Coming off an indoor track season in which he set two county championship meet records and won his third and fourth individual state titles, Northwest High School's Diego Zarate is primed for perhaps the most special outdoor track campaign we have seen in some time. His pure speed and unmatched stamina made him the ultimate weapon for the point machine that was the Northwest Jaguars this winter. His 4:16.00 mile made him the fastest indoor Montgomery County miler in at least 30 years. In this interview, he recollects a breakthrough performance at last year's outdoor county championship meet and he opens up about the cross country state championship in which he fell short of his own expectations. Read on to learn more about his personal superlatives: largest hill, toughest workout, favorite music, and best hairstyle of his high school years.
MoCoRunning: Do you have any pre-meet or pre-race superstitions?
Zarate: Well my pre-meet superstitions aren't nearly as interesting as others athletes may have (like lucky underwear), but I will usually switch from my black socks to my white socks usually halfway through the meet. I don't know why I do it. It just feels right. One superstition that the team has, well it's more of a tradition, is going to eat at Noodles and Company the day before the meet. The team loves to get together and just bond a little before whatever it is we have to do the next day.
MoCoRunning: Some runners have a favorite snack or drink that helps them train - for instance, Ryan Forsyth used to drinks beet juice before races. Do you have a favorite "go-to" snack?
Zarate: Well I will usually eat kale whenever I can get my hands on it. Other than that, I eat Clif Bars and bananas almost every day. Chia seeds are also pretty good with just about anything.
MoCoRunning: After the dramatic finish at the cross country county championships, there was a protest and a long period of time before a winner was confirmed. How were you feeling during that time?
Zarate: Well I was mostly disappointed at myself. My coach stresses that we should always sprint through and to the finish in every race. I should not have let it be so close but in a way it was a learning experience to prevent future mistakes.
MoCoRunning: Sorry if it is uncomfortable, but can you talk about the cross country state meet? You were so dominant at the regional meet. What changed at the state meet?
Zarate: It's not uncomfortable. It is a valid question. Many people do not like to remember past mistakes, but the only way we can get better in the future is confronting those mistakes we have made, and learning how to improve upon them. At the State meet I didn't go out to just try and win the race. I wanted to set a course record and the States course isn't exactly the best place to do that. I looked back at some of the past races at the State course, and usually the first one down and up the dip never finished first. A combination of the hill and the cold killed me when I was trying to run an incredible race, but I have no regrets. My team ended up finishing fourth in the State which is almost unheard of for our school, and I could not be more proud of what we accomplished.
MoCoRunning: Take us back to last year's outdoor county championship when you dropped about 6 seconds off your personal best in the 1600m (4:21.5 to 4:15.58). Describe how that race developed from your point of view. When did you realize it was going to be the fastest race of your life and what kinds of thoughts and maybe doubts did you experience?
Zarate: The race developed like any other race. However, before going into the race, my coach talked to me about doing something incredible in the race and when I got on the line, that's all I wanted to do. So the race started off like any other except I ran aggressive. I would not let anyone in front of me. And in that last 400 I just took off because I believed I could do something great, and I guess I did. I knew it was the greatest race of my life because I knew that last lap I had never gone that fast before, and with knowing that I poured on more speed to see just how far I could take it. I was attempting to focus on what I was trying to do. I did not have any doubts at that moment. I knew I could not be scared if I was to do something that you don't see too often.
MoCoRunning: Of course you want to drop your personal best times in all your events this spring and that takes more hard work as you get faster. Tell us about a hard workout, or maybe the hardest workout you have ever done.
Zarate: Well one of the hardest workouts I have ever done was quite an unusual one. I showed up the Saturday morning with my teammate Sam Weingord and we did not know quite what to expect. It started off with a mile warm up and then our coach told us to get on the line. We started off with a decent mile, around a 5:40 pace. We had a bit of rest, and then Coach Youngblood told us to get back on the line and do it again. Except this time, it was at a 5:35 pace. And so it went on and on like this until we hit the seventh mile. After seven miles completed, I thought I was done. But he told me to once more get back on the line. So I did and this time instead of just running the mile at a 4:45 pace, I had to run it WHILE jumping over some hurdles. These were to help me get into a quicker pace, so that I did not relax. So I started and I fell over the first one. I got back up. I fell over the second one. I got back up. Eventually I got the hang of it and finished at around a 4:52 pace for that mile. While that workout was tough, I have many other workouts that have been just as hard, if not harder. This one was especially lengthy and put me to the test.
MoCoRunning: That is an incredible workout and a harsh introduction to hurdles. With a little practice, could you take down Shyheim Wright in the hurdles?
Zarate: Well this is certainly an interesting question! With any amount of training and determination, the human body can do almost anything. But in this respect, I'll have to give this one to Shyheim. Many people do not realize this, but he is a VERY young junior doing incredible things. He never was the best at the hurdles, but after training and hard work, he has gotten to where he is today. And that place is up with the best in the nation. While Shyheim can be a goofball at times, he is one of the best athletes to ever step foot into Northwest High School. He is destined for even more greatness than he has already experienced, and I have no doubt that he will one day go further than just Nationals in the hurdles.
MoCoRunning: Have you ever considered/attempted any field events? If you were to dabble, what would you try first?
Zarate: I always have wanted to try field events. Not only does the running part of track interest me, but the entire scope of track and field. It just amazes me how much the human body can actually accomplish when hard work and determination is mixed in. The jumps especially amaze me. It shocks me at times to think of how high jumpers can jump so high without aid. If I had to try a field event, I would either want to try the pole vault, long jump, or discus. The best part about our team is that we are not just tailored to one event. In tryouts, we go through every event to get the most out of each person. There will even be times where we switch events at a meet just so we can learn what our teammates go through every meet.
MoCoRunning: Do you have a favorite artist or song that you listen to before you race?
Zarate: I never really listened to music until my first summer at cross country camp. What happened was that we were all listening to music and I had no idea that the person singing was Michael Jackson. After much teasing from my teammates, I made it my goal to learn as much music as I possibly could from then on. Now, it's almost impossible to find me not listening to music! I listen to anything from classical to rock, blues, jazz, rap, and just about any song. I especially found an interest in old music, from bands like Earth, Wind and Fire or the Creedence Clearwater Revival. These songs were just great, and they just don't make songs now like they used to. But one of my most favorite songs would have to be either "Eye of the Tiger" or "Going the Distance." Any song from those Rocky movies just really hit home with me!
MoCoRunning: After four years of cross country, what was your favorite course to run on?
Zarate: Wow, my favorite course? I have to think about that one. Cross country is really something special because the course you see will be the environment you experience. Probably one of my favorite courses would either be the Regional or State course. The Regional course is just something special. With those mud pits, rolling hills and crazy weather, what's not to love? That course is especially meaningful to me because during my Sophomore year, my teammates and I were on a mission. We had been horrible the previous year, getting second to last in the Region. But with the arrival of a new coach, and the seven guys that had trained all summer, we were out to finally qualify for states. And that day, after we all killed ourselves just for something as small as one point, we qualified for states. It was one of the biggest upsets ever, and that set the tone for all the accomplishments to come in the later years. The States course on the other hand is just a crazy course. That hill is like no other and you haven't lived until you've ran up and down both sides of that monster.
MoCoRunning: Where is your favorite place to go on a long run?
Zarate: First off, running alone is good everyone once and a while. My favorite runs are those with my team. I have been running for four years, and in this time, my teammates and I have discovered almost every trail and path in Germantown. It really depends on which day it is on where we want to go out and run. Some days we will be in the mood for winding trails and shadowy turns. Other days we may want just an easy flat road. But all in all, I would say our favorite place to go on a long run is Schaffer trails. More and more trails are added to this gigantic trail system every day and it's just a great place to run.
MoCoRunning: Did you have any cross country or track role models as an underclassman?
Zarate: Well, there were a lot of guys that were there for me. Without all of them, I would not be where I am today. One specific person would be Dahri Jahn-Richardson. Now this was the same year that we were trying to qualify for [XC] states for the first time. We had five sophomores, a junior, and a senior. Now if anyone else saw our Varsity, they would think it was a joke. We had two basketball players, tennis and chess player, a mid-distance runner, a newbie to cross country, and two experienced young runners. It may have been impossible to get into states, but Blood saw that it could happen. All five of us sophomores began to follow Dahri and started to call him our "Papa." All of us would be behind him during the race and it was not until he told us to pass him that we went on to become the team destined to make States.
MoCoRunning: If you were captain for an all-Northwest distance basketball team, who would be your first pick?
Zarate: Wow, this is a great question. I myself do not play much basketball and as for Sam, Rizwan, and Brendan, I'm confident they don't play much either. For the younger guys, Rory, Chase, Komlan, Branson and Jose, they could probably be good in a pick-up game. I'm not too sure, mostly because we never play basketball, but if I had to choose between all our distance guys, I think either Elton Quansah or JJ Yamitshi would be my first pick as they dabble in paper basketball from time to time. That's not to say that all of these young guys are going to be incredible in the years to come. From paper basketball to running, they are going to do great things.
MoCoRunning: Do you ever miss your freshman hair?
Zarate: Oh man. Those were the days. My hair used to be so long I could actually make it into a ponytail! I can say that I went through a lot of changes throughout my years at Northwest, as any other high-schooler did. I always loved how in the shadows I could always see it bouncing up and down as I ran. Even more than that, I miss those pictures where my face would be in the middle of a storm of blond hair flying everywhere. With that said, I eventually cut it and went almost bald for a while. Soon after I realized I looked pretty weird, I changed it to a Mohawk. I then kept that for a while until it got really long and started to make my head look like a pencil point. I then switched to what I have now to which some refer to as "The Wave" and as for now, it's a keeper. At times I do miss my hair; it covered up my huge forehead and was quite majestic as it flew behind me while I ran.
MoCoRunning: What's the hardest hill you've ever run up (besides the one at Hereford)?
Zarate: Well, you got me; Hereford is one of the hardest hills I have ran up. If I had to specifically choose a hill, I would say [it was] one that I found in Pittsburgh. Since my older sister is a genius, she now attends Carnegie Melon University so at times we go up to visit her. On one particular visit, I had hill work to do. Going around the town, I kept an eye open for any hill. Eventually I saw it. To call it just a hill was a mere injustice of words. This hill was located on one of the streets close to my sisters housing and to my good judgement, seemed to be at an angle greater than 45 degrees. Just running down it extended ones stride length to almost three whole sidewalk squares. I even kept pace with a car on the way down! And it was over 400 meters long. Of course being the crazy runner I am, I decided to do my workout on it. After eight repeats up the hill and back down, my legs were spent. The next morning I woke up and felt every single step I took up that hill, but I had no regrets. It was more than worth it!