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Elco's Jared Harnish raises Raiders' bar

Elco cross country runner Jared Harnish ended a memorable senior season with a 16th place finish in states

The face that changed Elco boys cross country forever yields little.

Whether charging by competitors on a sun-glazed course or logging another day inside his father's machine shop, Jared Harnish is focused, often revealing nothing more than a singularity of mind. Most internal feelings, be they prideful, joyous, defeated or otherwise, are reserved for him.

But make no mistake, over his record senior season the stoic Harnish gave more than anyone close to the Raiders program could have imagined. Largely through unprecedented training begun in late June, the finest distance runner in Lebanon County this fall raised Elco's all-time bar by medaling with program-record times at the league, district and state 3.1-mile meets. His final high-school race on Nov. 8 captured 16th place in the PIAA Class AA state meet at Hershey's Parkview Course with a time of 16:39.

And the ripple effect of that run, as well as a fourth-place district race completed in a trim 16:13, will be felt for years to come. Harnish's long-time coach, Chuck Gerbrich, can attest.

"Some of the younger kids, they look at Jared as a hero. He's now a legend at Elco cross country," Gerbrich said. "There are a lot of good things going on right now because of what Jared did."

Not only Jared, but his primary trainer and older brother, Michael. A member of Elco's 2011 graduating class, the elder Harnish recently concluded his own stellar distance career breaking records at Lebanon Valley College and facilitated his brother's off-season training. Michael paced Jared with carefully designed 50-mile weeks, while the soon-to-be senior took rest days with roughly the same frequency of federal holidays.

In fact, save for doctor-mandated recovery after the removal of his wisdom teeth, Jared failed to lace up on only five days spanning from June through his last race in November. Both his rare desire and ability to run so continuously, Michael says, have been apparent for about as long as he can remember.

"I think I've known all along. When he was six-years old, he'd just run everywhere," he said. "And of all the runners I've seen in college, the good ones have something different. Jared has that determination that some people just don't have. That what really makes it special."

Arguably, those two qualities were the most integral pieces of Harnish's historic season, one that featured an steady evolution of expectations.

"What we started to see as the season progressed was that he was putting himself in a position to medal at states," Gerbrich said. "And then when he did it ..."

A silent smile has forced itself across Gerbrich's face, growing into a slight shake of the head. Pride wells.

What Harnish hides so well those closest to him seemingly cannot. Greatness always has a way of shining through, one way or another.

A family tradition

A dark-haired junior boy known throughout Lebanon County for his distance running has just shared a conversation with a pretty 3,200-meter runner during a track meet at Cedar Crest. The year is 1981, and the lives of Elco's Bryan and Sharon Harnish are about to change forever.

The eventual parents of Jared, Michael and the boys' only sister, Kayla, are not only certified high school sweethearts, but the undoubted foundation of their youngest's profound running career. Bryan ran as the Jared of the early 80s, setting and holding Elco program records until this past Halloween when Jared surpassed his last standing mark, a fifth-place finish at districts. Sharon's career, meanwhile, was more lighthearted. Or as her elder son puts it:

"She was just there to get a jacket," Michael laughs.

Now it's impossible to know if a younger Bryan had picked up a basketball rather than track spikes that his future sons' aspirations would've been more hardwood-oriented or led elsewhere. But there's no denying his running success set up a unique athletic career for Jared.

For akin to many sports, cross country carries its own vernacular, with participants referencing events or times by commonly understood abbreviations during meets and practices. But what most outsiders fail to understand, however, is that the sport's idiosyncrasies extend beyond verbiage and into the root of it competition. A runner's chief challenger is rarely ever his or her surrounding company during a given race.

It is instead one's current personal record or "PR." On the track, a runner is almost always racing his or her own ghost, hoping to shave past times down further and further. And yet Jared has never been alone with his own ghost, no matter where he runs.

For the youngest Harnish has always been following both his father and brother, a fact he was reminded of regularly in practice.

"I would always just look at him and say 'Jared, who's the fastest Harnish?'" Gerbrich said.

It was not until the 10th grade that Jared departed from his humble nature and default "I don't know" response, finally owning up to his talent and uncommon determination.


"I just didn't really think I'm the fastest," Harnish explained.

The undeniable growth over his sophomore season carried over into a junior campaign punctuated by his top finish in the 3,200-meter run at the county outdoor track meet. That race, Harnish said, served as the spark for his remarkable senior year. His father agrees.

"When he ran that basically by himself and won it, I knew something could happen," Bryan Harnish said. "The work was going to pay off at some point."

And it certainly did—more than anyone could have expected.

You can't catch that Elco kid

Harnish curls around a bend near the two-mile marker at this year's state tournament meet. His sides are in stitches. A warning is bellowed from behind:

"Jared, there's a lion behind you!"

The voice, which belongs to Gerberich, is intended to make Harnish go faster during the most crucial stretch of his last race. For when the same excruciating pain struck during the last hill of his district race, the young runner imagined himself being chased by a lion and mustered enough energy for a top-five finish.

But had the voice not belonged to his coach, another saying might have also done the trick:

"You can catch that Elco kid!"

The phrase, common to every cross country meet in the nation in one form or another, is one Harnish has taken serious exception to over the years.

"That motivates me most," he said.

When armed with such motivation, Harnish has managed to regularly render the saying useless through his favored strategy of hanging back for the first two-thirds of the race and then charging ahead over the last mile-plus.

For example, Harnish once trailed a single Warwick runner at the two-mile mark of a regular-season meet this fall, prompting Gerbrich to ask from afar if he was OK. Upon receiving an affirmative smile in reply, the coach commanded "Go!"

Within 200 yards, Harnish put his former leader in the rearview mirror by nearly 30 strides.

Such willingness to be coached almost comically proved costly in a separate meet, when Harnish, upon receiving word from his brother that the coast was clear approaching the finish line, nearly stopped dead before crossing. After the older Harnish then subsequently barked that stopping wasn't an option, Jared, exhausted, fired across for first place.

"When he's in a race, you can see that he can always do it," Michael Harnish said. "He'd push himself to the point where you feel awful seeing him."

Though Harnish's preferred tactics were off the table for the postseason, when he would be matched up against the best in the region. Consequently, Harnish adjusted, slicing nearly 30 seconds off his first-mile split at the Lancaster-Lebanon League meet during the first mile of the states race.

By finishing seventh at the L-L meet, Harnish trailed only runners from AAA schools, most of whom he had raced recently in Elco's final dual meet of the season. From that point, he continued to improve his first-mile times, ending with his best race of the year at a punishing Hershey course while personifying the element of cross country he appreciates most.

"I like beating what you can do. Seeing how much you can improve," Harnish said. "At that course, I've felt since my freshman year that it was really slow, and at the end you always get passed by a bunch of people. Now I cared a lot more about it, and I had been running every day."

Those final races of the season were no doubt emblematic of his highly successful year, but also his overall approach. While not blessed with pure breakaway speed, Harnish breaks his opponents down with an unmatched willingness and endurance.

"He uses the whole mile to start catching people," Bryan Harnish said. "He just keeps going."

What comes next?

Gerbrich is fighting back tears, and the tears are winning.

This next remark, for the father of another Elco long-distance legend, will be tough.

"If there's anyone I want to see break my kid's record," Gerbrich said, "it's him."

Gerbrich is mindful that the next step for Harnish, now completed with cross country, will be the track season, where he'll race in the 1,600 and 3,200-meter runs. Currently, Gerbrich's son, Drew, holds the 1,600 mark at 4:16, a record Harnish could certainly break in the coming months. And the 3,200 record, which falls closer to Harnish's heart, is within reach, as well.

Its currently holder is all too aware.

"He wants to bury my record," his father laughs.

In the meantime, the youngest Harnish dispels any notion he'll be running at the next level, despite once triumphantly telling his brother he'd be off to a Division I program when Michael headed to Division-III at Lebanon Valley. The plan is to continue working in his dad's shop following graduation, even while Temple, Stevens Tech and other programs currently come calling.

The one program Harnish may return to would be Elco, in the event the team gets together down the road for a special event. After this season, those Raiders have much to celebrate.

"He's changed the attitude of our program," Gerbrich said. "During the season, he gave the program expectations a boost. Kids want to medal at districts now. They saw it. They saw the excitement. And now it's can they be the next Jared?"

Given his litany of accomplishments, the short answer is no. But future Raider runners can now reach higher, run faster and grow into the best, humblest versions of themselves more so than ever before, now pushed by Harnish's raising of the bar.

And that may be his greatest gift of all.