This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Sawmills resident Gaden Nichols got up early the morning of June 1, made it to Hickory by 6:30 a.m., and ran 13.1 miles. With a time of two hours and 19 minutes, he finished third in his age division in the Charity Chase Half Marathon.

He wasn’t the only Caldwell County resident to run in the race, but there was something a little unusual about him. At 11 years old, he was younger than all the other participants in the race – more than 400 of them. He ran in the 11-14 age division.

“Every time I was passed by somebody, they were like, ‘Oh, you’re the youngest runner!’” said Gaden, who just finished fifth grade.  He trained for the race with Phillip Harkey, the P.E. teacher at Sawmills Elementary, who sponsors a running club at the school.

Gaden started running with the club just to try it – but he quickly realized he was good at it. When he continued to finish races at the front of the pack, Harkey asked him if he wanted to try a half marathon.

Training started just after spring break. While his friends were having sleepovers and collapsing in front of the TV after checking off their homework duties, Gaden ran. Tuesdays were 3-mile days, and Thursdays were for longer distances. Saturdays were for organized 5k races (five kilometers is about 3.1 miles).

He started the race with excitement, ready to see whether he could do it and how he’d finish. As the time drummed on, he started looking for mile markers. Halfway through, he said, he was “looking for the 12” – scanning markers for a sign that he was aboutu a mile away from being done.

Gaden’s mom, Kim Nichols, stood on the sidelines cheering him on. Once a runner herself, Nichols had hurt her knees and wasn’t able to run the race alongside her son.

“It’s a huge accomplishment, and it was a lot of practice and a lot of days where he couldn’t stay the night or couldn’t go to anybody’s house or couldn’t stay up late, because he had to be in bed for a race – had to stay rested, had to have protein shakes after every run,” Nichols said. “He did really well. We were super excited for him, and so proud of him.”

Though his mom is a former runner, it’s something else that pushes Gaden through runs, races and practices. Gaden is fiercely competitive, Nichols said.

For the half marathon, he singled out a competitor – a Sawmills Elementary alumna who had also trained with Harkey. He wanted to see if he could beat someone with the same training as him.

When the dust settled, he found out he had – by two minutes.

“Trying to win,” he said, “really motivated me.”

Now that he’s done his half marathon, Gaden will stick to 5k and 10k races – at least for a while. But a marathon isn’t totally off the table in the future, his mother thinks.

“That is a possibility,” Nichols said as Gaden shrugged. “He might.”