When Issac Castro was in middle school, he wasn’t sure he was going to be much of a runner.

Neither were his parents. In fact, he asked them once if they thought he had a chance to be good at running, and they told him not really because he ran “weird” as a little kid.

He didn’t know he ran weird, though; he just wasn’t very successful in middle school.

Then high school hit and he started running with quality upperclassmen who pushed him to do well. Quality tutelage paid off.

As a freshman, he placed 24th at the Class 4A state championship in Wamego. A year later, he returned to the same site and improved to ninth.

Now a junior, Castro finished second at the 4A race in Wamego on Nov. 1, running the challenging and hilly course in 16:25.00.

That’s 51 seconds better over the same course in just a year.

The accomplishment, and his season-long success, has earned Castro The Garden City Telegram’s Runner of the Year award.

But it’s not an anomaly; Castro knows why he ran so well, and it’s not something he takes for granted.

“I guess it’s just from running more in the offseason, like during the summer going on more runs in the mornings,” he said. “We’d all get together and go out on easy runs. Then during the season coach Rod (Nick Rodriguez) changed up some of the workouts.”

Rodriguez gave them combinations of distance and speed workouts and threw in hill work, preparing them for the strenuous Wamego course that hosts state every year.

That is important for runners from this part of the state, Castro said. Though they have to drive out of town to find hills around Hugoton, they get in some quality training and speed work, which keeps them competitive.

It’s also why Hugoton runs at the Wamego Invitational each year, to prepare for the challenge of the state course. Castro won that meet this year, coincidentally in the same time he ran at state, 16:25.00.

If conditions had been slightly warmer at state, he thinks he could have bettered that time by a significant number.

It’s just another course now, he said.

“I feel super comfortable there,” he said. “Right now it’s my favorite course.

In just three years, Castro said, he has become a better runner both physically and mentally.

“During the workouts, even if I’m tired, I keep pushing myself,” he said. “My goal was to be top three at state, so my goal at workouts when I was tired, I would just push myself.”

If he slowed down in practice, he explained, he told himself that he wasn’t doing what it would take to reach his goals, and that would motivate him to change his attitude.

One time coach Rodriguez game him a 3-mile workout where each mile had to be run between 5:10 and 5:15 with no breaks.

“I think that’s what really gave me the confidence to be mentally tough because I did it. In my mind I wanted to stop; my legs would get heavy; I was super exhausted,” Castro said.

But he didn’t, because he knew that this would benefit him when he ran against other fast runners.

“I knew I could push myself and not just stop or slow down,” he said. “During that workout, I would just stay focused to push myself. Even though it was a hard workout, I did it.”

Afterwards, he said he felt terrible, but later, when he thought about what he had just done, it boosted his confidence.

“It helped knowing that I could run that fast,” Castro said. “It was the toughest workout I had all season,” but the dividends were worth it.

Being as good as he has become, Castro has had to learn how to run with a lead — a big lead.

Having a pace ‘Gator to follow helps him set a pace, but when he’s by himself, he said he finds ways to push himself, followed by stretches of cruise control, with a big kick at the end, running for time.

Running against top runners in regular-season meets would be a blessing, he said, but too often that hasn’t been the case.

“A lot of times, it’s just another easy workout,” he said.

Every day he eats breakfast, and he doesn’t drink pop, he said. It makes him feel better and he knows it’s a key to being successful.

He and some teammates ran at the Nike Heartland Regional race in South Dakota a week after state, and Castro ran a 16:16 against quality competition, placing third out of 575 runners.

That personal best time against good runners might gain him some notice.

Rodriguez said Castro “has been a great young guy to coach.

“He always looks to challenge himself each and every day. I am very fortunate to be his coach.”

What’s next for the junior? After next season, Castro wants to get even faster and get colleges to notice him, perhaps even a D-1 school here in Kansas.

Not bad for a guy who used to look “weird” when he ran.

Favorite Athletes: Galen Rupp and Leo Manzano

Favorite Food: My mom’s hamburgers

Favorite Class in School: Weights (makes me a better athlete)

People I Most Admire: My parents

Favorite Pastime: Spending time with family and friends

Most Memorable Moment of the Season: Going on a trail run the day before state and getting lost

Season Highlights: Wamego Invitational champ (16:25); NXR Heartland, third place (16:16); Regional champ (16:17); League champ; state runner-up

Honors: 2014 league and regional champion, state runner-up; 2013 league and regional champion, 9th in state.