Because Hugh Enicks is a pretty good distance runner in his own right — five national age-group championships and counting — the recently retired Red Bank High ROTC instructor has spent more than a few hours on and around the school's track.
Eight years ago, while watching a middle school meet, he saw a sixth grader named Cole Bullock for the first time.
"I knew Cole was going to be special then," the 61-year-old Enicks said Monday night. "Just watching him for a few minutes I said to myself, 'That kid's pretty dang good."
Come last Friday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Bullock was pretty dang good enough at the SEC cross country championships to finish second overall, neatly sandwiched between his Ole Miss teammates Mario Garcia Romo (who won) and Waleed Suliman, who finished third.
Amazingly, despite sweeping the top three spots, the Rebels actually lost the team championship to Arkansas, which locked down spots five through nine to win its record 26th SEC title.
But that doesn't mean the entire Scenic City running community shouldn't be beaming over Bullock's runner-up effort. Especially since the 2019 Red Bank grad was the only American to finish in the top four.
"I think I was two seconds from winning it," Bullock said from his dorm at Ole Miss on Monday night, where the team is basically living in a bubble and taking classes online to protect it as much as possible from the coronavirus pandemic.
"I was really happy for Mario, though. He deserved to win."
In truth, the sophomore Bullock was actually but 1.4 seconds behind Garcia Romo's 23:32.9 over the 8K course, Bullock finishing with a time of 23:34.3.
"I was close," said Bullock, who stands 6-3, weighs 150 and is majoring in General Engineering. "I felt good out there."
Enicks says Bullock can do more than win the SEC cross country title one day.
"I've run 3,000 miles with him over the years," he said. "I know Cole's potential. He trains hard. He's got leg speed, too. If he can visualize it, he can make it happen. I've always told him that if he'd stay true and injury free, the sky is his to take."
That sky would theoretically include distance events at the Olympics in 2024. Bullock also intends to compete in indoor and outdoor track at Ole Miss this year, assuming the NCAA stages such events this coming winter and spring.
Said Bullock of those possibilities: "The Olympics are everyone's goal. If I get that far, I'll definitely go for it."
He went for the SEC championship this past weekend with his father Mark Bullock, mother Kelly Summersett, and her wife Candace Clackner on the course to cheer him on.
After taking a well-deserved Saturday off to relax and celebrate Halloween back in Oxford with teammates, Bullock ran 15 miles on Sunday and 11 more on Monday. Talk about dedication and focus.
So just who or what does an SEC runner-up dress up as for Halloween?
"I was Borat," he said of the Sacha Baron Cohen movie character. "Gray suit, green undershirt and a beige tie."
Good candy haul?
"It was a little party. We had a bonfire going. Just the team. We're (the team) really all living in a bubble."
Like so many of us, he wished the COVID-19 interference in his life was different.
"It would be nice to see other people," Bullock said. "But this is a sacrifice everyone has to make right now."
Few athletes sacrifice more than runners. Bullock runs between 85 and 90 miles a week. The only time he's out of his bubble is to attend a physics lab once a week, though even there the seats are appropriately social distanced.
However, he has gotten out enough to make an early assessment of new Rebels football coach Lane Kiffin: "He's great. He's making something of a difference."
As much as Enicks has made a difference in Bullock's life and athletic career over the years — "I call him after every race," Bullock said of the man he refers to as "Colonel" because of his ROTC background — Enicks is similarly proud of his star pupil.
"Cole's a great young man," said Enicks. "He's like a son to me. I'm sure we'll get together over Christmas break to run and talk, like we always do. Here's what's best about him as a runner — he's only going to get better."
And when you've just finished second for your conference championship, the only spot better you can go is No. 1.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.