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Interval Session #63 - Zach Ornelas

By SteveU - September 4, 2008

Unless you are a serious Texas, New York (or for that matter, AAU) track fan, you can be forgiven for watching the NSIC 5000 meters last March and wondering, “Who the heck is that kid from Texas?”

A 15:07.49 indoor 5k, good for 2nd, wasn’t bad for a junior, especially one that was only 7th at the Texas 4A (not the biggest class) state meet the previous fall and 39th at Foot Locker South.  But what is a distance runner from the Lone Star State doing in the NSIC 5000 anyway?  Well, it turns out Zack Ornelas is from just about everywhere and New York was a homecoming of sorts, back to the place where he ran his first two years and got part of the foundation that has led to his success since.  He’s a self-proclaimed “Army brat,” and his dad, Drew Ornelas, has settled his family in nine different places in the process of serving the country and making four combat tours.

The difference for Ornelas this winter and spring was increasing his mileage, staying consistent, and getting settled in at Vista Ridge HS in Cedar Park TX.  With an attitude to have fun in national meets, he ran a 9:11 deuce to complete a strong double in New York.  At NON, long after his state meet, he was 2nd in the 5k (14:56), then two days later took the 2k steeplechase title in 5:54.58.  A long-time AAU participant, he took a break from his base-building to win the same barrier race there this summer, too.

Now, with several strong runners vying to fill the void of Colby Lowe’s graduation in Texas, and leap onto the national stage, Ornelas is looking for big improvements in cross-country and getting ready for college beyond.  Dyestat Senior Editor SteveU endures the Austin TX heat to catch up with the versatile distance runner as the harrier campaign dawns.
1) You had a pretty solid season-opener in tough conditions last weekend.  Tell us about the race and how you’re feeling about your fitness right now.

Thank you.  We had our meet at Zilker Park in downtown Austin and it was just a 3-miler.  But running in August in Texas is never really fun; the temperature was in the upper 90s and humidity was way up there, too.  I took it fairly easy, first mile 4:50, then shut it down to a 5:00 and 5:19 (won in 15:09).  I felt grea,t especially for having done no real speed work going into the meet.  The best part of the meet was our team did very well especially for our first meet against 5A schools (we move into 5A this year).

2) The word is you’re heading out to visit some schools in the upcoming weeks.  What are the schools you’re planning to visit and what are you looking for out there?

We were on the ball this summer with planning out the whole college thing, and we decided on five unofficial visits (though that doesn’t mean that those are the only five I will look at.).  I am going to visit Syracuse, University of Portland, University of Michigan, Purdue, and University of Kansas.  I am looking for a school with coaches that can help me reach the best of my abilities in the steeplechase, somewhere that I will meet lots of people and enjoy college, and somewhere with great places to run!

3) You’ve definitely got one of the more interesting stories as far as your family background and where you’ve lived … and how it’s all wound up with you racing at Vista Ridge TX.  Can you give us the Reader’s Digest version (but don’t leave out any interesting highlights … LOL)?

Haha, yeah, I've had a pretty interesting childhood.  I'm an Army brat, so I've never really gotten to experience one place being considered my “home.”  Although it's tough sometimes, I think it's allowed me to become more cultured and meet lots of people and have friends all over the country.  We've lived in Washington, Arizona, Georgia, New Mexico, Kansas, Upstate New York twice, and Texas twice.  I spent my freshman and sophomore years in New York, and then found out halfway through 10th grade that I would be going back to Texas for the second time (I lived there from 4th-7th grade). 

We chose Vista Ridge because it is in a great area, I knew one of the runners from AAU meets as a younger kid (a 2-time state champ Ashley Isham), and the program already had a pretty good reputation in the area.  My dad drives 50 miles to work every day just so we can go here (because the schools around the base are pretty much football, football, football), and I’m very grateful for that.  I really like it here, but I have to admit New York is my favorite place that I have lived.

4) Can you tell us about the program at Vista Ridge and your coaching situation?

The program is great.  Our coach takes care of us and makes sure we are getting our work done, and the whole team is like one big huge family.  We do everything together and they are a great group of kids.  I trust in my coach’s workouts as they have brought my PRs down from 4:28/9:35/15:18 and 6:18 steeple, all the way to 4:17/9:11/14:56 and 5:54, in one year!

I’d like to send shout-outs to my teammates Justin Weise and Amanda Russell, for training with me and putting up with me for countless hours this summer (and to “The Playground,” too).

5) You had an eventful junior year, with some great races at NSIC, Great Southwest, NON, summer track, etc. … Can you sum up how you felt about your national experience last year and how it progressed?

It was unbelievable; I still cannot believe that I did some of those things since the year before I was barely a medalist in the small school division steeplechase race in New York.  I've found that I've always been able to run at my best at post-season track meets, even off of lower mileage, and even the absence of speed work – since at that point it’s all in good fun and the pressure is kind of less than it would be if I was in a meet scoring points for my team.  I always try to have fun at every big meet, and no matter how I do, I enjoy the experience.

6) Not too many people knew about you nationally after XC, but you really started coming on, it seems, in track.  Were there some things you did differently in training or racing to improve over the winter and become a player on the national scene?

Well, I was looking back at my training logs from last year to get things ready for this year, and to correct any mistakes, and I realized I didn’t pay too much attention to the consistency of mileage that I was running.  For example, one month's weekly mileage totals might look like this: 55, 47, 62, 50. 

So over the winter (if you can call it that in Texas, its really more like pre-spring, or the rainy months), I really focused on being more consistent.  February through March, I was between 55 and 65 the whole time and that really carried me through the rest of my season.  I have gotten a great summer of base mileage in so far, and if I can keep things nice and consistent this season, hopefully I can produce some very good results.  We'll see.

7) Obviously, you’ve made your biggest mark in the steeplechase in track.  Can you tell us how you came to get into that event and how you felt when winning the NON steeple last spring?  Did you definitely go into the race with a goal to win, or were you just hoping to place high and run fast, with winning a happy surprise?

Well, during my freshman year my coach told me "Ornelas, you'll get hurt trying to run the thing.  Maybe I'll let you try next year.”

So I kept him to his word and sophomore year, at a pre-season steeple meet in early spring, he told me this was my one chance and if I got hurt or didn't like it, I would not have another.  So I took it out hard from the gun (maybe a little too hard) and ran 10:02 for 3k steeple in my first try ever.  It was then I fell in love with the race and decided that was what I wanted to do. 

By the end of the season, I got down to 9:43 and 6:18 (2k steeple).  Then this year, off of less steeple-specific training, I got even better.  But I think the key to my success this year was core/strength workouts.  Until I came to Vista Ridge, I never did anything like that, and those really help in a strength race like the steeple.  I think I can cut a few more seconds off my time if I work on my form; I'm still a little clumsy.

8) Also heard that you were racing your national-level meets in track off a summer-base you were already starting.  Can you tell us more about that game plan in detail?

After state in Texas, which is pretty early, I took a full week off of no running.  Then I just ran easy mileage (about 30-35 per week) going into Nike, and then took two weeks off before starting my real summer base.  So AAU Junior Olympics was just for fun and it was my last one.

We went because I owe a lot to AAU.  It was at their meets that I gained lots of valuable experience as a kid.  I think the organization is good for our sport and helps at least keep kids in shape when they could be doing worse things.  I found out, though, that doing that easy running after a long tough season of racing allowed me to get the much-needed rest and recover well enough to race some of the best at Nike and such – so I am very glad I chose to do that.

9) There’s a big void at the top of Texas XC and track with Colby Lowe graduating.  You were 7th in 4A last fall, a ways behind first and the 5A top dogs.  What are your goals for Texas this fall and then in the national meets beyond?  Are you planning to go the Foot Locker route, or maybe running the NXN meets now that individuals can run?

Colby definitely left some big shoes to fill and I know all the top dogs in Texas right now are fighting for that spot.  I can promise you that we will definitely produce some national-caliber runners that have been in Colby's shadow.  This fall I would like to do much better than my showing at state last year, and remain injury free (I pulled my calf muscle 800m into the race last year simply due to not stretching enough all season and my calf getting knots in it). 

My overall goal since the start of high school has been to make it to Foot Locker, but I like the sound of the new NXN too.  I will make my decision based on where the top runners go.  I want to be at the true national championship, so I can be satisfied with how I do and not have the thought in the back of my head: "Well, sure I did well here, but would I have gotten smoked at the other meet?"  I do hope that most people decide to stay at Foot Locker, though, to keep that meet going..

Photos by John Dye (top, winning NON steeple), and John Nepolitan (bottom, 2nd at NSIC 5000)

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