This story was originally published in the Fall issue of Parker Magazine.
By Matthew Piechalak | [email protected]
When Kenan Pala runs, he smiles––not because he’s talented, which he absolutely is. He smiles out of a sheer, unadulterated love for the sport he has dedicated so much of his young life to during the past decade.
“I love smiling while I run because I’m supposed to have fun,” says Kenan, Class of 2022. “I do this sport because I want to, so if I’m racing, I’m smiling.”
Throughout his Upper School years, Kenan has grown into an exceptional runner. The Parker lifer has ascended the ranks at the local, state, and national level; he has secured a commitment to run Track and Field and Cross Country in the Ivy League at Yale University this fall; and recently, he claimed the record for fastest time in CIF San Diego Section history when he clocked in at 14:11:11 on a three-mile course at the CCA Ravens XC Invitational on September 4, 2021.
Long a proponent for setting lofty personal benchmarks he hopes to attain, Kenan acknowledges something about that race felt different. “Going into the race, I wanted to break 14:28 because that means I can break 15 minutes for the 5K, which has been a dream of mine since I started high school,” Kenan says. “The race finishes halfway across the track, and when I was about to enter the track, someone yelled, ‘Your time is 13:30!’ I was about .2 from the finish and I thought to myself, ‘I will break 14:30, how close can I get to 14:20 and then around 14:10?’”
Ultimately, Kenan’s finish was a full minute and 12 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher from Cathedral Catholic High School. “I’ve always been pretty highly ranked, but I was never the best,” he says. “It was at that moment that I knew I was finally where I have always dreamed of being. Crossing the finish line at 14:11 was solidification.”
“Kenan has established himself as one of the top high school runners today; the results and the times don’t lie,” says Parker Head of School and Cross Country Coach Kevin Yaley, Ph.D. “His success is the result of a comprehensive training regimen, including his integration of mindfulness practice.”
Kenan’s love for running originated from Monday Flag Raising on Parker’s Mission Hills Campus. Former Head of Lower School Bob Gillingham, a longtime Ironman Triathlon, was a figure that seemed larger-than-life to a young Kenan. “I remember we would have Flag Raisings and every few months, they would announce that Dr. G just completed an Ironman, and I was just like, ‘Wow, that is crazy,’” Kenan recalls. “It was just very impressive for fourth- and fifth-grade me, so I decided to sign up for a triathlon.”
A triathlon is a long-distance race that consists of three phases––typically swimming, bicycling, and running. The most common triathlon includes swimming 1.5 kilometers (.93 miles), bicycling 40 kilometers (24.8 miles), and running 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). The Ironman Triathlon includes swimming 3.9 kilometers (2.4 miles), bicycling 180 kilometers (112 miles), and running a full marathon (26.2 miles).
Kenan’s first competition was the Scott Tinley Triathlon, an event named after the California native who was inducted into the Ironman Hall of Fame in 1996. Kenan was in Grade 6. “The atmosphere was crazy,” he says. “It’s not just one sport; I’m swimming, biking, and running, and I have to worry about transitioning, too. It was definitely a little overwhelming for a sixth grader, but I took that as a challenge.”
Kenan ran several triathlons while in Middle School, but over time, he came to the realization that running was, by far, his favorite component of the three-sport package. “There was just something about it,” he says, before delving deeper in introspection. “You could say that biking gives you a greater sense of freedom, but for me, running gave me complete control. I was the one using my legs, and I don’t have to worry about the current of the waves [while] swimming or the wind [while] biking––it’s just me and my two feet. I love that independence, and it stuck with me.”
It was during his Grade 7 Cross Country season when Kenan began to realize running wasn’t just a phase. He started to envision himself running in Upper School, and even began entertaining dreams of one day running at the collegiate level. “Even though it was only Middle school, it gave me a sense of pride to race,” he says. “Having ‘Parker’ across my chest and representing something greater than myself was really cool.”
The passion to run––and win––grew for Kenan as he entered Upper School. “I raced in some big races and got some big wins,” he says. “I made some drastic improvements from my freshman year and carried that momentum forward.”
But then the COVID-19 Pandemic hit midway through Kenan’s sophomore year, and competitive sports were put on hold indefinitely. A time of great uncertainty for all, for many it was also a time for reflection and reinvention. For Kenan, it gave him the time to redefine his burgeoning passion for running. “Being stuck at home not racing made me change my approach,” he says. “I decided I was going to start taking it more seriously.”
Previously, Kenan’s training regime was straightforward. He ran. Every day. The goal was 70 to 80 miles per week. Confined to home, Kenan, like any dedicated athlete, looked hard at new methods to hone his craft. He cut back to running 50 to 60 miles per week and added 20 to 40 miles bicycling per week. Along with his teammates at Parker, he also began doing consistent core work and weight training. Recently, he also began practicing guided meditation. Kenan smiles, thinking back fondly to memories of riding to Middle School with his dad, who would turn on TED Talks about meditation. At the time, it may have seemed silly to an early adolescent. Now, it’s an important component of Kenan’s personal training.
“It has made a huge difference,” he says. “When you are racing, you shouldn’t be thinking about anything else [except] putting one foot in front of the other. Meditation helps get those distractions out. While I’m racing, I don’t look back to see if anyone is behind me and I don’t look at spectators, I just tune that all out and it’s just me running, and I think meditation helps with that visualization.”
While the Ivy League is the next stop on his running tour, Kenan maintains he is enjoying the journey and taking each race in stride, so to speak. His goals remain lofty––and numerous. One in particular? Break the Division V course record at the 2021 CIF State Cross Country Championships in Fresno on November 27. “I took fourth place my sophomore year and I want to take the title this year and break the course record set by Cooper Teare, who now runs at the University of Oregon.” Kenan also hopes to attain a top 5 finish at the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships at Morley Field in San Diego on December 14. Personal goals aside, Kenan says it all comes back to the team. He hopes to lead Parker to both state and national championships.
“His passion for running is rivaled only by his respect for the sport itself,” Kevin says. “Kenan pays homage to the great runners he aspires to emulate and he sees his competitors as equals and as friends. He represents the best in athletic competition.”
Kenan will enter Yale this fall and join one of the best recruiting classes the prestigious university has had in decades. “I’m hoping that in two or three years, we can put in a good run to qualify for NCAA and be one of the top programs in the country,” he says. “Also, before I graduate, I want to be an Ivy League Heptagonal XC Championships as an individual, as well as a team.” According to Kenan, it’s been decades since Yale has won a national running championship. “It would be amazing to be the team to break that drought,” he says.
Amid the growing success on both the course and track, the notoriety in the running community, and the promise for future growth at the collegiate level—both with running and in the classroom—Kenan is very clear about what he values in life, and including the hierarchy of those things. “For me, academics will always be at the forefront,” he says. “The only thing in front of that would be family and friends––so for me, it goes family/friends, academics, and then running.”