Alex Poyhonen insists that when he lines up at the start of a race, he isn’t thinking about his time or setting personal records. His sole focus is beating each and every one of the other runners on that starting line to the finish, and so far, he has done reasonably well attaining that goal.
“Time really doesn’t make any difference to me, because my goal is just to win the race,” Poyhonen said. “If I win the race, I think the time will take care of itself. The most important thing is going out to do my best and get the win.”
Poyhonen, a junior at La Jolla Country Day, is not only the Torreys’ top runner, but one of the most competitive Division III runners in San Diego County, and his mature approach to a complicated sport is a big reason why. Already with two CIF State meet appearances under his belt, he is seeking to build this season on his prior success.
Country Day coach Scott Sanders has seen a lot of runners come through his program, but he thinks Poyhonen is something special. He sees enough potential in the junior that he predicts his improvement of nearly a minute last year at the state meet - Poyhonen ran the 3.1-mile course in 17 minutes, 38 seconds as a freshman and clocked a 16:42 last year - was no fluke.
“He’s the kind of kid who really follows the sport more than some of his contemporaries,” Sanders said. “He has sort of bought into the sport and is looking at it being a big part of his future.
“I think the experience of going to the state meet his freshman year as an individual made him really hungry and made him want to go as a team, which we did last year. Last season, he had the advantage of having run there, and I think it will give him a huge edge this year.”
The Torreys are off to a strong start as a team and are hoping to make a return trip to the state meet. After Poyhonen, sophomore Dennis Roth has put up some strong results, and sophomore Alex Fleischhacker is close behind. Sophomores Jason McCallum and Vinny Pujji, and freshmen Lee Klitzner and Phillip Poyhonen (Alex Poyhonen’s brother) fill out a lineup that is strong from the first position to the seventh. “I think the whole team’s going to have a great year,” Alex Poyhonen said. “Everybody has improved by about 30 seconds in all their races, so I feel really confident about this team.”
The team’s success starts with the example Poyhonen sets, and judging by his offseason workouts, the Torreys should be in excellent shape.
Poyhonen is a three-sport athlete at Country Day, playing defense for the Torreys’ boys soccer team and running the 1,600 meters and 3,200 for the track team, so most of his training for cross-country is done during the summer. This summer, he said he started by running 20 miles a week and peaked at 45-50 miles a week.
“I think all the training will definitely help me throughout the season,” he said. “You have to build a base before you can do the speed work.”
Poyhonen also attended a summer running camp at Pepperdine University in Malibu, where he met some of the world’s best distance runners and also learned training methods and racing tactics that he hadn’t been exposed to previously.
Those tactics opened his eyes and helped him realize that winning a three-mile race isn’t about going out as fast as you can and holding on to the finish. He learned that there are different ways to approach a race, and there are different strategies that can work to a runner’s advantage and to the disadvantage of opponents.
“As a freshman and sophomore, I had a problem with starting out too hard, but the camp taught me that you waste energy when you’re leading,” Poyhonen said. “We learned a tactic called ‘blind surges,’ where when you go around a corner, you take 10 quick steps to separate yourself from your opponent. There were just little things, but I’ve already used them this year.”
Poyhonen said he’ll remain a three-sport athlete but expects to focus his efforts on cross country with the goal of running in college.
For now, he has his sights set on the team goals of winning the Coastal League South, the Coastal Conference and the CIF San Diego Section Division III race and the individual aspirations of placing as high as possible in all three of those events and improving his time at the state meet.
Sanders thinks Poyhonen is well equipped to lead the Torreys to a strong season while also chasing personal goals.
“As a coach, it’s great to have a kid like Alex,” Sanders said. “Boys are very competitive, so they’re constantly trying to catch him, and he sets the bar high.”