Spectators lined the hilly and twisted course while watching 176 runners compete for the Class AA cross country state title on Saturday, where Forest Lake senior Jacob Jankowski represented the Ranger boys’ program with a 14th-place finish.
“I felt good,” Jankowski said. “The race went really fast and that’s something you can’t control, but I stuck with it and kept my pace somewhat decent so I could finish strong.”
The 17-year-old ended his high school cross country career with a time of 15:53 on the 5K course at St. Olaf College. Jankowski’s final time proved how competitive the racing field was this season, as he finished in the same time as last year’s seventh-place finisher, Wayde Hall of Stillwater, who also claimed the state title on Saturday in 15:21.
“It was really good competition,” Jankowski said. “The winning time was a lot faster than last year, and I think overall the state of Minnesota has grown really strong as a running state. And that’s good.”
Jankowski was unable to compete at the state meet last year due to injury, but jumped 89 places from his 2010 appearance and dropped 1:18 off his time. As a top-25 finisher on Saturday, the senior earned All-State honors, the first for Forest Lake since Eric Pierce in 1994.
Saturday’s race also marked the third time this season that Jankowski finished under 16 minutes, a feat for the tough St. Olaf course, according to head coach Deno Johnson.
“Pretty much all of the runners in the top 25 were amped and ready to go,” Johnson said. “This is the fastest all-state field I’ve ever seen. Jacob had the trotting horses right behind him, but he held on and had a very good race.”
Four years after Jankowski laced up his first pair of Nike Zoom Waffle cleats, Johnson said he didn’t foresee Jankowski would soon become one of the top runners and athletes in the state.
“Looking into a crystal ball, no I would not have guessed the level of his success,” Johnson said. “But his story is a cool one from being just a small snot-nosed kid with humble beginnings to a total stud athlete.”
Jankowski got his start in Forest Lake with community education sports, where his parents told him he could pick one sport to play. As the third child of four boys for Jim and Gail Jankowski, he was more interested in a mainstream sport like football than his older siblings. That interest faded once he learned about cross country.
When Jankowski made the switch to distance running in eighth grade, Gail said she was concerned about the high school atmosphere.
“He was a little kid yet and not very developed yet so, as a mom, I worried,” Gail said. “But it was just a blessing and relief how accepting the cross country kids were and the parents were very welcoming. They really took him under their wings.”
While Jankowski admitted he wasn’t the most competitive runner his first year, he started to get the hang of it in ninth grade, before really taking off during his sophomore year when he grew accustomed to his lanky 6’1” frame. He earned a new personal record during the first race of the year by 50 seconds.
Jankowski’s personal record remained at 17:26 that sophomore season until the Suburban East Conference meet, where he ran in 16:26, setting a new Forest Lake sophomore record and earning 14th place in the conference at Falcon Ridge Golf Course. “That was at a time when, and Deno would say this too, All-Conference probably wasn’t a realistic goal for me,” Jankowski said. “So that was definitely my breakout race, and it was surprising but cool.”
Jankowski continued his success into junior year, where he broke another Forest Lake record for having the fastest 5K time in school history for the junior class at 16:04.
His 2011 season looked promising with a couple of runner-up finishes until the second-metatarsil stress fracture he’d battled since mid-season broke in the middle of the Blaine race, ending his cross country training until January of 2012.
After recovering and completing another successful track season for Forest Lake in the 800-meter, one-mile and two-mile races, Jankowski took time off to volunteer at a muscular dystrophy camp, then became sick with pneumonia, another training setback and “just bad luck.”
Jankoswki opened the 2012 season with second place at the River Falls Extreme Meet, where he said he learned a good lesson after getting outkicked in the final sprint, before earning his first top-place finish in cross country at the Rosemount 2-mile.
“It’s usually really good competition and I went in with the idea of winning, but it wasn’t guaranteed,” Jankowski said. “It was pretty exciting. My team was excited, the parents were excited, and my parents were proud of me. I was pumped, and I felt really supported as well.”
Jankowski went on to take first at the St. Francis Invite, place 19th out of 400 runners at the Roy Griak Invitational, then smiled when remembering how he defeated the No. 7 runner in state, Steven Cotter of Andover, during the homestretch at the section meet at Princeton just over a week ago for another first-place finish.
“I just remember people thinking I was angry after the race since I was grabbing and pulling at my jersey, but I was just celebrating,” Jankowski said, “It was just stress relief. I was overwhelmed and surprised that I pulled it off.”
After Saturday’s state meet, an exhausted-looking Jankowski sat down to remove his neon-green Forest Lake jersey and Nike Mutumbo Two’s, then put his face toward the sky.
After catching his breath and getting pats from current and former teammates who had come to watch him in the final race of the year, Jankowski said he accomplished what he came to do: leave it all on the course.
“I feel good, because I just wanted to make sure I gave it my all today,” Jankowski said. “I ran my entire season to the best of my ability.”
Johnson said later that Jankowski can be proud of the cross country season he had, and be able to look forward to the rest of his high school career in both nordic skiing and track. Jankowski is also looking to attend a Division I college for distance events next fall.
Not only is Jankowski a top runner/skiier combination athlete in the state and one of the best two-milers in track, but he’s a great person, according to Johnson.
“Jacob has been a real positive for this program,” Johnson said. “He’s just the all-american kid, very thoughtful, courteous and full of respect. And he can go far if he just keeps his nose to the grindstone. He is quite the athlete, this kid.”