Hampden Academy’s Abbott Valentine leads Mt. Ararat’s Grady Satterfield at the Class A cross country championships in Belfast. Valentine won with a time of 15:34 and led the Hampden boys’ team to its first state championship. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Seven times this fall, seniors Abbott Valentine of Hampden Academy and Daniel McCarthy of Bangor set off over the same cross country course.

The first three times – in September and early October – McCarthy finished first, including a victory over hundreds at the prestigious Festival of Champions in Belfast with a clocking (15 minutes, 34.24 seconds) faster than all but four runners in Maine high school history.

As the days grew shorter and the temperature dropped, Valentine closed the gap. They went 2-2 over their final four meetings, with McCarthy coming out ahead at the Northern Maine regional (in 15:25, fastest time in the state this fall) and New England championships and Valentine winning the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference and, significantly, the Class A state championship.

For winning the state title in the fastest time (15:34) of the day, regardless of class, and leading the Hampden boys to their first team title in program history, Valentine is our choice as Varsity Maine Runner of the Year for boys’ cross country.

“He is a mentally tough runner,” Hampden Coach Danielle Johnson said of Valentine, the oldest of five children. “He works a lot in his training on doing interval work that requires him to dig into that extra grit. That’s his strength as a runner, that ability to dig a little deeper and tap into that determination.”

After a chilly late-season hill workout in Newburgh, Johnson stopped at Dunkin for warmth and got a box of treats for her runners. While others dug in hungrily, Valentine allowed himself a single munchkin.

“The other kids were saying, ‘One munchkin? You’re crazy!'” Johnson said. “He’s super narrow in his focus. Everything about him is so goal-oriented.”

The rivalry with McCarthy, who plans to continue running at Georgetown, is a friendly one filled with mutual respect. Valentine called McCarthy a “great person and a great runner.”

“He really came out hard this season and was projected to be taking everything,” Valentine said. “I knew if I put in the work and stayed patient, and waited for those big meets, that I could challenge him. It’s great to have that level of competition with someone who can push you, someone that talented and incredibly fast.”

A course much soggier at the state meet than a week earlier at regionals helped his cause, Valentine acknowledged. Even with the mud, Valentine managed to run within a second of his regional time, and his four scoring teammates – Charlie Collins, Harrison Shain, Brody Simons and Judson Nash – required only an extra 44 seconds.

That was enough to turn a four-point Northern Maine loss to Brunswick into a resounding 46-point victory over Bangor for the state title.

“We wanted to go out and push as hard as we can and not worry about anyone else,” Valentine said. “It was a messy course, a really rough time, but I tend to favor the rougher courses. Daniel does better on flat courses. On the track, he can really fly. So that mud really helped me out.”

Two weeks later, at the New England meet in Thetford, Vermont, McCarthy and Valentine were the first Maine finishers, 10 seconds apart in ninth and 14th, respectively. McCarthy has since turned his attention to hockey, while Valentine extended his cross country season, placing fourth at the Nike Cross Northeast Regional on Nov. 24 in Wappinger Falls, New York.

In a non-pandemic season, that result would qualify him for a trip to national finals in Oregon, but those have been canceled this year. Instead, Valentine – still seeking the right college fit – traveled to Alabama for Saturday’s Garmin RunningLane cross country championships on a fast and flat course in Huntsville.

“I’m just putting in as many good performances as I can,” he said, “because I want to have the best opportunities I can.”

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