At the State of Jefferson cross-country meet in Ashland’s Lithia Park, the tangy smell of trampled grass hangs in the air. Lanky teenagers sprint the last few hundred yards to the race finish line while parents and classmates cheer from the edge of the course.
Ashland High School senior EJ Holland is prepping to run in the 5K with his cross-country team. But, Holland says, what he really likes is solo racing.
“I love going fast – the amount of individual strategy that track has, especially in the middle and long distances.”
Holland is an 18-year-old high school senior. He’s been running at a competitive level for the past several years and recently earned the reputation of being one of the fastest high school runners in the country.
With the top-ranked University of Oregon track team, Eugene known as “Tracktown USA,” Nike based in Beaverton, and local legends like Steve Prefontaine, some consider Oregon to be the epicenter of competitive running. Now, with a number of exceptional race times, Holland is helping carry on that legacy.
In recent years Holland finished in the top three in Oregon high school state history for the 1500 meters and 4th all-time in high school state history for the 3000 meters. Despite being high school, those times are significant.
Of the three runners faster than Holland in the 3000 meters, one is Galen Rupp, who won the silver medal for the 10,000 meters in the 2012 Olympics. Another is Steve Prefontaine, one of the sport’s most accomplished athletes. Those ranks put Holland among the best in the nation for his age group.
“If you look at Oregon history, it’s extremely strong Prefontaine on down,” says Ashland High School track coach Hans Voskes. “And EJ is in the mix.”
Holland’s success goes beyond Oregon, according to Jack Shepard, editor of Track and Field News. Shepard has been ranking high school track athletes for 50 years. According to Shepard, Oregon doesn’t have better runners than any other state at the high school level, but he says, Holland stands out nationally.
“In the high school scene itself, he has already emerged. He’s one of the top five distance runners in the nation,” Shepard says.
But high schoolers’ bodies change quickly, from one year to another. Because of that, Shepard says, it’s hard to make any predictions about teenage athletes and where they’ll end up.
“There are so many Olympians who, when you look back, we either do not have them at all on our lists, or they’re way down at the bottom of the list,” he says.
Reaching his current level has taken dedication from Holland as well as his whole family.
“When we go on vacation, we go where he can run,” says EJ’s father, Neil Holland, “Maybe up in the mountains where we can go to Flagstaff at spring break.”
In recent years with major wildfire smoke in the Rogue Valley they’ve had to change the usual training plan.
“My dad and I were making trips well-over an hour. Two-to-three-hour roundtrips, just for me to go run for 45 minutes,” Holland says.
That training is paying off. Holland announced that was accepted into the track and cross-country team at the University of Oregon in September, the same team Prefontaine competed on.
Going to the University of Oregon and competing at the college level means more than just representing his home state, Holland says.
“I could go and be a part of this great tradition. That was definitely something that was in the back of my mind. I was like, oh, this would be really cool.”