He’d told his parents it could be the day. So naturally, once his prognostication became an exhilarating reality, he tracked them down.
Mountainside High School cross country runner Mario Oblad had just broken 16 minutes in the 5,000 meter race and it was time to celebrate.
“I was just relieved that I actually got it,” he said. “It was a great moment for me.”
It was a hurdle he’d had his eyes set on for some time, but in his attempts leading up to the moment — Oblad’s final high school cross country meet at his home school in the first week of October — he’d rushed out of the gate, running out of gas late in races when he most needed it.
On this day, it was different. There was a foreign feel to the race, even from the jump.
Oblad took the lead after the first 200 meters and never conceded it. He ran alone for most of the race, something most distance runners aren’t accustomed to. He was his own metronome.
“Normally, I don’t like to run alone,” he said. “You’ve always got someone ahead of you to look at, so this was just an extreme mental battle.”
As Oblad reached the final 400 meters, the crowd came into earshot. It was the only noise breaking up the monotony of his own footsteps. By then, the other runners were too far behind for him to have heard.
“One kid yelled at me, they’re like, ‘Okay, you’ve got 67 seconds to go on this last lap, you got to break that sub-16,’” he said.
At 200 meters, he glanced at his watch. He had 32 seconds to finish under 16 minutes and, from his experience as a track runner, where he specializes in the 800-meter race, he knew his final kick should come within 30 seconds. So he took off.
Oblad has a strong kick, by his own admission, but he’s used to chasing someone down, or at the very least, surpassing a competitor he’s neck and neck with. This time, it was only him. Only the track. He wouldn’t be getting any help.
He rounded the last bend with 100 meters to go and 15 seconds to spare.
“I knew that I could do that with my training,” he said. “I just had to mentally dig deep and get it. The crowd kind of pushed me along.”
He watched the clock hit 15:58 as he bowed his head and body, breaking the finish line. He was confident he’d done it, but had to be sure, checking with the official who timed it. He’d done it by no more than a hair — 15.59.7.
“When you saw him cross the line and drop his arms, you knew that he had given it all he had to get that time, which made it all the more special,” Oblad’s cross country coach, Matthew Stevens, said.
Oblad added: “That’s really what track and cross country is about. Setting these goals, these barriers and then breaking them and proving to yourself that you can achieve these things that at some point seemed unattainable.”
For so long, 16 minutes felt like exactly that: unattainable.
This time, he’d crossed just over a .5 second ahead of schedule. He’s been on the other end of it, of course.
As a third grader, Oblad raced against fourth graders in the 1,500-meter race during his final meet of the season. Entering the race, his personal record was 20 seconds behind the race’s leader. Oblad raced his heart out that day.
“I remember crossing the line just about half a second behind the leader and being unable to walk,” he said. “I was like, I’ve never been through so much pain before, but I proved to myself that I could be that type of competitive runner.”
Last meet of the season, a result decided by half a second, Oblad sees the parallels. He acknowledges how rewarding it has been to come this far and reminisce on those moments.
As a freshman, he watched a senior break 17 minutes. For Oblad, that felt impossible at the time. And, for as monumental a moment as it was for him to break 16 minutes, it’s already become nothing more than another one of those memories.
He’s already broken that time again. He smashed it, in fact. Last Wednesday at the Metro League Championships, Oblad slashed his personal record by 13 seconds, securing a 15:46 finish as he punched his ticket to states.
“If you can figure out how to do this workout on Monday or Wednesday afternoon at our school when nobody’s watching, and nobody cares, we told the kids we know they can do it in a race,” Stevens said. “It’s kind of our coaching philosophy. I think we bring intensity as coaches at the workouts, but at the race you won’t see us screaming and yelling at our kids. They’re gonna do what they’re ready to do.”
At six years old, Mountainside’s cross country program is still in its infancy. Last season was the first that the men’s and women’s teams both made it to states. Oblad was at the center of that push. He’s been crucial in pushing the program to where it is now — a competitive group in a Metro League headlined by national powerhouses Sunset and Jesuit.
Oblad’s ambition is what Stevens really keyed in on.
“He’s always been really ambitious,” he said. “I’ve been coaching for a while, and it’s one of those things that’s actually hard to coach that into kids.”
Stevens remembers one time in particular, when Oblad was a freshman and was working out with some of the team’s seniors — a few of which are still running at the collegiate level — and took it to them. He even jumped into the lead during an interval workout.
“These two seniors kind of looked at each other, like who is this guy?” Stevens said. “But as a head coach, I love that. Like to see that kind of fearlessness in a freshman to take it to the upperclassmen, that’s what you need on a team, is that kind of competitiveness.”
Competitive. That’s the key word.
“It’s probably the reason that I love track so much,” Oblad said. “It’s so purely competition”
He played tee-ball in his youth. Even then, he was confident in his speed. Once, at the end of a practice, his coach, several decades older, wanted some of the kids to race. But Oblad didn’t want to race his peers. He wanted to beat his coach.
“He said, ‘Okay, if you beat me, I’m gonna give you five dollars,’ so I was really incentivized by that. I tried my best, and obviously lost. I was close to tears afterwards, because I really wanted to be able to beat him. I didn’t really care too much about the money.”
Since then, it’s always been about what’s next. The next challenge, the next hurdle and how to get past it.
“That’s really the beauty of (this sport), is that you put the work in, you get results,” he said. “It’s very cut and dry when it comes to running.”
Oblad has put in the work for himself and the Mountainside program.
Now, the results are trickling in.