Antonio Palmer has been among the strongest and most versatile athletes in Montgomery County for years, but has always had to face the toughest runners around to earn anything. He came away from his junior year with the Maryland 4A 800m state title, but not before earning several frustrating runner-up finishes. Now in his senior year, after a tremendous amount of work and sacrafice, Antonio is expected to be the state leader in the middle distance events on the track. In this interview, he discusses the long road leading to this season including his year around training regime and how he plans to go out on top.
MoCoRunning: What was your track and field experience prior to high school?
Palmer: Track and field was something I began early in middle school, during the summer of 7th grade. I was always really fast, at least one of the fastest at my school. We would always have these conditioning activities for fun in P.E. like the mile run and pacer to test our endurance and strength. When we did the the mile I was always the first one to finish and have the rest of the period for free time. One of my P.E. teachers noticed my ability and recommended I consider running track because of my talent. In the summer I joined the Gaithersburg Firebirds Athletic Club and have been a member ever since. I've competed at a wide variety of local, regional and national competitions so coming into high school I was pretty experienced as a runner at a certain perspective.
MoCoRunning: You started out high school playing football in the fall and you seemed reluctant to make the change over to cross country as your fall sport. Explain what it was like making that decision over the summer before your junior year, especially after a long track season that spanned from December to August.
Palmer: Prior to high school, besides track, I did play football my 8th grade year with the Montgomery Village Chiefs. I was always an avid football fan and always had athletic talent to pursue a football career. Entering high school my plan was not to run all year around. I played freshman football, which now that I look back was a waste of my time and potential because my grades were slipping, which ultimately made me ineligible for indoor track that same year, and I didn't really get anything out of it. From the end of my freshman track season, Coach Tolbert recognized my potential and was always pushing me to come out and join the cross country team. I was hesitant because I thought cross country was a waste of time and it wasn't a cool sport like football. It took me all the way to the summer before my junior year to realize that if I wanted to be successful in what I do on the track and become more disciplined, cross country was the answer. Many people didn't agree with my decision to change over and many others were proud that I gave up football to pursue a cross country career. It was just something I had to do because I know it would benefit me in the long run and develop me into a better person and runner, and I was right.
MoCoRunning: With a lot of friends on the football team, what did your friends think about you choosing cross country over football?
Palmer: To be honest, one of the main reasons why I was so unwilling to make the change from football to cross country was what I thought my friends would think of me. I did in fact have many friends that played football or played with me so it was some kind of a shock to them knowing I quit football to run cross country. My older brother was a known football player around the county at Seneca Valley High School, and was kind of a big icon to other players so I was always compared to him and supposed to be his shadow of some sort. A lot of my friends made fun of me, because cross country isn't a contact sport, and all it is is running for an extended period of time. It bothered me at first, but I eventually got over it knowing that I was doing this for one distinct reason and that was to better myself, which was the only thing that mattered.
MoCoRunning: In two years of cross country, you have finished top 5 in the state twice, but people still consider you mainly a track runner. How do you consider cross country as a sport for yourself after two years of successfully running it?
Palmer: With only two years of cross country under my belt I did accomplish a lot in spite of not being as experienced as my fellow teammates and competitors. As far as considering myself a cross country runner, to be honest and straightforward, I really never developed a passion for cross country or enjoyed it at that. Cross Country to me was basically conditioning and helping me develop more discipline and strength for track season. However my success in the last two years has established that I am an all-around, multi-talented runner because I've run things as short as the 55m dash and can range all the way to 5000m. Though I wouldn't consider Cross Country my sport, I recommend it to all runners because it provides you with an opportunity to better yourself as a runner and individual which is why I don't regret running it.
MoCoRunning: You've never had the easy road these last few years. You've always gone up against the best athletes in the area like Chris Moen, Wil Zahorodny, Kelli Thibou, Daniel Edmund, and Louis Varella. Do you ever wish that you could have an easier path to win on the track?
Palmer: Haha, I'm not going to lie, there were some times when I would wonder why I was always pit against the best runners from the 1st day I stepped on the track. But in essence I am thankful for having the opportunity to compete against all these great athletes because I wouldn't be where I am as a runner today. It really didn't bother me much because I've always had heavy competition going back to the 1st year I began running track. I've competed at the national level so many times that it doesn't even bother me like it does other people. When I am going up against the best it motivates me to go that extra step and keep my head up and never give up. From my perspective, I always liked being the underdog because it just made me work even harder and prove to people I am just as good as anyone else.
MoCoRunning: If you were done with high school after last year, would you have walked away satisfied with what you accomplished?
Palmer: Though I am proud of my accomplishments my junior year, I am the type of person that is never satisfied with what I do. It's just my competitive spirit I guess, but I have many goals that I still haven't reached yet so I am happy to have another year to finish what I started.
MoCoRunning: Gaithersburg is looking capable of winning some team titles this year on the track, but that may mean that you have to load up on a lot of events. Do you feel that you can still accomplish your individual goals while helping the team maximize its potential?
Palmer: I believe we are great contenders for the county, region and state titles this year in indoor and outdoor. I am aware that I may have to run some events that I am not particularly fond of, but I am ready for whatever I have to do to get my team the state title. As far as my individual goals, I believe I have what it takes to manage running 3-4 events and I can thank cross country for that. I built up a strong base and I am confident that as long as I stay healthy I'll be able to help my team and at the same time get things done in my events.
MoCoRunning: Over these past two years, you have developed tremendous range. From the sprints right up through the long distance events, you are one of the best, if not the best, in the state. What has your year-around training schedule been like and how do you handle so little recovery between summer track and cross country? When do you focus on distance and when do you focus on speed?
Palmer: Training has varied for me throughout the course of the year. As you know I run summer track in addition to cross, indoor and outdoor, so workouts tend to be different according to what season I'm in. My only real break from running throughout the whole year is after the USATF National Junior Olympics in July. When summer track ends, usually people are training and preparing for cross country which begins in August. I roughly take about 2-3 weeks off with no running or conditioning whatsoever, and start back up towards the beginning of school. I manage quite fine with this minimum recovery time because I'm so used to running non-stop. I guess it's just the repetition I've developed running for so long that it doesn't really affect me, except for this year with me straining my lower back over the summer. I tend to work on speed in the winter during indoor which is why I run a lot of the sprint relays to develop my speed for outdoor. I maintain my base by occasionally getting in some distance workouts or intervals depending on the week, or the meet that is coming up. I also get at least one good run in on the weekend to stay conditioned. Basically my training schedule is a little bit of everything and really only changes if I am focusing on one distinct event.
MoCoRunning: When and how much do you lift weights?
Palmer: I used to lift weights almost every other day last year and the year before to keep my strength and muscle endurance up whether it was squats, lunges, bench-press etc. After succumbing to my lower back strain I realized that I may have been overdoing it or I just wasn't stretching well enough. The doctor also advised me to take it easy so now I only lift once or twice a week when I get out of practice because I don't want to risk injuring myself again. If I don't lift after school I have my own weights at home in my basement so I can always get some solid workouts in.
MoCoRunning: Coach Tolbert has described you as a runner that can tap into some sort of extra reserve to do whatever it takes to make things happen in a race. Do you know what he's talking about?
Palmer: Hahaha yeah, Coach T has always been proud of how I can step up when it counts. I've really just taught myself to be more focused and disciplined so when the big meets and competitions come up I am ready for whatever. I tend to think a lot while I am racing which can be good or bad and when needed I have the ability to push myself enough to get the job done as long as I am relaxed or not ailing from an injury.
MoCoRunning: Do you hear a lot of comparisons to former Gaithersburg runner Bryan Steele? Have you ever met him and would you ever consider trying out the hurdles like he did in college?
Palmer: Yes! My head coach for indoor, Coach Parry, has always compared me to Steele and tells me how great of a runner he was and how he was handsome and a stud and all this other junk. Last year I walked into practice one day and there was a big poster of Steele and all his accomplishment on the wall and Coach gave me the biggest lecture of my life. He told me that I have the same potential he had and can become even better which I know is true. I already have taken his 800m school record down and I plan to get his 400m and 500m record as well. Though I've never personally met him, I know he ran on the Jamaican team as a hurdler and I respect him for that partly because I have Jamaican descent. As far as me hurdling, I've always wanted to try the 300m hurdles especially after seeing Wil Z do it last year at Woodward, so who knows what the future holds.
MoCoRunning: A lot of people are saying this is your year to shine and of course you will be hoping that it is, but what does that mean to you? What would you consider a successful senior year?
Palmer: Like I said above, I have many goals that I still haven't accomplished yet. A successful senior year to me is finishing high school and being able to graduate and go off to a good college to pursue your dreams. As far as Track & Field goes, I wanted to come out my senior year with a bang and do something amazing. I want to be somebody that when I'm graduated and gone, people will remember me years and years from now for what I've done and accomplished as a runner. I know that I have no limitations because I work hard everyday in and out and I'm aware that as long as I have my strong mindset, anything is possible.