Penn Manor senior cross country runner Graham Thomas has never had his lungs checked. Not that there's anything wrong with them. But if he did, Thomas might learn they’re superhuman.
“He has tremendous oxygen capacity,” longtime Comets coach Bob Ulmer said. “That's natural. You can't coach that. He can sustain a pace for a long time because of his tremendous oxygen capacity.”
Ulmer only recently discovered this ability in Thomas when the coach asked the runner what it felt like when he got winded.
“I don't know, coach,” Thomas replied. “That's never happened to me. I don't get winded. My legs get tired and I run out of gas but I'm not gasping for air.”
It may help explain Thomas' dominance on the Lancaster-Lebanon League boys cross country scene so far this season. He's won every race to this point. Along the way, he's beaten some top names in the L-L. At Elizabethtown, he set a new course record with a blazing time of 15 minutes, 51 seconds.
Thomas is already verbally committed to run at Temple University, where he plans to study architecture. His dream is to return to Lancaster County to build homes.
He's considered the favorite to contend for the crown at the boys cross country league championship meet next week.
It's been quite a rise for Thomas, who was cut as a seventh-grader when he tried out for the middle school soccer team. That’s when he, having enjoyed the running club at Conestoga Elementary School, decided to give cross country a try.
But the sport didn't come easy to Thomas. At least not right away.
“His freshman year he was hurt almost all season,” Ulmer recalled. “We used to joke about it. He was a gutsy kid. He wanted to run. But he looked like an old man when he ran. He looked like an 80-year-old man running. He was so hobbled.”
“My form wasn't great,” Thomas said. “It's sort of figuring out how to run well and effectively.”
So he spent most of his 2017 freshman campaign as a junior varsity runner.
A year later, Thomas was fully healthy and running with a proper form. Penn Manor was running its second meet of the season, against Ephrata at Solanco. Minutes before the starting gun went off, Thomas was stung by a bee on his left shoulder. But he didn't break out — at least not in hives.
"I wasn't allergic," Thomas said. "But the joke was, that was the race I broke out."
In that race, Thomas ran stride for stride with Ephrata's Andrew Foster, who had been the runner-up at the previous fall’s league championship meet.
"It was completely out of nowhere," Ulmer said. "I've coached a long time and I've seen a lot of runners and I just did not see that coming. He took off from there."
Thomas went on to place 10th at the league championship meet, eighth at districts and 53rd at states as a sophomore.
The next year, after missing the first five meets of the 2019 season while battling patellar tendonitis, Thomas returned just in time to place third at the L-L meet before going on to place second at districts and 16th at states.
His output at the state meet was the best performance from a Penn Manor boys cross country runner since Dave Henry placed fourth at the 1981 PIAA Class 3A meet.
It just so happens Henry and Thomas share a similar trait.
"Graham is just like Dave," Ulmer said. "Dave had no speed. But he was tough as nails and had that oxygen thing."
What's with that oxygen thing, anyway?
"Something that I credit that to was playing outside as a child," said Thomas, who is the third of six boys in his family. "My parents didn't let us play video games or watch TV much.
"We spent a lot of time outside in the woods, and running around the backyard with the other neighborhood boys."
Now, Thomas might soon be running toward some gold medals, starting with the league championship race Oct. 20 at Ephrata Middle School.
“I don't know if he'll win it or not,” Ulmer said. “I think his chances of winning are good. But you'll have to beat him. He won't beat himself. Someone is going to have to run well and beat him.”