Healdsburg’s Jack Vanden Heuvel turns in record-setting senior season on track

“A lot of people were casualties of COVID,” the runner’s coach said. “Jack was the opposite of that.”|

The wasted miles, the months of disappointment, the bouts of frustration and bitterness gave way, for Jack Vanden Heuvel, to a kind of numbness.

“I just remember not caring” about running, said Vanden Heuvel, a Healdsburg High School senior who is one of the most talented cross country and track and field athletes in Sonoma County history. For much of his junior and senior years, the COVID-19 pandemic eclipsed those gifts.

“Things just got so dark, there was nothing to train for, no reason to work so hard,” recalled Vanden Heuvel, who will graduate, along with his class, on Friday. “I lost all motivation for a while.” Normally a straight-A student, his school work suffered, too. “I didn’t know if I was going to end up going to college.”

He’d run so fast as a sophomore: 1:59 in the 800 meters, 4:27 in the 1,600 — blazing times for a 10th grader. And he had range. A beast in 5k cross country races, he’d also flashed promise in the 400 meters. It would be fun to watch the kid develop, to see where he ended up in the firmament of Redwood Empire track stars.

But the virus wiped out much of his junior and senior seasons, making a mockery of the goals Vanden Heuvel had set for himself as a freshman: to “break a bunch of school records,” and earn a scholarship to run in college.

The darkness began to lift for him in December. He started training with a club team called the Peninsula Flyers, founded by Greg Fogg, the longtime coach of cross country and track and field at Maria Carrillo High School. With high school teams shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions, Fogg started the club to provide some local runners with a venue for training.

Running with the Flyers was “exactly what Jack needed to keep him afloat,” said Kate Guthrie, Vanden Heuvel’s coach at Healdsburg. Those sessions stoked his “hunger,” and reignited “his competitive fire.”

With no track meets in California due to COVID-19 restrictions, Vanden Heuvel flew to Texas in March for a meet against some of the nation’s fastest schoolboys. Having missed virtually all of his junior season, he’d barely competed on the track in two years. He had no idea what to expect. Realistically, he hoped to lower his personal best from 4:27 into the low 4:20s.

Vanden Heuvel wasn’t sure of his time until his fellow Peninsula Flyer, Jacob Donohue of Maria Carrillo, practically tackled him in the infield, screaming “FOUR SEVENTEEN!” His time of 4:17.18 lopped 10 seconds off his personal best and broke Tim Quiroga’s 16-year-old Healdsburg High record by 2 seconds.

And Vanden Heuvel was just getting started. At an invitational meet a week later, in Arizona, he lowered his own record by 2 more seconds, an effort that left him “throwing up in the infield,” he recalled with a grin.

Back in Arizona on April 10, he took the start for his first 800 meter race in a year. Five hundred meters in, he’d drifted to the middle of the pack. Vanden Heuvel was in 7th place when he opened up his stride on the backstretch, picking off runner after elite runner until only one remained in front of him. With 150 meters to go, his father, Chris, shouting “Catch him!” from the bleachers, Jack was still 30 feet behind the leader but closing. Summoning a supreme effort, he out-leaned his opponent at the line.

Vanden Heuvel’s winning time of 1:55:14 broke the previous Greyhound record of 1:55:16, set by Tim Murphy in 2006. It was also, according to RedwoodEmpireRunning.com, just over a half-second faster than the 1:55.54 run by Santa Rosa High School’s Ben Vanden Heuvel — Jack’s uncle — in 1995.

It also confirmed what Guthrie had seen in him as a raw freshman who had a ton of talent but no idea how to pace himself. “It was clear early on that, in addition to his physical abilities, he had the mindset of a true competitor. He knows he can always do better.”

But the kid was a little snakebit. After his freshman cross country season, he broke an ankle playing pickup hoops, and missed spring track. Primed for a breakout cross-country performance in the fall of his junior year, he fell ill a week before the North Coast Section championships in Hayward. Despite being bedridden with fever for three days before the meet, he pleaded with his parents to run. They relented. “Not our best parenting decision,” allowed his father, the superintendent of Healdsburg Unified School District.

At the end of that race Jack collapsed, gasping, and informed his father that he was having trouble breathing. At the emergency room, they learned that Jack had pneumonia.

He’d run some fast times, “but I always thought I had more,” said Vanden Heuvel. For a grim year, it appeared that the pandemic would deprive him of opportunities to do so.

But he found the Peninsula Flyers, and hit his stride again. “A lot of people were casualties of COVID,” Fogg said. “Jack was the opposite of that. He was bound and determined to prove something this season.”

Vanden Heuvel harnessed his anger and frustration over the disruption caused by the virus, Fogg believes. “He ran with a big chip on his shoulder, and it served him well.”

College coaches took note. Vanden Heuvel had significant interest from Baylor, and partial scholarship offers from UC San Diego and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In the end he selected Westmont College, a small, liberal arts school near Santa Barbara. Grateful to be awarded academic and athletic scholarships by the school, Vanden Heuvel is also looking forward to training with teammate Zola Sokhela, a Westmont freshman and South African national who recently won both the 800- and 1,500-meter races at the NAIA Outdoor National Championships in New Orleans.

“Obviously Zola will be ahead of me,” said Vanden Heuvel, “but it’ll be good to someone to have my eyes on, someone who can push me. It’s going to be really fun.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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