ROCKY MOUNT — Running in the Virginia High School League’s most competitive classification isn’t an easy task, but Franklin County senior Nathan Atchue has endured the terrain.
The Tennessee signee has won six individual Class 6 state titles. Last fall he won the Class 6 boys cross country meet with a time of 15:43, becoming the first Timesland runner to win an individual state cross country championship in the VHSL’s largest enrollment division since Cave Spring’s David Garlow won the Group AAA title in 1980.
“The competition is better, but I’ve also been getting better,” Atchue said.
Atchue’s domination of Class 6 started with a win during his junior year at the state indoor track and field championships. He won the 1,600 meters in 4:11.19
“I told myself, ‘You’ve ran against the top guys and now you are one of the top guys. See what you can do and try to win,” he said.
People are also reading…
During the outdoor season last year, he won the Class 6 state titles in the 1,600 (4:11.51) and 3,200 (9:14.5).
During the indoor season this year, Atchue looked to do something no Franklin County athlete had done prior: win the 1,000 and 3,200 meters at the same indoor state championship meet.
Franklin County cross country and distance coach Chris Williams said he told Atchue that doing both events might not be possible because of the short break in between.
Atchue wanted to challenge himself and ran both events, with about a two-hour break in between each race. Even with the short break, Atchue won the 1,000 (2:27.51) and 3,200. He broke the meet record in the 3,200 with a time of 9:15.57.
“Sometimes I challenge him to see if he can prove me wrong,” Williams said.
Williams said Atchue is the best runner in Franklin County High School history.
“There’s nobody compared to him. Not even close,” Williams said. “The 11 years I’ve been coaching, there’s not been a distance runner come through this school that has the kind of drive. Not only did he want it, but he put in the work to get it.”
Atchue’s hard work and dedication earned him Division I partial scholarship offers from Tennessee, Oregon, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Colorado.
A visit to Knoxville
Atchue had been communicating with Sean Carlson, who is Tennessee’s head coach and director of cross country and distance events, since late June.
Carlson was hired to lead the Vols men’s and women’s cross country and distance program in early June after working with Notre Dame’s track and cross country program for 10 years.
“Right when I got to Tennessee, [Atchue] was one of the first guys that we really started reaching out to,” Carlson said.
Carlson said he was impressed with Atchue.
“We watched videos of him running and his form and how smooth he looked,” Carlson said. “Then we [started] getting to know his personality. Then once we started talking on the phone, I just knew he would be a really good fit for our program culturally.”
After about three months of communicating, Atchue went on an official visit in September.
But unlike the other 15 recruits there, he was the only one visiting without a parent.
“I went without them since on the Colorado visit, it was only three other recruits and I was the only one with a parent there,” Atchue said.
With his parents not with him on the Tennessee visit, he had plenty of time to hang out with his potential future teammates.
“Every single guy on our team was like, ‘This is somebody we’ve gotta have here,’” Carlson said. “He fits us culturally, what we’re trying to build. He’s just a great kid and so it was just a really easy process. He wanted to be great.”
Tennessee was ranked third in NCAA Division I men’s outdoor track and field in the national coaches poll Monday. The Tennessee men finished 11th at the NCAA indoor championships this year and took 20th at the NCAA cross country championships last fall.
“Eventually Nathan’s gonna grow into being one of our top guys here at Tennessee and helping create this tradition of distance running here,” Carlson said. “He wanted to be a part of a program that he can build into one of the best programs in the country.”
Atchue said his visit sold him on wanting to run for Tennessee. He verbally committed on Sept. 17, which is his father’s birthday, and signed in November.
Atchue’s gotten better through intense endurance training that has helped prevent injuries and fatigue during long races. He runs about 70 miles a week to make sure that he’s at his peak performance.
Atchue burns about 3,200 calories a week to help maintain a body fat percentage of 5.
“He’s on a really good track for freshmen coming in,” Carlson said. “A lot of freshmen are coming in aren’t always in maybe the best spot and he’s gonna be in probably a spot that’s better than most.”
Atchue said that to win individual state championships he has had to practice no matter the weather, even if there was a heavy downpour or if it was extremely hot. His love for running has helped push him.
“It’s peaceful,” Atchue said. “You don’t really need a skill to do it. You need hard work, talent and dedication, but it’s not catching a ball, throwing a ball or kicking a ball.”
Carlson said Atchue might redshirt his freshman year because of the athletic gap between high school and Division 1 cross country and track and field. In high school, cross country runners run a 5K race, while in college they run a 10K race.
“The goal is to prioritize his long-term development and make sure that we keep him healthy and keep him progressing in the right direction so that over time he can be one of the best distance runners in NCAA,” Carlson said.