LRC Q&A with Parker Wolfe, Who Went from COVID Diagnosis to Winning 2020-21 Gatorade National Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year

By Jonathan Gault
April 22, 2021

When Chris Miltenberg left Stanford to take the top job at the University of North Carolina in the summer of 2019, he was tasked with turning around a men’s program that had qualified for the NCAA Cross Country Championships just twice since 1991. Could Miltenberg, who won a national title coaching the Georgetown women in 2011 and oversaw six podium finishes between the men and women during his seven years in Palo Alto, transform the Tar Heels into a national power?

To do that, you need recruits. And the recruits are starting to come to Chapel Hill. On the women’s side, UNC secured the commitments of two of the country’s top recruits this year in 2018 Foot Locker champion Sydney Masciarelli and 9:39 3200 runner Brynn Brown. The Tar Heels also snagged two of the top men’s recruits from the high school class of 2021 in Judson Greer (8:49 2-mile, 5th 2019 Foot Locker) and Parker Wolfe.

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Wolfe, a senior at Cherry Creek High School in Colorado, is the crown jewel on the men’s side. Last fall, he ran 15:10.4 — at 6,000 feet of elevation — to win the Colorado 5A state meet and break the course record at the Norris Penrose Equestrian Center in Colorado Springs. A month later, he ran 14:27.0 to win the RunningLane National Cross Country Championships in Alabama. On Wednesday, Wolfe was named 2020-21 Gatorade National Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.

As impressive as Wolfe’s accomplishments were last fall, they’re even more impressive when you consider he tested positive for COVID in July, which affected his heart and lungs. In fact, Wolfe is still dealing with the effects — he has to use an inhaler before every hard effort or race.

LetsRun.com caught up with Wolfe in a phone interview on Wednesday, shortly after he was surprised with the award at his high school.

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Courtesy Gatorade

LRC: Parker, congratulations on winning the Gatorade award. I saw that you ran a pretty fast 5k recently, 14:06 on March 20. How did you feel about that result and what was the thinking of doing a 5k so early in the season?

PW: I was super excited with that time. It kind of showed that I have a chance at going that sub-14:00. Especially this early in the season, I wasn’t really expecting that. I wasn’t really expecting to do a 5k. I had one of the UNC commits talk me into doing it, went down there, and I was super happy with how it panned out.

Do you think you’ll run another one this spring?

I think so, yeah. Especially before the end of the season or at the end of the season. Try to get one more in at sea level, low altitude, try to get a sub-14:00 mark in. I think that would be pretty cool.

What about your other goals for this track season? Do you have any?

Yeah, I’ve got a bunch. One of my main goals was to break 14:00 and I think I’ve got a good shot at that now. And then in the 2-mile, try to break 8:40. That’s a pretty fast time that I’m hoping to duck under sometime this season, hopefully at a low-altitude race would be my best bet. So that’s a big goal of mine as well.

And I read that before your big cross country season last fall, you tested positive for COVID. When did you test positive and how did you manage it? Did you feel sick/worn down? How severe were your symptoms, if any?

A few of us got it this summer that I know and I had the worst of the people I know that got it. It affected my lungs. I had some heart issues from it as well. I bounced back a lot faster than I thought I would. Took a good month though to get back to where I was before I got COVID. I tested positive end of July, so I had at least a month before the season started to get in shape and get ready. But it definitely took a toll on me. I still have a couple of lasting effects from it. But overall, I’m still racing well, still running. I’m happy.

What are the lasting effects?

I still have to take an inhaler before I run hard workouts or races, just to help with my lungs. So I’ve had to do that ever since I got it, which is kind of a bummer, but it could be worse.

Well I’m glad to hear you’re feeling at least a bit better. Obviously it didn’t affect your running too much. So you committed to UNC. Why did you choose to go there?

Mostly the coaches. The coaches are super passionate about the sport and about the team and they want to win, which is something that I’m passionate about as well. They kind of just clicked with me. And the area too. I really liked the North Carolina area, looks like a good place to run. I loved the campus. Even the team, meeting the team, we didn’t get to do it like normal because it was over Zoom, but they’re all really good guys that are excited to race. It’s something I want to be a part of.

Wolfe was surprised at his school on Wednesday (Courtesy Gatorade)

You’re based in altitude in Colorado. North Carolina is at sea level. When you went into the recruiting process, were you thinking you wanted to stay at altitude and then you changed your mind? Or were you open to all options? How did that come about?

I was at first considering maybe staying at altitude because I’m used to it and love being from a high-altitude place. But I kind of realized that I wanted to get out of Colorado, see what else is out there. So it just happened to be a low-altitude place. I wouldn’t have minded if it was high-altitude. I wasn’t really looking for a low-altitude school, but everything just kind of clicked around the area and the coaches so it kind of just ended up being that way.

Last fall, you got the state meet course record and obviously some pretty good runners have come through Colorado in the last few years. What did it mean for you to get that record?

It was really cool. I was super excited to get that record. I know there have been so many good Colorado athletes who have come through, so it made it seem even cooler to be the state record holder in the 5k. Cole Sprout (who finished 15th at NCAA XC for Stanford in March and just ran 13:43 on the track) last year set it, and I kind of gave him some crap for it, being able to beat it. But I think it’s just super cool and shows how good Colorado can be. I know we’ve got some good athletes here that have a shot at it in the future as well.

Is that the accomplishment you’re proudest of from your cross country season? And if not, what was?

That’s definitely an accomplishment I’m super proud of. I think I’m most proud of my national race at RunningLane in Alabama. I think that was probably my greatest achievement from the year, being able to show my racing skills at a national level versus just a state level.

You mentioned you gave Cole Sprout crap for getting his record and I’ve read that you are pretty close with him. Did you ever consider joining him at Stanford?

I definitely did. I considered that for a while, I was looking at a bunch of different schools and having him be at Stanford was definitely kind of a cool thing, I could have been his teammate. But in the end, I think UNC was the best option for me, I think it clicked off all my boxes a little better and I’m just super excited. 

Do you follow professional running and do you have any favorite pro runners?

Yeah, I do follow a little bit. I really like Morgan McDonald and Grant Fisher, they’re awesome runners. As well as Eliud Kipchoge, I like following him a lot on Instagram and seeing how his running is going and following that whole story. Ever since that Breaking2 documentary, I’ve just kind of been interested in him and his whole process and training camp area. So definitely him, he’s a huge inspiration.

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