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Running down a dream

All smiles with three medals in her hands, Winter Park's Shelby Hayes stands on Showalter Field after doing something no class 4A runner has done before.

All smiles with three medals in her hands, Winter Park's Shelby Hayes stands on Showalter Field after doing something no class 4A runner has done before.

Isaac Babcock

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At 7:01 p.m. Saturday, with the late evening sun casting an amber spotlight on her face, Shelby Hayes stood atop the state championship podium in tears.

She'd just won her second gold medal at Showalter Field on her way to a third, setting a state record for distance running victories in the process.

Before Saturday, no runner in class 4A state history had won the 4 x 800 meters, the 1600 meters and then the 3200 meters in the same championship.

But as she wiped her eyes as she walked away from the podium after winning the 1600 meters, with still one long race left after sunset, she said she wished she had ran even faster.

She had won by nearly 8 seconds. But she had hoped to be 8 seconds swifter – enough to catch and pass state record holder Jenny Barringer six years earlier. She had wanted the record.

But that's something Hayes said she knew she had given up earlier Saturday morning as her legs had churned ever more quickly toward the finish line in the 4 x 800 meter relay. Anchoring that race, she grabbed the baton from teammate Kira Soderstrom and sped off around the first turn already ripping open the gap that would widen to more than 10 seconds before she crossed the line.

Her teammates were ecstatic with the victory – the first for all of them. With a trio of juniors around her, Hayes was the only member of Winter Park's relay team who would be graduating – bound for the University of Florida's track and field team in the fall.

"That was great to be able to share a gold medal with the three other girls," Hayes said.

Hayes was still on her feet as she left the track after the 4 x 800, but had spent more energy than she'd hoped.

"I think the race definitely took a lot out of my legs," she said. "It was a bit harder than I expected."

Later that day she decided that going for a victory in the 1600 meters would have to be enough. She didn't want to risk chasing the record. It could have cost her too dearly.

"I wanted to save something for the 3200," she said. "I wanted to make sure I had enough left."

In the 3200 meters, she wanted to avenge a loss that had haunted her since last season. In 2009, on this same track at Winter Park's Showalter Field, she was just entering the final curve on the final lap as Mariana Lucena crossed the finish line in 10:59.66. Hayes wouldn't finish for another 27 seconds, in third place.

This time, she wanted the win outright, setting out quickly ahead of the other 15 runners in the final. Always in the lead after the first lap, she would maintain her relentless pace as the rest of the pack disintegrated and fell farther behind.

And by the time she rounded the final curve, her stolid look of determination had finally broken into a smile. She crossed the finish line in 10:54.67 with her hands in the air, triply a champion before a packed stadium of thousands.

"It hasn't really sunk in yet," she said after her final race. "I'm sure it'll hit me later on."

There were no tears as she stood on the victory podium the last time. Outshined by the glimmer of three gold medals, any regrets finally faded away. Her eyes glistened just a little under the stadium lights as she waved to the crowd one last time. Then she smiled to a friend in the stands, and did the Gator chomp with her hands.