierce County athlete to win two in a row was Lakes’ Curt Corvin in 1981-82, who went on to become an All-American at UW and enter the WIAA Hall of Fame. He held UW’s fastest 10,000-meter time from 1986-2001.
White River’s Andy Maris also won two in a row in 1988-89.
Mwaura ran a personal-best time of 14:54.3 at the Nike Portland XC invite and that time is the 19th-best 5K time in the country. Though cross country times are hard to compare because the courses vary.
So Ring said when he was recruiting at the University of Puget Sound, he would check how runners fared in the 3,200 in track and field season. And Mwaura’s 8:54.53 he clocked in Arcadia, California, last spring was the second-fastest time by a high school junior in the nation.
Since Athletic.net started being used to track top times in 2006, only Jackson’s Matthew Watkins (8:48.84), Seattle Prep’s Joe Hardy (8:51.01) and Mead’s Andrew Gardner (8:54.48) have run faster times than that.
And Mwaura has one more track and field season.
“His future is bright, very bright,” said longtime Lincoln coach Duane Lee. “We could see him in the Olympics. 2020 is a stretch, but 2024, 2028 – when he gets into his prime as a distance runner.
“And that’s because of his plain-out desire to get better every single day. He always wants to get better. I’ve been here for 21 years and James is the best-ever to come out of Lincoln and I can honestly say the best to come out of Tacoma.”
Let’s take you on a Tacoma history lesson.
Gonzaga University coach Pat Tyson graduated from Lincoln in 1968 before he became a roommate and teammate at the University of Oregon with Steve Prefontaine. He said he remembered idolizing Ring, who ran for Mount Tahoma in the 1964 2.3-mile championships at Green Lake in Seattle.
“He was the rock star of the city,” Tyson said. “He didn’t always have his day at state, but he inspired the rest of us.”
Tyson finished seventh in the 1967 championships behind state-champion Wes Smylie of Clover Park and Clover Park’s Bob Brandon (second).
Among Tacoma’s all-time distance greats, Ring, Tyson, Lee and Bellarmine coach Matt Ellis spoke of Wilson’s Don Higgins, Brian Brouilett, Eric Williams and Hugh Hazelquist; Lincoln’s DuCharme; Mount Tahoma’s Brian Mittelstadt; and Bellarmine Prep’s Greg Erwin and Jack Yearian. Erwin ran at Oregon, was a co-chair of the 2008 Olympic trials and is the cousin of Lincoln principal Pat Erwin.
Yearian (2015) and Charles Wright’s Tom Wyatt (2003) are the only two from Tacoma to complete the triple crown of distance running – winning a 1,600, 3,200 and cross country title in the same school year.
“But there is no doubt James is the greatest male distance runner in high school history coming out of a Tacoma school,” Ellis said. “No doubt.”
Although, that gets murkier when talking state history. No one compares Tacoma’s running history to that of Spokane – where the state’s greatest distance runner ever, Rogers of Spokane’s Gerry Lindgren, is from. Tyson first got a taste of that coaching at Mead.
“We had Point Defiance, but Spokane is a big, gigantic Point Defiance,” Tyson said. “Wherever you go there’s a trail with a deer or moose or rattle snake or whatever it is. Everybody loves to run at Point Defiance, but we are Point Defiance and that’s why I came here.”
Tyson and Ring would run from Tacoma to the Puyallup fairgrounds, or to then-Lincoln coach Dan Watson’s Puyallup nursery or at Point Defiance. Otherwise they’d run at Wright Park, Snake Lake and by the sand and gravel pits that is now Chambers Bay.
His family didn’t have a car, he said, so Tyson would run or walk wherever he went. He first set Lincoln’s two-mile record before Brandon Fuller broke that with a 9:05.4 and won the 3,200 state title in 2000.
Then came Mwaura, who ran that 8:54.53 in the 3,200. He said Point Defiance is his favorite place to run, but he’s often just running around the east side of Tacoma.
Mwaura said he runs between 65-70 miles per week and recently ran 17 miles at Point Defiance just because he lost track of the time.
“He lives in the hood,” Andrew Fuller said. “It’s definitely cleaned up, but that’s where he goes running. To do that makes what he does even more special because I don’t know a lot of kids who do that.”
He almost had the state 1,600 title last spring to complete the triple crown, but after leading almost all of the race, he was passed on the final lap and finished in third, though he followed two days later with the 3,200 title.
“He’s such a hard worker,” Ring said. “He doesn’t miss a day. That’s the bottom line. Not to bad-mouth any of today’s athletes, but the Xbox and all this stuff and Sundays off because I’m tired – we run into that a lot. But in James’ case, he is just phenomenal. You can’t top his work ethic.”
Patience said that even when her brother isn’t running, he’s still talking about running.
“Or he’s sleeping and watching TV,” she said. “Watching ‘Teen Wolf’ or ‘Rick and Morty.’ ”
Lee knows he and Fuller will likely never see another runner like Mwaura again.
“He’s a quiet kid, but he’s got this subtle sense of humor about him,” Lee said. “When he was a freshman I couldn’t get 10 words out of him in a day. He has all this humbleness and he doesn’t flaunt himself at all.
“I always say this about him – he’s a better person than he is a runner. And just think about how great of a runner he is. But he’s a better individual.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
TACOMA’S ALL-TIME STATE XC CHAMPIONS
1974 — Paul DuCharme, Lincoln (12:11.9 at Evergreen High School in Seattle, 2.5 miles)
2003 — Tom Wyatt, Charles Wright (15:38 at Sun Willows in Pasco, 5 kilometers)
2004 — Alex Crabill, Charles Wright (16:09 at Sun Willows in Pasco, 5 kilometers)
2005 — Peter Browne, Charles Wright (16:36 at Sun Willows in Pasco, 5 kilometers)
2015 — Jack Yearian, Bellarmine Prep (15:14.9 at Sun Willows in Pasco, 5 kilometers)
2016 — James Mwaura, Lincoln (15:32.9 at Sun Willows in Pasco, 5 kilometers)
Other Tacoma Notables
1967 — Pat Tyson, Lincoln (7th place, 11:21 at Green Lake in Seattle, 2.3 miles); Eric Williams, Wilson (9th place, 11:24)
1968 — Brian Mittelstadt, Mt. Tahoma (5th place, 14:42 at Green Lake in Seattle, 2.3 miles)
1977 — Greg Erwin, Bellarmine Prep (2nd place, 12:16 at Evergreen HS in Seattle, 2.5 miles); Jeff Hotsko, Foss (9th place, 12:27)
1986 — John Lane, Bellarmine Prep (9th place, 14:57 at Fort Worden in Port Townsend, 3 miles)
1988 — Don Higgins, Wilson (2nd place, 14:36 at Sun Willows in Pasco, 3 miles)
1999 — Brian Johnson, Bellarmine Prep (8th place, 15:54 at Sun Willows in Pasco, 5 kilometers); Brandon Fuller, Lincoln (9th place, 15:55)
2008 — Kevin Rosaaen, Wilson (6th place, 15:34 at Sun Willows in Pasco, 5 kilometers)
OTHER PIERCE COUNTY CHAMPIONS
1967 — Wes Smylie, Clover Park (11:08.6 at Green Lake in Seattle, 2.3 miles)
1978 — Jerry Maris, White River (15:13.8 at Evergreen HS in Seattle, 3 miles)
1981 — Curt Corvin, Lakes (15:19 at Evergreen HS in Seattle, 3 miles)
1982 — Curt Corvin, Lakes (15:03 at Evergreen HS in Seattle, 3 miles)
1984 — John Hogan, Gig Harbor (15:32.2 at Evergreen HS in Seattle, 3 miles)
1988 — Andy Maris, White River (14:44.2 in Pasco, 3 miles)
1989 — Andy Maris, White River (14:55.1 in Pasco, 3 miles)
1995 — Geoff Perry, Gig Harbor (14:54.0 in Pasco, 3 miles)
2007 — Miles Unterreiner, Gig Harbor (15:39 at Sun Willows in Pasco, 5 kilometers)
2013 — Logan Carroll, Gig Harbor (15:06.37 at Sun Willows in Pasco, 5 kilometers)