Rising up to Run — and Win
How a 17-Year-Old Marathon High Student Became the Youngest Person to Win the Donna Half-Marathon
written by Deborah Dunham, founder of Marathon High
If you had told Terrance Sessoms when he was younger that he would one day not only run a 13.1 mile half-marathon — let alone win it — he probably would have thought you were crazy.
But on February 12, 2017, Sessoms had the race of his life. For four months, the senior at Sandalwood High School in Jacksonville, FL had been training with Marathon High — the after-school program that trains high school students to complete the 26.2 With Donna Half-Marathon. That training regimen followed his cross-country season at school where Sessoms set several new personal records including a 4:28 minute mile and a 15:56 minute 5K.
But running was not always his thing. In fact, if you ask Sessoms, he will tell you that he was an active kid, but definitely not an athlete. In middle school while living in Guam for three years with his dad who was stationed in the Navy, friends convinced Sessoms to try out for the soccer team. “I wasn’t really good at it,” he says, “but I did well at the running drills.” So when he moved back to the States, he tried out for the cross-country team at Sandalwood and immediately fell in love with running.
“When I go out and run, I don’t really think about any problems or negative things in my life,” Sessoms explains. “My mind just wanders, and it’s a major stress reliever.” He relies on his mind to get him through the tough runs, not wearing a GPS watch to track his pace because he doesn’t believe in them. Instead, he likes to run according to how he feels and calculates his pace in his head, which is how he won this year’s race.
On the day of the Donna Half-Marathon, Sessoms says he set out to place in the top 10 — a reasonable goal he assumed. But after the 5-mile mark when the full marathoners split off, he realized it was just him out there alone with this thoughts. “Around mile 8, I looked back while on the overpass and I saw two people about 600 meters behind me. Then I saw my dad on the side of the road yelling for me to keep pushing it,” he explains.
“Along the way, there were other people who made me smile,” he continues. “They knew I was a Marathon High runner, and they were yelling for me. It was really cool.” In the home stretch, the pace car in front of him was cheering him on and telling him he could do it. “Bring it home, last mile," they yelled. "I managed to push it out and sure enough, that was enough," Sessoms recalls after a record-setting 1:18:22 time, making him the youngest half-marathon winner at this race ever.
Crossing the finish line was surreal, he says. “I couldn’t believe it. It was great. I was in so much pain, but I thought, oh my gosh, I can’t believe I just did that.”
Sessoms says his coaches and his dad were the most proud. “My dad was at the finish line congratulating me and telling me how proud he was.” And his coaches were elated. “I don’t think they expected me to win,” he says.
Along the way, Sessoms says Marathon High and his coaches helped him get into the mindset of always doing his best, especially because this was only his second half-marathon ever — and the prior one didn’t go as planned. “For the first one, I walked a lot after mile 11. I didn’t train for it right,” he says. “But Marathon High gave me a more positive outlook, and training with everyone made it feel like we were all connected, like a big family.”
As for his coaches, Sessoms says he couldn’t have done this without them. “They’re great, all of them,” he explains. “They are really supportive of course, and there are really positive vibes on our runs. They know how to have fun but not act crazy and risk injuring ourselves. I just want to say thank you to them for letting me be a part of the team this year. I loved every minute of it, and I’ll never forget it.”
Sessoms’ main pace coach, Patrick Carmody, describes this young man as always positive, forward thinking, with a good sense of humor. “He’s not just a good runner, he’s a good guy,” Carmody says.
So what’s next for this winner? Sessoms will graduate in May and is currently talking to recruiters and hoping the right school will pick him up. “I definitely want to run in college,” he says. He also wants to study anthropology and linguistics to help others communicate better. “Coming home from living overseas was rough and a struggle,” he says. “That’s why I did a lot of distance running just to clear my mind.” In fact, one day when he was a freshman, Sessoms ran 20 miles simply to relax. “My coach got mad at me the next day at practice though,” he explains with a smile, “because my legs were giving out. So he made me sit out.”
When talking about the future, Sessoms is excited about what he and his generation are going to accomplish. “Older generations sometimes look down on younger generations for fear of how we’re going to turn out and for fear of the world they're leaving us and what we'll do to it,” he says. “But I want them to know we got this. We want to change the world for how we think is better.”
Part of doing that is for everyone to be their own person he says. “I want to be known for running,” he admits. But he wants to be known for other things too like music and a career because there’s not just one path, he explains. “I just want people to say, ‘he’s definitely something,’ no matter what I do.”
As far as advice for other runners, Sessoms says that’s simple: “Don't stop. I think it’s the best thing ever.”
photo credit: The Florida Times-Union/Bob Self