On course or track, Jenkins’ early start pays off at the finish line

You could be forgiven for wondering when Gavin Jenkins finds time to sleep. That’s because the freshman spends most of his time in motion — whether it’s running on the Rappahannock cross country course or speeding down a race track in his Legends car.

Jenkins has actually been running cross country since he was a child — fifth grade, to be exact. “Both of my parents [Holly and Mark Jenkins] were great runners and they wanted me to do it,” Jenkins explains.

Freshman Gavin Jenkins was quick enough to take home eighth place overall at the VHSL state championship meet Nov. 16.
Freshman Gavin Jenkins was quick enough to take home eighth place overall at the VHSL state championship meet Nov. 16. Jon Fleming

“I have a genetic advantage,” he laughs.

This is his first year running on Rappahannock County High School’s varsity squad, as it’s also the first year he’s eligible. The Panthers’ highly successful season culminated in a trip to the Virginia High School League’s state championship Nov. 16 at Great Meadow — a meet in which Jenkins’ seventh-place finish led the boys’ team to an eighth-place overall finish in Division 1A.

That was the same meet where sophomore sensation (and fellow longtime cross country runner) Julia Wood finished first overall and led the varsity girls’ team to a second-place overall finish.

“She’s obviously a great runner,” Jenkins says, laughing at the idea of a rivalry between the two. “For a while it used to be just me and her. Then Amrit [Tamang] came out and ran and so did a few other people . . . She’s always fun to run with.”

Both teams’ recent successes have drawn more participants, Jenkins notes, as Tamang is just one of many multi-sport Panther athletes to join the cross country team. “We got several people from other sports . . . and they’ve been a big help.”

A typical cross country track in 3.1 miles, though, as Jenkins, notes, some of them can be slightly shorter. “There was a track a few weeks ago that was only three miles, so everyone obviously got their best time on that one, but they’re usually 3.1 miles.”

And though the tracks are normally as straightforward as the straightaways Jenkins spends his weekends driving, sometimes they do diverge: through the woods or, as during the state championship, through a river. “That one was hard,” Jenkins admits. “Everybody’s shoes and socks got wet which made it a lot harder . . . But you keep going.”

Jenkins says his best time this season was 16 minutes 42 seconds, just over five minutes per mile. What he says he was most impressed with, however, was the improvement he saw from his own teammates. “There were people who started out with times in the 30s. By the end, they’d gotten all the way down to 20s,” he says, proudly.

“Gavin’s a great athlete and a great racer,” says coach James Sharpe. “He’s been racing cars for about as long as he’s been running . . . and really understands how to plan his race and how to handle the course.

“We’re excited that Gavin is only a freshman, and can still improve even more,” Sharpe says. “Our boys’ team is losing a lot of very good seniors this year, but we’re bringing back Gavin and two other current freshman in Justin Ramey and Jake Demory, who were running around 20-minute 5Ks, as well as a few older kids and a couple eighth graders. We’re hoping to add a few more athletes, though — to increase our chances of getting back to states again next year.”

As impressive as Jenkins’ running has been, his success on the track is arguably even greater, as he won the Shenandoah Speedway’s 2013 Legends Car Championship, securing his overall points’ victory with a third-place finish on Sept. 14.

For the past two years he has raced Legends cars in Virginia and North Carolina, which can get up to 85 miles per hour and are purposefully designed to look like Chevy, Ford and Dodge vehicles from 1934 to 1937.

He started racing with go-karts at age 7 before moving to mini-cup cars, the next step up. Jenkins has already started over 150 races in his eight-year career and was named the 2009 Capital City Speedway Champion in his class, as well as Junior Driver of the Year.

That same year he was second in the Virginia State Championship in his class. In 2011, he finished second in the Shenandoah Valley Scale Racing League Championship for mini-cup cars. Last year, he was the Virginia Legends Champion in his age group.

“I usually only race on the weekends, which means I do have to miss on practicing [with the cross country team] on Saturdays. But it’s usually only once a week.”

Jenkins says he dreams of becoming a professional driver, and is focused on competing for a 2014 National Legends Championship — and hopefully gaining some exposure in the process. Still only 15 years old, Jenkins has the skills of a driver far beyond his years: Most of the competitors he surpassed in the last two years were adult drivers.

“I’d say I’m better at running than I am at racing,” Jenkins admits. “But I’d say racing is a little more fun.”