Aaron Willingham started running in seventh grade to get in shape for football in his native Texas.

“I was a little pudgy,” he said.

Now a senior at Mt. Blue High in Farmington, Willingham has long since traded in cleats for spikes. He followed up his Eastern Class A cross country title by winning the Class A state championship, running a best-of-the-day time of 16 minutes flat over 5 kilometers at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast.

He is our Maine Sunday Telegram Runner of the Year for boys’ cross country.

“He’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached,” said Mt. Blue Coach Kelley Cullenberg. “He learned the hard way that he has to listen to his body. He’s just a really hard worker.”

After moving to Maine the summer before his junior year, Willingham made an immediate impression by finishing second in the Festival of Champions with a time (15:42) that broke the school record set by Cullenberg’s son, Kelton.

“Right after that is when I started to deteriorate,” Willingham said. “I stupidly (ran) 80 miles in one week and it created a stress fracture in my right shin.”

Willingham muddled through the rest of the season and started – but couldn’t finish – the state meet. This fall he cut back on mileage – focusing more on speed than endurance – and avoided injury. He won the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference meet and set a course record at Cony High.

His biggest problem, as it turned out, was staying upright.

He fell twice on the Belfast course, in the Festival of Champions and the Eastern regional, both times near the 1-mile mark. He wound up winning the latter and placing sixth in the former. At the state meet, on the same course in even more treacherous conditions, he managed to keep his footing and won a kick to the finish line against Falmouth senior Bryce Murdick and Deering senior Iid Sheikh-Yusuf.

All three finished within about a second of each other.

At the New England meet, Murdick edged Willingham by a second to become the first Maine finisher.

They were 19th and 22nd, respectively.

Willingham is president of Mt. Blue’s chapter of the National Honor Society. He’s also a member of an improvisational comedy troupe called the Curtain Raisers.

He plans to continue running competitively in college, and is considering the University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire. His potential major? Physical therapy.

“I’ve had my fair share of time in the physical therapy office,” he said, “and it’s just fascinating to me.”