Pat Tyson considered the question — where does James Mwaura’s name belong among the greatest high school distance runners in national history?
He’s comparable to legends like Steve Prefontaine, Tyson says.
Prefontaine was a prep phenomenon in Coos Bay, Oregon, and became one of the most recognizable names in the country while he was Tyson’s roommate at the University of Oregon in the 1970s.
“James is very similar,” said Tyson, who will be Mwaura’s coach at Gonzaga. “If you put James back in 1969, when Pre was a senior (in high school), there’s no doubt in my mind they are almost replicates of each other.”
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In four years running for Lincoln High School, Mwaura won back-to-back Class 3A cross country titles his junior and senior seasons.
He won three more individual titles on the track — two straight in the 3,200, and another in the 1,600 to complete the elusive distance triple crown as a senior — and rose to the No. 1 ranking in the country in his final race in a Lincoln singlet.
Mwaura has made his name known on a national stage, he’s solidified his place in high school running history in Washington, and for these reasons, he is The News Tribune’s 2017-18 senior male athlete of the year.
“My coach told me I could be something really big one day,” Mwaura said. “I never thought it would be this big.
“Every time I ran, every time I got faster, it drove me to be better every single day, and be at the next level.”
Mwaura is considered by many to be the best high school distance runner Tacoma has every produced.
“To hear people say that is surreal,” he said. “Looking back to my freshman year, I never thought I would be this good.
“I knew I could run, but it’s amazing to me to be able to be considered that.”
Lincoln coaches Duane Lee and Andrew Fuller knew when Mwaura was a freshman they had a potential state champion.
Mwaura steadily climbed in the state rankings his first two seasons with the Abes, helping Lincoln win its first 3A track and field team title since 1977 as a sophomore.
“We knew we had a good team,” Lee said. “We knew we had a chance to win a state title, and the key to it was James.”
Mwaura notched podium finishes in the 1,600 and 3,200, giving the Abes crucial team points. He ran patiently, Lee said, knowing his time as an individual was coming.
“That’s when he really bought into what we were trying to do with him as an individual and as a team,” Lee said. “Right then we knew, OK, next fall he can be a state champion in cross country, he’s kind of got this figured out.”
Sure enough, Mwaura won his first cross country title the following November. He repeated last fall, obliterating the field with a personal-best time of 14 minutes, 48.3 seconds.
Mwaura was the only runner to break the tape in less than 15 minutes, and became the first cross country runner from Tacoma proper to ever win back-to-back state titles.
He finished the 2017 season ranked as the No. 4 cross country runner in the country by DyeStat.com.
“It seems the longer the race, the stronger he gets,” Lee said. “It’s a mental toughness. There’s a little phrase with distance runners — how much pain are you willing to accept?
“I think his threshold for pain is higher than I can imagine. He just gets in the zone.”
Mwaura won his first individual track title as a junior in the 3,200 by about 15 seconds.
In May, he ripped by Kennewick’s Johan Correa and Gig Harbor’s Peter Smith during the final lap of the 1,600 to win in a personal-best 4:08.52.
Two days later, in his final race for the Abes, Mwaura brought Mount Tahoma Stadium to its feet.
He ran a personal-best 8:46.87 in the 3,200, winning his final title, and breaking the all-time state meet record set by Mead’s Chris Lewis (8:50.65) in 1989.
“I felt pretty good that day,” Mwaura said. “The first lap felt pretty comfortable. After that, I kept hitting 65 (seconds), 66 and my coaches kept telling me to push through it.
“I just wanted to show what I can do, and show people I could actually beat that record.”
Mwaura set another standard in that race, too — the No. 1 time in the nation by a high school athlete during the 2018 season by nearly two seconds.
“Coming off of the home stretch, the crowd was already on their feet cheering for me,” Mwaura said. “It gave me the motivation to keep going a little bit faster.”
A fitting end to an illustrious high school career.
“He means a lot (to Tacoma),” Lee said. “We have a lot of pride in this city in our track and field history. …
“I had all these guys calling me up saying, ‘I hope he does fantastic.’ Everybody sees him running at Point Defiance. I think he means quite a bit to this community.”
Mwaura also had the top time in the nation in the 2-mile (8:48.76), No. 5 time in the 3,000 (8:21.8) and No. 12 time in the 1,600 (4:08.52) this year.
A week ago, he added another No. 1 time, running the ninth-best time in prep history in the 5K (14:00.42) at the Stumptown Twilight in Portland.
Runners like Galen Rupp (the record-holder at 13:37.91), Spokane’s Gary Lindgren and, of course, Prefontaine are among those just ahead of him.
“He ran the ninth-fastest time in American history,” Tyson said. “He’s right there knocking at the door of others in front of him that made Olympic teams.”
Tyson, also a Lincoln graduate, expects Mwaura to continue to thrive at Gonzaga. He’s a frontrunner, just like Prefontaine, setting the pace for others to chase.
“A lot of other coaches have said what they like about him is how soft he runs, and how fluid he runs,” Tyson said. “There’s natural efficiency in his stride.
“He’s not one that’s going to sit and kick. He’s a guy that says if they pace is slow, I’m going. There’s very few great runners in America in high school or college who have that ability to be a frontrunner.”
But Mwaura is certainly one of them. And his drive to push his own limits to get faster each day didn’t stop in Tacoma, and it likely won’t in Spokane.
“My dream is to hopefully make it to the Olympics once or twice, and run something amazing, honestly,” Mwaura said. “I want to be one of the best in the world one day.”
TNT MALE ATHLETES OF THE YEAR
Each year, based on recommendations from athletic directors and coaches, The News Tribune names its senior athletes of the year. The list below includes exceptional athletes in the South Sound from responding schools.