FREDERICKTOWN – The most dramatic point in any cross country race isn’t when the fastest runners are trading strides down the home stretch, or crossing the finish line at almost the exact same time.
It’s just before that, when the crowd of spectators, gathered at the finish line, first realizes what’s about to unfold before them.
There is often an audible gasp, a collective clench, when the top two runners come into view. This is exactly what occurred last Saturday, on a brisk, dewy morning in Pickerington, with a regional title on the line.
Fredericktown’s Thomas Caputo and Belpre’s Eli Fullerton came roaring around the bend, moving in lockstep, rounding the final turn with 100 meters left. As they charged toward the tape, neither could gain an advantage. All that grunting and stretching and burning (not to mention the three miles beforehand), only to come up even – or so it seemed.
As both runners lunged toward the finish line, Caputo made one final push. He would finish 14-one-hundredths of a second ahead of Fullerton – 16:18.80 to 16.18.94 – and claim his first regional championship.
“It was a dogfight, that’s for sure. Every time I race him, it’s been like that …” Caputo said afterwards. “As soon as I took the lead, I was like, ‘Just don’t lose it. I’ll look pretty soft if I would’ve lost that lead.’ So that was the only thing going through my mind – just don’t lose this, hang on, hang on. I mean, once you get to that point, you’ve literally finished more than 98 percent of the race, so you’ve just gotta hang on for that last 2 percent. Empty the tank.”
Caputo beat Fullerton by the slimmest of margins. One slower step, one off-beat breath, one split-second of mental or physical weakness and the result would have been different.
This is the difference between first and second place at the highest level, and Caputo knows it. It’s the reason he’s become increasingly meticulous in his training over the past few years – both physically and mentally – and the reason he’ll have a chance at history Saturday, when he lines up for his final high school cross country race.
Caputo has now won conference, district and regional titles this season. If he wins state, he’ll become Knox County’s first high school cross country state champion.
“He’s been on a mission,” Fredericktown coach Bob Geiger said.
And he’s not done yet.
Caputo’s path to becoming one of Ohio’s top cross country runners began on his family’s 11-acre Fredericktown property, back when he was 6 or 7 years old. His parents had a nickname for him back then.
“Forrest Gump,” his mother, Marie, laughed. “It’s not like he was running races, but whenever he did anything, he just ran – and he ran fast.”
Thomas would utilize every inch of his family’s grassy estate, chasing his older brothers and sisters around the front yard, the side yard, the backyard. His father, Matt, says he resembled the Energizer bunny.
But all this backyard training didn’t necessarily manifest in gold medals when Thomas began his formal cross country career in junior high. He was the third-fastest runner on the team his seventh- and eighth-grade years, behind classmates Titus Krabill and Jacob Rook.
Still, Marie said Thomas exhibited potential early on. It wasn’t just the way he ran, but the way he interacted with his teammates. The Fredericktown junior high team won a state championship his eighth grade year, and Caputo played a key role. Geiger, who also runs the junior high program, took notice.
“Coach Geiger said to me one day, he said, ‘You know, that Thomas Caputo, he’s my leader,’” Marie recalled. “And I’m like, ‘Really? He’s in junior high, what are you talking about?’ But he goes, ‘Oh no, I’m telling you, that’s what I see in that boy.’”
Geiger’s predictions proved true the following year, when Caputo made the varsity team as a freshman. He improved drastically that season, quickly becoming one of the top runners in the program. Caputo’s breakout performance came at districts, when he recorded a personal-record time of 16:52, placing second on the team and fifth overall.
But he struggled over the final two weeks of the season, finishing 36th at regionals (17:38) and 112th at state (17:42). Caputo said he felt disappointed in how the year ended.
“I really didn’t like that feeling of having a really good race and then the last two (regionals and state) – which were more important, too – I just fell apart,” he said. “That kind of really grinded my gears ... I didn’t want to feel that way again.”
It was at this point, Caputo said, that he began to take cross country seriously. From this day on, his mindset changed. Marie remembers this time vividly.
“I remember having a conversation with him and he told me, ‘I’ve decided that if I’m going to run cross country, I’m gonna be the best I can be. And I’ve got to start working hard,’” Marie recalled. “Something clicked with him.”
The shift was both physical and mental. He tightened his diet and upped his workout regimen, but he also began paying attention to the cerebral side of running. He would think of specific goals for himself and the team before every season, and he would record those aspirations on 3x5 notecards.
“I had the same note in multiple places around my room, so that no matter where I looked, I’d see it,” Caputo said. “I’m always trying to think of ways to achieve those goals.”
Heading into his sophomore season, Caputo began running every day with seniors Paden Spencer and Connor Riley. Spencer and Riley were the team’s fastest individuals, and according to Geiger, Caputo stuck to them like glue.
“Thomas got in there and got with their philosophy – got in with Paden’s philosophy, started running with him and just raced with him,” Geiger recalled. “It was almost as if he just did whatever they did, and realized that he could run that fast.”
Caputo leveled up that year, finishing third overall at districts with a personal-best time of 16:30. But the performance came at a cost – he strained an oblique muscle crossing the finish line, setting him back the rest of the season. Caputo placed 47th overall at states with a time of 17:30.
He got a taste of state glory that spring, when his 4x800-meter relay team earned a podium finish at the state track meet. He carried that momentum into his junior cross country season, when he truly broke onto the state scene, placing sixth at state with a time of 16:09.
He finished 27 seconds behind first, having hung with the lead pack nearly the entire race. Much like the end of his freshman season, Geiger said this served as a turning point in Caputo’s trajectory.
“Suddenly, he was sixth in the state, and you realized that he was special,” he said. “And it wasn’t that he was just going to grind and be 20th in the state and be all-Ohio; he had a shot to be one of the top guys.”
Then, right before his junior track season, the world stopped.
The COVID-19 pandemic took hold that spring, canceling track and keeping students out of school. But that wouldn’t stop Caputo from marching toward his goals.
“When COVID hit, everything came to a standstill, but for Thomas and Titus (Krabill),” Marie said. “Those two would go out and they just kept running and working on themselves. They knew what they were trying to do and I think that helped out a lot.”
Caputo and Krabill immediately launched into cross country mode that spring, taking a week off before the mileage began. Caputo eliminated soda from his diet and began studying the philosophy of David Goggins, a retired Navy SEAL who now runs ultramarathons and preaches mental toughness.
He became laser-focused on the next goal, the next potential prize: a state cross country championship.
“I just kind of took it and ran with it, no pun intended,” Caputo said. “I knew everybody in the state was dealing with it, so it was essentially, ‘Who’s going to deal with it the best?’ And I honestly kind of made that a challenge, to prove that when adversity comes my way, I can deal with it pretty well.”
Caputo trained like never before heading into his senior cross country season. As the OHSAA and the Ohio Department of Health went back-and-forth over whether or not there would even be a fall sports season, Caputo put his head down and continued to grind.
Amid all the uncertainty, he managed to reach a career training pinnacle near the end of the summer, logging 50 miles per month in the July heat.
“I was smart about it, but I was also kind of getting after it and just kind of making the most of it …” Caputo said. “It was an opportunity I didn’t want to waste.”
By the time the OHSAA approved fall competition in August, Caputo was in the best shape of his life. And it showed on the course. He placed first in nearly every regular-season race, and he broke the school record on Sept. 26 in Dublin, despite 80-degree heat and sweltering humidity.
Caputo won the ultra-competitive Celtic Clash with a time of 15:34, thirteen seconds ahead of last year’s Div. III state champion.
“That shocked me, that really shocked me,” Geiger said. “Because we had rested up a little bit, it was a big race, but I didn’t think that the weather conditions would permit that. It was the middle of the afternoon, it was like 80 degrees, and he just kind of broke through that day.”
Caputo won the Denny Stevens Invitational three days later with a time of 15:57. He claimed his first conference, district and regional titles in the coming weeks, but each time, his response was the same.
“It feels good, obviously. But you know, I could lose every meet of the year, win next week and still be the happiest camper in the world,” he said last week. “So this is awesome, but my eyes are still set on next week, like they’ve been all season.”
On Saturday, Caputo will finally get his shot. He’ll take one more stab at the ultimate prize.
But he won’t be doing it alone.
Caputo will be one of just 18 Knox County runners to compete this Saturday at Fortress Obetz.
Both the Fredericktown boys and girls teams qualified for the state meet this season, adding another chapter to the program’s storied legacy. The boys are making their sixth state appearance in seven years; the girls are making their fourth in five years, although this year will hold special significance, as they will compete in the Div. II state race for the first time in school history.
The girls went from Div. III to Div. II last year – not because they gained students, Geiger said, but because the OHSAA’s line moved. The Freddies missed state qualification by one place at regionals, and after four straight appearances, Geiger said it left the team stunned.
Fredericktown responded this year by finishing seventh at Saturday’s regional meet, claiming the final spot at state. Geiger views this as a major program achievement, given the difficulty of qualifying for state at the Div. II level.
“For this group to get back is not gonna make the headlines in the state – you know, we’re gonna be down the list a little bit – but it is probably the best accomplishment of a girls team in a long time ...” Geiger said. “I’m really proud of them.”
The girls team will be led by sophomore Elsa Hoam, the team’s lone individual state qualifier last season, who placed 19th on Saturday with a time of 20:06. She finished 134th at state last year as a freshman, and will look to move up the standings in her second appearance.
“We’re excited for our first time as a team, being at the (Div. II) state meet. And we’re running hard and we’re practicing hard for it,” Hoam said this week. “We’re just glad we can make it and we’re trying not to be last at state – we want to not be the last team at state, because we can do better than that.”
Hoam will be flanked by junior Natalie Vanmeter, who finished 53rd at regionals last week, as well as senior Macy Thorne, who placed 60th. Sydney Wilson, Kacie Rook, Destiny Blubaugh and Sadie Sanders will round out the order for the Freddies.
On the boys side, Caputo will be joined by Krabill, his longtime running mate, who placed 17th at regionals last week. Evan France, Grant Shrimplin, Xavier Platt, Owen Krabill and Peyton Hogg will also toe the line for Fredericktown.
The Freddie boys placed eighth at last year’s Div. III state meet. Geiger said the goal this time around is to break into the upper echelon, having spent years in the 7-10 range.
“It’s time for this group to break out of the middle of the pack of the state and move into the top part,” Geiger said. “I feel like for the boys team right now, we’re on the edge of, ‘Can we get past being seventh, eighth, ninth in the state?’ Which is a tall order, because that’s pretty good. But we’re there.”
Other county qualifiers include East Knox freshman Taylor Severt, who will compete in the Div. III girls race after placing 16th at regionals last weekend. Centerburg juniors Avery Tucker and Abigail Dickhof will join her after placing 17th and 19th, respectively, in the same race.
At the Div. I level, Mount Vernon sophomore Sophie Zoldak will be making her first state appearance on Saturday after placing 13th in Pickerington last weekend. Zoldak finished 11th at districts the week prior and sixth at the Ohio Cardinal Conference meet on Oct. 17.
Caputo, however, stands out from the pack because of his potential. The senior has a chance to do what no one else has done before in Knox County: bring home cross country gold.
“I was talking to my parents last night, I was like, ‘I feel the perfect combination of confidence and nerves,’” Caputo said Wednesday. “Like, I know I can race with them, it’s just piecing it all together on the right day.
“I wouldn’t say there’s any pressure because we’ve never had a state champion, but at the same time, there is some pressure because this is a really good opportunity to end that, and that would be awesome and I would love to do that. But I don’t know, I’m just stoked, essentially. I don’t know how to answer that, to be honest. It’s a little bit of everything.”
A large part of Caputo’s preparation, beyond the mental and physical components, is routine.
Every Friday, the evening before a race, he goes to Amato’s in Mount Vernon. He dines with Krabill and teammate Caleb Sheriff, and he always orders the same meal: a half order of pasta carbonara and a small house salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing. Oh, and a water with lemon.
“As Michael Scott says, ‘I’m not superstitious, but I am a little stitious,’” Caputo jokes, referencing the main character in the hit TV series The Office. “So, I get the same thing every time.”
Jokes aside, it is this precision – this singular focus, on and off the course – that sets Caputo apart. Add to that his talent and race intelligence, and it’s no secret why Caputo has emerged as a state contender this fall.
“He’s kind of like a mini-coach out there. He knows exactly what to do,” Geiger said. “And I don’t have to give him detailed instructions – you know, I’ve done this for so long that I say one or two words and he knows what I mean, he knows what to do, and he does it.”
The past few weeks have been a bit stressful for Caputo, who remains one positive COVID-19 test – and/or one contact-trace – away from being ruled ineligible to compete in the state race. Pandemic protocols have ended other athletes’ seasons this fall, and Caputo said he’s tried his hardest to stay healthy as the season has progressed.
“It’s definitely something I think about, and that’s why kind of these past two weeks, I’ve been kind of a little bit of a freak with the mask and the hand-washing and Vitamin C and everything,” he said. “I know that even if I’m healthy, I can still get contact traced and I’m still done. But I’m doing everything I can to not (get in that situation).
“I just keep my fingers crossed and yeah, it is pretty nerve-wracking to think about that. But I know once Saturday morning rolls around, if I’m there, I know I’ll be making the most of it.”
Caputo has plans to run after high school – several schools are currently interested, his parents said – while also majoring in business.
But right now, he’s focused on one thing: the present. He’s focused on Saturday, when he’ll go toe-to-toe with the state’s fastest runners, and he’ll make his claim for the grand prize.
Calling from her Fredericktown home – the same one Thomas ran laps around as a child – Marie Caputo reflected last week on her son’s journey. When asked about how he made it to this point, she pointed to the notecards. She pointed to the long summer miles, the strict year-round diets, the short-term sacrifices for long-term successes.
“Thomas Caputo sets goals for himself,” she proudly said.
Now, he has just one left to meet.
The Fredericktown boys will race in the Div. III championship at 9 a.m. The Div. III girls race, featuring Severt, Tucker and Dickhof, will begin at 10 a.m. The Fredericktown girls will race in the Div. II championship at 1 p.m., while Zoldak will compete in the Div. I race at 4 p.m. To watch Saturday's state title races, live from Obetz, click here.