Sheer speed was Dan McCarthy’s childhood athletic ambition.
“Ever since I was in first and second grade it was always about who was the fastest kid on the playground, so I was always running,” the Bangor High School sophomore said. “I’d run next to the car when my mom was driving, so I could see how many miles an hour I was going.”
Yet McCarthy never competitively ran a distance longer than 400 meters until joining the Rams’ cross-country team as a freshman in 2018 after playing soccer through his middle school years.
Barely 14 months later, he not only leads Bangor’s varsity pack, but he also is now among the state’s best after a runner-up finish at the recent Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions in Belfast.
“I’ve always liked to be the fastest, that’s kind of been my thing,” McCarthy said. “I’m really competitive with that, but I never thought I would be able to take it to this level.”
McCarthy, who entered the Festival of Champions unbeaten in team competition this fall, completed the 5-kilometer race in 15 minutes, 41.72 seconds. That not only marked a personal best by 26 seconds and his first sub-16-minute 5K, but it also was less than nine seconds behind race winner Will Shaughnessy, a senior from Brunswick High School.
“Of all the runners in the field I was scared of him the most, for sure,” said Shaughnessy, who paced the 989 boys finishers in the event with his time of 15:32.86. “I respect him a lot. He’s had big improvements this year. He’s looked really strong in other meets. I was definitely worried about him coming up on me.”
While McCarthy’s emergence may have come at sprinter’s speed, this year’s fast start comes as no surprise.
After combining 100 miles of summer running with training for his favorite sport, ice hockey, before entering Bangor High School a year ago, McCarthy not only won the separate freshman race at the 2018 Festival of Champions but recorded the fastest freshman time at the state championships regardless of class while helping the Rams to a runner-up Class A team finish.
“I had no expectations going into last year,” he said. “My sister [Erin, a junior on Bangor’s girls cross-country team] convinced me to do it. She said the coach is awesome and that it’s a great sport, so I had to try it. I tried it and this year I have expectations, but last year I thought I’d just go have fun.”
McCarthy’s Festival of Champions debut was good for 17th place overall and was aided by some knowledgeable mentorship from then-Rams’ senior Gabe Coffey, the 2018 race champion who now runs at Bates College.
“Gabe was there around every single corner telling me where I needed to be and what I needed to do,” McCarthy said. “Without him I wouldn’t have been able to do as much as I did last year. He taught me a lot about being a runner, and also he just welcomed me to the team.”
McCarthy built on that midseason momentum to place fifth at last year’s Class A North championships and eighth at states.
“I was feeling really good about myself, and our team also made it to New Englands,” he said.
The rangy McCarthy — he said he doesn’t know how tall he is but looks at least 6-foot-3 — brings a fairly unique athleticism to cross-country from his background in ice hockey, where he saw substantial playing time last winter for Bangor and devotes most of his training to that sport.
“Dan is incredibly fit,” Bangor cross-country coach Roger Huber said. “He leaves cross-country practice and goes to play hockey, or he goes home and lifts all night. He may be new to running, but his fitness is off the charts.
“My hunch is he’d also be a pretty good sprinter. I hope the sprinting coaches don’t find out about that.”
McCarthy, who joined Bangor’s outdoor track program in the spring and earned Class A state-meet points in the 1,600 as well as the 4×400 and 4×800 relays for the Rams, believes his hockey training and early commitment to being the fastest kid in his neighborhood are helping him speed along the state’s cross-country trails.
“Hills are my specialty, I guess, from playing hockey,” he said. “Running hills really helps with leg strength, so I’m able to pass a lot of people on the hills.”
Huber said McCarthy’s cross training should help him stay healthy during competition either on the hills or the ice.
“Not only does he not burn out, but I think he’ll remain injury free because I think his muscles will develop proportionately across his body,” Huber said. “I think it’s when runners just run that they get into those kinds of problems because their muscles develop disproportionately.”
Huber believes McCarthy’s greatest source of continued cross-country improvement may come from his growing understanding of the sport.
“What’s interesting about Dan is that he’s still learning about running,” Huber said. “Every race he just gets a little bit smarter.”
One primary goal for McCarthy this fall is to help Bangor contend for the Class A team title.
The Rams graduated just Coffey and Dwight Knightly from last year’s second-place squad, and this year’s seniorless varsity roster again is considered a top contender with McCarthy and junior Gordon Doore — who placed ninth at the Festival of Champions — leading the way. Juniors James Fahey, Zach Wellman and Gavin Sychterz, and sophomores Simon Socolow and Fritz Oldenburg round out the Rams’ top seven.
“It’s exciting because we’ll have the exact same varsity crew next year, and we should be faster as well,” he said.
McCarthy also hopes to challenge the likes of Shaughnessy and two-time defending Class A state champion Lisandro Berry-Gaviria of Mount Ararat High School in Topsham for top individual honors at the state meet, set for Nov. 2 at the Twin Brook Recreation Area in Cumberland.
“He’s one of the people I’ll race the most going forward at [the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championship], regionals, states and New Englands, so I’ll see him many times, and I’ll definitely always be looking over my shoulder for him — or maybe chasing him,” Shaughnessy said.
Nothing will surprise McCarthy’s coach.
“I don’t know where Dan stops,” Huber said. “People have asked, and I have no idea what his limits are. I just have no idea.”
This story was corrected on Oct. 18, 2019, at 9:50 a.m. to reflect that Gordon Doore is a junior.