Last week, the Acorn Tigers Boys Track team won the state 2A title, with outstanding performances by the team including senior sprinter Trysten Richey and also junior distance runner Justice Neufeld. Football, basketball and baseball get more fanfare, but the track tradition is strong at Acorn High School. Justice Neufeld has quietly become one of the top distance runners our area has produced in a while, and after the meet I had a chance to ask him some questions about his running and the team. Justice is the son of Jeff and Jerusha Neufeld of Mena. Full disclosure is that I live next door to the Neufelds. I may be biased, but one could not ask to have a more wonderful family for neighbors.
Tom Byrd, Mena Star Publisher firstname.lastname@example.org
Congratulations on your team winning the 2021 AA State Track Championship! How does it feel?
It feels great to see that all of our team’s hard work has paid off.
Acorn has now won 8 state titles in Cross Country and Track. What makes the Acorn track program so special?
The thing that makes the Acorn track program so special is coach Keith Willsey. He is a coach that knows how to train athletes correctly. Any time anyone has an injury, he knows what is wrong and how to fix it and further prevent it. He does more than he has to. During the off season, he tries to be there for our training as much as four or five days per week and takes us to 5ks at his own cost. During the season, he takes us to more meets than are on the schedule in order to get us better. Coach Willsey, along with Coach Mike Jackson, Coach Chris Ledbetter, and Coach Bohlman help make the program special by working with all of the athletes and executing proper training
You had great results with 3 individual wins in the 800, 1600 and 3200 meter events, and Trysten Richey won 2 individual titles in the 100 and 200, but of course it’s a team competition for the overall title. What would you like to say about your teammates?
I would like to say that my teammates put in a lot of effort. Some of them play other sports and still find time to run. Some of them put in more effort than others, but at track meets everyone puts in all their effort. Like you said, it is a team effort, not an individual effort.
Looking back to your beginnings in the sport, how did you get started running?
I started running my 7th grade year. At that point I just trained the bare minimum. The following year during track season, I sprained my ankle playing dodgeball about a week before our junior high district meet. I had to take a few days off to recover. I ended up losing to one of my teammates in the 1600m who had never beat me before. Not too long after I started to train full time and have been running ever since.
What attracted you to running? Did you also play some other sports? Which ones did you play?
From a young age, I knew that I wanted to run track. I was attracted to running because I was faster than most people my age in sports when I was younger. I played several other sports. I played football, basketball, and baseball. I quit football pretty early. I quit basketball and baseball a couple of years ago.
When did you realize this was a sport you could excel in?
I realized that I could do well in this sport my 9th grade year, when I won the cross country 2A state meet and in track won the 3200m 2A state meet. I think the defining moment was when my coach told me that I was the 2nd athlete he had that had broken 5 minutes in the 1600m as a freshman
Distance running is a tough sport. Like all serious runners, you have had to overcome some injuries in your career so far. What injuries have you had, and how have dealt with them?
I have had a few injuries over the last few years. Like I said earlier I had sprained my ankle. The biggest injury I have had in sports did not come from running, but directly impacted it. About 10 days before State Cross Country 2019, I blacked out in the morning and fell back. I got a concussion, but didn’t really know it at the time. I took a few days off and ran at state. I ended up running slower than I did the year before after the race, I realized that I had a concussion. I took over a week off to recover. I overcame this injury by being mentally stronger about running.
You run a lot of distance events. Some runners talk about their tolerance for pain and suffering as being part of their talent and as important as athletic ability. Could you talk about your relationship with pain in your running, and how you deal with it.
Pain is inevitable in distance running. There are some workouts and races that really hurt afterward. I have found that stretching, rolling my legs out with a leg roller, and taking hot baths help relieve the pain that comes from running.
What are some of your favorite places to run in the Mena area?
Some of my favorite places to run in Mena are the Lions Club, the Visitors Center, the rifle range, the Acorn and Mena track, and the rifle range off of HWY 71.
You come from a very talented family. Could you describe what your parents and siblings have meant to you and how they have helped you pursue your sport?
My family has meant the world to me. They try to go to as many cross country and track meets as they can. They also help me by encouraging me to keep on doing my best in running.
What goals or objectives do you have with your running? Are you hoping to run at the college level?
I have several goals for my different running events. One of my goals right now is to try to get a sub-15 minute 5k. The biggest goal for me right now is to get accepted into a good college cross country and track team.
Anything else you would like to mention or talk about, feel free!
I would like to say that if anyone is interested in becoming a good distance runner, they need to check out the book 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald.
Note: This last weekend, Justice, as 2A individual champion in two events, earned the right to compete against athletes from Arkansas’s largest schools in the Arkansas Meet of Champs, some of whom have earned major college scholarships. Justice did well, finishing 6th of 10 runners in the 3200 meters, and logging a personal record time of 9:47. Way to go, Justice! We look forward to following your senior year!