Zariel Macchia has never been a front-runner, but she had better get used to it soon. The eighth-grader, who goes to Floyd Middle School and runs for the high school cross country team, has already established herself as one of the best cross country runners on Long Island. Now, she just had to fine-tune her craft.
And yes, she is only an eighth grader.
Macchia, who busted onto the scene with authority as a seventh grader, has already shown that her first cross country season was no fluke. She won in 15 minutes, 7 seconds on the 2.5-mile course at Sunken Meadow State Park in a duel meet against Brentwood earlier this month — a blazing fast time.
Macchia is Newsday’s Athlete of the Week.
The race against Brentwood gave Macchia a chance to do something she hasn’t had a ton of experience with — running alone. Last season, she was able to chase down other competitors, using their quick feet as a visual representation of where she needs to go. But what happens when Macchia becomes too good? What happens when she outpaces the pacemakers? She’s beginning to find out.
"I actually did not know I was going as fast as I did, but I was just trying to push it and run as fast as I could," Macchia said of the Brentwood race. "Usually when I’ve run a good time, I’ve been chasing people. It was good practice"
Macchia said she was trying to stay focused at the front, not letting anything distract her from the task at hand — running fast.
"I was just making sure I don’t let my mind wander off and slow down in the middle of the race," Macchia said. "I was just trying to focus on staying at a good pace, get to Snake [hill], then get to Cardiac [hill], keep a good pace through the moat and just finish it out."
Macchia’s running journey started two years ago when she ran a community 5k with her mom, Alexandra, a former high school All-American and college runner at Columbia. A year later, the younger Macchia was speeding up the high school leaderboard, finishing third at the Suffolk Division championship in 19:41.70, a 5k time that was bested only by two seniors, Mount Sinai’s Sarah Connelly and Commack’s Fiona McLoughlin.
"One of the things that was obvious was that she does have a lot of natural talent, especially in terms of endurance," her father, Peter Macchia, who ran at Chaminade and Columbia, said. "Without much training, she was able to cruise at a pace much quicker than we expected. We were talking about telling her to slow down, but she was running with a smile so we thought ‘Hey, can’t be too bad. Let’s just clap and see what she does.’ "
Last summer, Macchia got to meet and run with Connelly, a two-time public school state cross country champion who now competes at Syracuse.
"She basically said ‘Don’t worry too much, just run fast,’ " Macchia said of Connelly’s advice. "It was cool because she is, obviously, very fast and it kind of helps you realize that you don’t have to be crazy about it. You can have fun running and be good at it too."
Macchia said she still views running as a fun activity and was relieved that Connelly never lost the love of it, despite having a high level of high school success.
"It was nice to hear someone else was just having fun with it too and she also did well," Macchia said.
Might she do as well as she continues on her fast path?
"I wouldn’t say that I’m confident I’m going to win states next year or something," Macchia said. "But, I think maybe sometime in the long future — or at least be up front in the race."
Sounds like more front-running practice is in order.