Assistant Sports Editor
When Jon Polen settles into the blocks, places his fingers near the starting line and looks up, he doesn't see an obstacle-strewn straightaway. He sees tempo, with punctuation marks organized every 10 meters.
Hurdles don't present the deterrent for the Mount Anthony Union High School senior that they do for so many runners. They are the lure.
"There's just the rhythm and the pattern that goes through it that feels really good," Polen said. "There's definitely a lot of people that do [hurdles] that don't really like them or their coaches make them do it.
"When they do the hurdles it's like me running an open[-track] event."
Vermont's top hurdler for the past year, Polen has flirted with the state record in both the 55-meter hurdles (indoors) as well as the 110 meters (outdoors). As the reigning state champion -- and fourth in New England -- at both distances, he had been unbeatable in-state since taking third in the state as a sophomore.
Until last Saturday.
Mount Mansfield sophomore Alec Eschholz, until then the state's dominant performer in the 300-meter hurdles, put together a personal-best time of 15.54 seconds to edge Polen by 0.01 at the Burlington Invitational. By his own admission, Polen, whose personal-record of 14.71 is a tenth of a second off the 19-year-old state mark, ran a flawed race that left him stewing the rest of the day.
"I was not upset that I lost but more that I had a bad race and got caught up in trying to beat guys instead of just focusing on my race," Polen said. "I wasn't happy the rest of the day."
But the point was made. Even a so-so race can't guarantee a win this spring.
"That kid ran his best race and, at that point, Jon didn't," coach Kathleen Newton said. "You just have to go, ‘This is what it is. This is what I need to work on and where do I go from here.'
"The stakes are raised a little bit higher now," she said. "And I always feel like that's a good thing for a kid to realize."
Polen, who will run for Northeastern University next year, is the first Vermont boy since 2007 to hold the indoor and outdoor sprint hurdle crowns at the same time. If he goes on to repeat in the 110 meters this June, he will be the first to win in three consecutive track seasons in at least a decade.
And it's a streak that could be nearing a fourth leg -- or more -- if he took to indoor track sooner.
Since third grade, the 6-foot-2 Polen spent his winters as a hockey defenseman. In his last season, 2011-12, he played AAA Junior hockey for the CP Dynamo, based in Clifton Park, N.Y. That changed, though, when he started to think about what he wanted to do after Mount Anthony.
"I wanted to go run. I wanted to go hurdle," Polen said. "Hockey started in August so if I really wanted to run track in college I wouldn't have had time to go look at Northeastern and other schools and everything, do all the recruiting stuff."
"We did not pressure him because we thought hockey was his life. We were under the assumption that he was going to continue to play hockey," Newton said. "But then he came to [coach] Bob [Kurtzner] and said, ‘I think I want to do indoor.'"
But that's not to say hockey didn't leave its mark.
His coaches have noted his ability to rise for big competitions. He ran the 55 in 7.69 at a meet at the New York City Armory during the winter, coming within 0.01 of the Vermont record. He came close again at the New England championships with a 7.70.
And his hockey background forged an "aggressive mentality toward the hurdles," Polen said.
For Mount Anthony junior Nathaniel Durfee, who finished third in the 55 hurdles at the state meet in February, Polen is a training partner and a reference point.
"I'm catching up slowly. This is my first year, so I'm not as good as I could be yet, but he's definitely helping me," Durfee said.
"If Kurtzner said, ‘You're not doing this right,' he gets it right away. He always knows what he's supposed to be doing," Durfee said. "If we're supposed to do something new, he'll get it really quickly and I can see from him, which helps me get it faster."
Reflecting on the recent loss in Burlington, Polen showed perspective -- "It's kind of like each race I'm finding out more about a different part of the race that I've got to put together" -- about how to cope with the newfound speed he's carrying out of the blocks.
Looking to the future, he hopes to harness that speed. And smash the state record.
"14.2 [seconds] is the championship qualifier for Nationals ... I'd like to hit that," Polen said. "That'd be nice to hit. That's a good goal."