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When Joel Shellabarger is asked about his uncanny success in the 110-meter hurdles, the Blackhawk Christian senior will talk and talk and talk. He mentions drills, offseason yoga sessions, more drills, cross training by running cross country and even more drills. He will then talk about his coaches and his teammates.
But never does he mention the track, or hurdles, for that matter. Why? Because the Marion Regional champion doesn't have a track to train on. And the very few hurdles he has are not enough to replicate the full race distance.
Shellabarger leads area track and field athletes into Saturday's IHSAA boys track and field championships at Indiana University in Bloomington. Field events begin at 3 p.m. at the Robert C. Haugh Track & Field Facility with the 3,200-meter relay set for 4:15 p.m. Trials begin at 5 p.m. and finals at 6:15 p.m.
Shellabarger has prepared for his state finals appearance on the school's parking lot. Staying between the lanes means navigating parking spaces. And to measure the distance between his few hurdles, he uses a tape measure.
Asked what his disadvantage is, Shellabarger says: “I can't wear spikes (in practice).”
Even if you didn't know his school and lack of training facilities, Shellabarger would still be the last hurdler you'd pick in a lineup at the starting line. Standing 6-foot and weighing only 135 pounds, he presents a meager appearance. And then the race starts and, well, he'd still be the last person you'd pick.
“Generally I have slow starts. I don't know what it is, but by the first hurdle I'm usually in last,” Shellabarger said. “Then in the second half (of the race) I start to catch up. I think my form work takes over.”
Form work? That would be an understatement. Shellabarger runs the hurdles the way one would imagine Forrest Gump running the hurdles. He is upright with no wasted motion. By the 80-meter mark you can't help but notice the athlete with perfect form, clearing every hurdle and moving into first place.
That's a stark contrast to the competition. Watching high-schoolers run the final 30 meters of the 110 is like watching a tornado: There is destruction everywhere on the track, bodies and hurdles flying out of control. Not so with Shellabarger.
“I don't have a track or enough hurdles, so my practice is all about drills and perfecting my form,” Shellabarger said. “Drills after drills for five years. I drill in the parking lot, just bringing my trail leg over a hurdle, over and over.”
Shellabarger attended Leo schools through 10th grade before transferring to Blackhawk Christian. He recalls his introduction to track and field as a middle schooler.
“I told my dad I wanted to go out for the track team, and he told me to try the event that no one else was trying. He said it would be my best chance to make the team,” Shellabarger said.
He made the team, in part because of his tall, thin frame, which had “high hips,” and his father's advice: There were no other boys trying out for the hurdles.
Shellabarger said competing was well and good in middle school but once he got into high school, he was clearly overmatched.
“I couldn't even break (20 seconds) for most of the year,” Shellabarger said. “But I kept working at it, and by the end of the season I got down to the 18s.”
The improvement was steady and consistent from there: He placed seventh at the North Side Sectional as a sophomore with a time of 16.04 and then, after transferring to Blackhawk Christian as a junior, was third at sectional in 15.32. He then placed fourth at regional in 15.12, barely missing out on a state-meet berth.
“To get so close was disappointing but also (encouraging) because I knew I was right there,” Shellabarger said. “Getting to state has been my goal all along. The last year has been a lot of work.”
It was “work” that included yoga sessions and even running cross-country in the fall. Training for and racing a 3.1-mile race, he said, was bound to help with endurance.
”Whatever it takes to be in the best position,” Shellabarger said. “That was my attitude about getting to the state meet.”
All the work paid off last week as he not only advanced to the state meet but also won the hotly contested Marion Regional. His time of 14.89 was well ahead of runner-up Reid Jutte of Norwell (15.14).
“I had tunnel vision,” Shellabarger said. “I could tell I was in last place, but I just kept focusing on my lane and the next hurdle. It was a great feeling (crossing the finish line) in first.”
Shellabarger expects much of the same Saturday in his preliminary heat. He knows that through the first part of the race, competing against the state's best, he'll be behind. But he has faith in his training, sans hurdles, that he'll make it up by the finish line.
The area's best state title hopes rest on South Side sprinter Shaton Harris (100 and 200) and North Side's Tyvon Kelley (400). Harris had the state's best time in the 100 for much of the year and is seeded in the top 10 in both events Saturday.
Kelley has the state's best seed time (48.58) and has experience in winning a state title: He was on the Redskins' state champion 1,600-meter relay in 2012.
Concordia's Zach Panning has the third-best time (9:12) in the 3,200 meter run.
In the field events, Bishop Dwenger's Jared Schipper will try to defend his state title in the pole vault. Wayne's Tyrese Easton has a chance to win the high jump.