“What’s your favorite beach?” I asked a fellow-Rhode Islander over the phone the other morning.
“Second Beach in Newport,” he said without hesitation.
“Woah–that’s unexpected,” I countered.
“Yeah, I’m not a ‘Gansett kid,” he replied.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because there are too many ‘Gansett kids.”
The ‘Gansett in question here is Narragansett Town Beach, which is pretty much the Holy Grail of Rhode Island beaches. Anyone who’s anyone is posted up there near their specific lifeguard chair of choice as much as possible for the duration of summer.
So those two short quips, “yeah, I’m not a ‘Gansett kid…because there are too many ‘Gansett kids” struck a chord. They exemplified the distinctiveness of DJ Principe, the high school senior I was on the phone with. Even without an atypical beach choice, Principe has certainly succeeded in setting himself apart from the crowd, not just in Rhode Island, but on a national level.
The Stanford-commit currently holds the U.S. #1 high school time over 3000 meters, from a race where he ran 8:16.6 completely on his own, with the second-place finisher coming in almost 45 seconds after him in a time of 8:59. This fall, he won the Nike Cross Nationals Northeast regional cross country race, placing first with a course record of 15:18.0 at notoriously-challenging Bowdoin Park in Wappingers Falls, NY. But perhaps his most notable achievement is just how close he’s come to breaking the four minute barrier in the mile, multiple times. As of last weekend at the Prefontaine Classic, Principe is officially a two-time four flat miler.
The first time he ran 4:00.X was this January at the New Balance Games, in New York.
“I wasn’t expecting to run four flat in that race. I had already PRed a few weeks prior, running 4:04, so I was thinking 4:02 or 4:01 would’ve been really good, and then all the sudden I’d run four flat,” Principe reflected.
Heading out to Eugene for the Pre Classic this Spring was a different story. Principe was very aware this time around that “the main goal was definitely to run under four minutes.”
He had run at Hayward during an exhibition high school mile at last summer’s Olympic Trials. It was after running 4:07.66 in that race that he conceded it might be time to start considering himself a miler.
“Throughout all of high school, I’ve had it in my head that I’m just not a miler. I’d always been a little bit on the smaller side, height-wise and I’ve just always thought, the longer the distance the better off I am. But then, in the last year and a half or so, I’ve grown quite a bit. At the Olympic Trials, when I ran 4:07, that was the first time I ever considered myself to have a pretty good mile race. That was the first time I really thought, ‘Hey, if I focus and train for it, I could definitely get after a four minute mile.’”
So he arrived in Eugene last weekend to do just that. After being less than a second away from breaking four at a January indoor meet in New York, which would have put him in league with Alan Webb and Drew Hunter as one of only three high schoolers to ever break 4:00 indoors, Principe knew what was at stake.
“I think with a lot of kids running close to sub four, the conversation has become, ‘Is that no longer the standard? Is it just that people are getting faster, and sub 4 is no longer the accomplishment? Is it 3:58 that’s now what’s really hard for high schoolers to run?’ I still say that that’s not necessarily true and I think this year’s a great example. We’ve had three guys, myself included, going after it, and we haven’t gotten it yet. This was basically my third time trying to run sub four minutes. One of my friends Cooper Teare has tried twice, Sam Worley came pretty close as well. But we just haven’t gotten it. It is absolutely a barrier that is very hard to break through.”
The night before the race, Principe had a nice Italian dinner of chicken parmesan as per the LaSalle Academy boys track and field team’s slightly superstitious tradition. He did a short shakeout run the next morning, grabbed breakfast at the hotel, and listened to music throughout the day.
When it came time to line up next to some world-class elite and professional athletes for his race, Principe was, understandably, feeling a little nervous.
“My biggest fear was just that there were a lot of very fast people,” he says. “I knew the race was going to be won somewhere around 3:51, or 3:50 and I was nervous that I would be left to the back of the pack, basically running alone. You come out to these meets to try and take advantage of the field, but if the field is too fast, then it sort of works against you a little bit.”
And as the race played out, it seemed like maybe that was what was happening. Principe let the leaders go almost immediately and sat at the back for the majority of the race. But, he never fell completely off the back, even if he was far from being in contention to win, or place. In fact, Principe really never fell off the pace he was looking for.
He came around the bend onto the final straightaway, and remembers feeling that, “with 200 meters to go I still thought I had it, all I had to do was really crank out the last 200 meters and I thought I’d be able to dip under, but you know, these last three races going after it, I’ve realized it’s not actually that easy to get moving in the last 200 meters.”
Principe crossed the line unsure of what his exact time was. Sprinting to the finish, he ended the race and immediately looked up to the scoreboard, watching the clock and waiting for his name to appear.
“As the names started showing up and the times started getting higher and higher up in the 3:50s–like for instance, I saw a guy’s name pop up at 3:59.X and I knew I was probably a second behind him or so–I was like, ‘Oh. Well, didn’t get it this time either.’”
He ran that mile in 4:00.7, eight tenths of a second away from breaking the four minute mark. Although he’d been less than a second away from accomplishing his goal for that race, he had, in the process, set a 7-second outdoor track PR, and a .2 second PR overall.
Principe acknowledges that it was a frustrating result with just how close he came to achieving an extraordinary accomplishment but the graduating senior also has a good head on his shoulders about the outcome.
“My goal was to break 4 minutes, and I didn’t do that. At the end of the day, I still was able to run a PR. I got a chance to race against some of the greatest guys in the country – really in the world. So for me to try and make sure I take a step back and realize just what this weekend was is really important,” Principe explained.
Does he think he’ll have another shot to crack four minutes anytime soon?
Well, his next step is to simply focus on competing at the Rhode Island Outdoor Track and Field State Championships on June 3. He expects to contest the 800, 1500 and 3,000 meters to score some points for his team, which took home the state title in 2015 and finished runner-up last year.
After that, he’ll race the Brooks PR Invitational on June 18th in either the mile or the two mile.
“Isn’t it tempting to keep chasing a sub-4 mile, now that you’re so close to it?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, absolutely, when you get under that barrier as a high schooler you are talked about in a group of names–people who are so impressive–that it’s really unlike anything else. And to think of just sort of leaving my mile PR where it is, so close to being in that conversation, definitely makes me tempted to try and get that PR a little bit faster,” he responded.
While Principe recognizes that he does still have some time to break four minutes as a high-schooler, he also knows he doesn’t want to let that drive consume him.
“Sometime during the middle of the summer is when the transition date from being considered a high schooler to being a collegiate athlete happens,” Principe says. “I’m not too sure what I’m going to do to be honest. We’ve looked at some meets for after the season, and there’s not a whole lot that we see. I really don’t want to get too involved in chasing the time, if it happens, fantastic, but at the end of the day, breaking four minutes isn’t the end goal for me. I’m concerned with making sure that I’m getting ready for college and starting to transition over into that side of things and I don’t really want to prolong my season too much.”
It’s this kind of rational, reasonable thinking, along with his propensity to adapt to whatever is thrown at him that has allowed Principe to steadily improve. He also credits his father, for encouraging him to not take things too seriously too quickly and to explore other sports throughout middle school. Principe played basketball up to about 8th grade and practiced karate for a while when he was younger. This could mean that he’s not in danger of burning out from running. It’s also not exactly like Principe came completely out of nowhere.
LaSalle Academy and its coaches Bill Meyers, Ken Skelly, and Vinn McGinn have been churning out national-caliber athletes for more than a few years now. In 2015, a LaSalle DMR team without Principe on it placed first at Penn Relays. They’ve had multiple athletes win All-American distinctions and the team won the NXN Northeast Regional Cross Country meet in 2014. The team is no stranger to success and head track and field coach Vinn McGinn noted that Principe had set his sights on being a part of the LaSalle roster.
“[Principe’s] dream was to go to LaSalle, be the dominant runner in Rhode Island, then go to Stanford,” McGinn says. “He is an exceptional athlete and a student of running history and strategy. He’s someone who sees limitations and says ‘screw that’, then finds new limits.”
And once at LaSalle, Principe definitely flourished under the disciplined, focused culture of the team and its work-ethic. “I had a great group of leaders when I was a freshman, and they worked really hard to try and transition the program over into taking things more seriously. They established a mentality that going out and competing for state championships and traveling to all these high-level meets is more fun than playing gutterball on regular run days.”
The program’s culture is pervasive; extending just as vigorously to the women’s side of things, spearheaded by head cross country coach Kelly Martin there. The men’s and women’s LaSalle teams both traveled to Nike Cross Nationals in 2014, after the women placed third at regionals and received an at-large bid. The women’s team’s 8th state title this past Fall made them the most successful program in the state’s history, and at the 2015 Indoor Nationals meet, the men’s and women’s teams swept the 4xMile event. [Full disclosure: this was my high school team, so I guess I should apologize for the semi-tangential bragging.]
This is all to say that, Principe has developed into the runner he is with open eyes. The success of both programs at LaSalle means that he hasn’t necessarily had the opportunity to be a pure underdog. But, even for an experienced runner like Principe, the four-minute mile mark is not taken lightly.
“I’ve never felt quite like I have running four minutes…you’re on the ground, feeling pretty bad for at least 25 minutes afterwards,” Principe says. “So it is absolutely a barrier that I think is appropriately talked about. And yes, I think there is a pretty good amount of pressure, too. It’s tough when you go into a race and four minutes is the only goal you have in mind. It’s not an easy goal to have.”