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Generation Next: America’s Fastest Young Runners

We take a look at 15 of the country’s best young runners.

The next crop of American runners is already here. We take a look at 15 of the country’s best young runners who are already making a big impact in marathons, trail running, cross country and track and field. Will they rise to the highest level in their sport and compete in the Olympics or world championships? Time will tell. But for now, they’re already pretty darn good.

Alexa Efraimson, 18
Camas, Wash.

When people talk about the next great American female running phenom, they often mention Mary Cain. But someone who also deserves to be in that limelight is Alexa Efraimson. Like Cain, this middle-distance ace decided to skip college running and turn pro. (She’s training under the guidance of her high school coach Mike Hickey and taking classes at University of Portland.) Last year, she broke Cain’s American high school indoor record for the 3,000 meters by almost 2 seconds (9:00.16). In 2013, Efraimson won bronze at the World Youth Championship 1,500m event. “I attribute my success in running to my support group, my close friends, my family, my coach and my training partners,” Efraimson,says. “They are there through the ups and the downs and they always believe, not only on race day but every day, which I think is one of the strongest contributors to my success.” Efraimson is currently focusing on the 1,500m—a distance she thinks she’s best at running. She lowered her 1,500m PR to 4:03.39, setting a new American junior record while placing seventh at the Pre Classic international track meet on May 30 in Eugene, Ore. “I like to take one season at a time and one race at a time, each as a stepping stone and learning opportunity,” she says. —Duncan Larkin

Eric Jenkins, 23
Eugene, Ore.

There’s something about New England that produces tough long-distance runners. America’s next great 5,000-meter specialist is rough-hewn, baby-faced New Hampshirite named Eric Jenkins, who won more college honors in track and cross country at the University of Oregon and Northeastern than he can remember. (The Cliffs Notes version: two-time NCAA indoor champion; All-America honors every year in track and cross country; NCAA cross country runner-up, three NCAA track team titles, and the second-fastest 5,000 in NCAA history.) After graduating in June, Jenkins signed with Nike and headed to Europe, where he notched personal bests in the 3,000 meters (7:41.79) as well as in the 5,000 (13:07.33). He’s now training with the Nike Oregon Project and taking the fall off in preparation for big goals in 2016: Qualifying for the IAAF World Indoor Championships, breaking 13 minutes for the 5K—and of course the U.S. Olympic Trials. “Eventually I’d like to run a marathon,” Jenkins says. The sometime rapper who goes by “Ricky Rocksford” might also return to the studio—his tracks from several years ago have found new life in online running circles as Jenkins’ star continues to rise. —Adam Elder

Sarah Disanza, 20
Madison, Wis.

University of Wisconsin junior Sarah Disanza started running track and cross country in middle school to stay in shape for soccer. She found her drive to run as a high school junior when she didn’t place as well as she’d hoped at the Nike Cross Nationals race. It pushed her to become more conscious of everything from her mileage to what she was eating, something that helped her win a state cross country title as a senior. “That’s where I really decided for myself the kind of runner I wanted to be,” says Disanza, who hails from Wantage, N.J. Flash forward to last November, when she placed second at the NCAA Cross Country Championships—an improvement of 102 places from her freshman year. Also during her breakthrough sophomore year, Disanza broke the University of Wisconsin and Big Ten record in the 5,000-meter run at the Boston University Opener meet (15:20.57) and finished third in the NCAA Indoor Championships. While her current goal is winning the NCAA cross country title this fall, her long-term sights are set on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials—especially considering the women’s 5,000m qualifying standard is 15:20-flat. “I know that I have it in me to squeeze out that last little half-second to make it to the trials,” she says. “I’m really excited about it.” —Olivia Litsey

Grant Fisher, 18
Palo Alto, Calif.

When Grant Fisher entered high school, his sport of choice was soccer. “In my sophomore year, we had a state cross country meet the same day as the state final for soccer,” Fisher says. “I picked soccer, and we lost the finals.” Since then, running’s golden boy from Grand Blanc, Mich., has racked up high school records and PRs in both cross country and track. He is the second Michigander (after Dathan Ritzenhein) to win two consecutive Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships (2013 and 2014). He is also a two-time adidas Dream Mile champion (2014 and 2015). Fisher’s most notable accomplishment, though, is becoming the seventh high school boy in history to run a sub-4-minute mile (3:59.38) in June at the Nike Festival of Miles in St. Louis. “It’s pretty rare for runners to go pro,” says Fisher, who’s now a freshman majoring in engineering at Stanford. “But I think the opportunities are growing, in which the national level in the U.S. has risen quite a bit, and to be able to compete at the national level is pretty much to compete on the world level.” —Emily Polachek

Alana Hadley, 18
Charlotte, N.C.

Approaching the finish line of the 2013 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, then-16-year-old Alana Hadley knew she was close to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon standard of 2 hours and 43 minutes. “When I looked up at the clock on the final straightaway and saw I was going to get the standard, I got really emotional and started bawling,” recalls Hadley, who finished fourth that day in 2:41:56. She returned to Indianapolis last November, winning the race and lowering her personal best to 2:38:34—currently the 49th fastest time on USA Track & Field’s qualifier list. (However, she will be ineligible to compete in the 2016 Olympics if she finishes in the top three at the U.S. trials because of a minimum age restriction of 20.) Hadley, who has been coached by her father, Mark, since she was 6 years old, logs 110–120 miles in her biggest training weeks. She’s attending the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to study exercise science, taking a minimum course load so she can pursue running professionally and still have a social life. “If I only have one thing going on, I tend to overthink it sometimes and stress myself out,” Hadley says. “So having other things to maintain a balance in my life is important.” —Mario Fraioli

RELATED: Alana Hadley: America’s Next Best Marathoner

Mandy Ortiz, 20
Boulder, Colo.

Growing up near Vail, Colo., Mandy Ortiz gained an appreciation for the gritty splendor of running on trails, perhaps because her dad, Mike, was the race director for one of the state’s best trail running series or because her mom, Anita, was one of the country’s best mountain runners. “Trails take you to beautiful places and they give a different kind of challenge,” Ortiz says. “Why would you ever want to run on the roads when you can run on beautiful trails in the mountains?” Ortiz runs track and cross country for the University of Colorado, but she really excels at running in the wild. Two years ago, she won the 4.7K junior race at the World Mountain Running Championships in Poland (and helped the U.S. juniors win the team title). Last year, following surgery to repair a torn labrum, she placed fourth among juniors (and won another team gold) at the world championships in Italy. She moved up to the elite ranks this past summer and finished third at the North America-Central America-Caribbean Mountain Running Championships on July 18 in Vancouver, Canada, and then took 14th in the U.S. Mountain Running Championships a week later in Bend, Ore. —Brian Metzler

Jared Hazen, 20
Colorado Springs

Jared Hazen is blazing his own trail. As a senior in high school, the native of Titusville, Pa., took the bold step of putting off college to focus on his upstart ultrarunning career. That might seem foolish considering he’d only began experimenting with longer distances 15 months earlier. “I was running further and further on trails and I really liked that a lot,” he recalls. “I knew then that I wanted to give ultras a try someday.” The next summer, he started running with local ultrarunner Jeff Nelson. Although he placed second in his first ultra before his sernior year—the 2012 Baker Trail 50-miler in Brookville, Pa.—he had a “spectacular blow-up” that included plenty of vomiting and a dreadful march to the finish line. By the time he graduated in 2013, though, he had already decided to move to Jackson, Wyo., to focus on training while working as a housekeeper at Grand Teton National Park. He returned home to win the Oil Creek 100 later that year and has continued his progression ever since. Now 20 and working at a running shop in Colorado Springs, he’s recorded numerous top finishes, including third-place showings at the Lake Sonoma 50-miler in April and the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in June. “It’s been an interesting ride so far,” he says. “I’m just now starting to see what I can do with this.” —B.M.

Ashley Erba, 19
Boulder, Colo.

Growing up in Winona Lake, Ind., Ashley Erba dreamed about becoming an elite track star. She got serious about running her sophomore year in high school, focusing all of her energy toward one day running for an NCAA Division I college program, and after winning two state championships and a national title in the 5,000 as a junior in 2011-2012, she was on everyone’s recruiting list. She eventually settled on Providence College, but her senior year was derailed by a broken foot—she ran on two broken bones for several months before eventually having surgery and spending her spring semester in a walking cast. After finishing a somewhat tumultuous freshman year at Providence—she was redshirted and never got to run for the top-ranked Friars, who went on to win the NCAA title that fall—she returned home to Indiana to decide what was next.

While she was home, she spent time crewing for her mom, Karen, a longtime marathon runner who recently caught the ultrarunning bug. Having that connection made a big impression on Erba after moving to Boulder, Colo., in what she hoped would be a two-month odyssey of self-discovery. Once in Colorado, she started running long trail runs in the mountains and, “on a whim,” signed up for her first ultra-distance race, the Uber Rock 50K in Frisco, Colo., last September. She won that race and followed that up with another win in February at the Moab Red Hot 55K in Utah, and a third-place finish at the Lake Sonoma 50-miler in Healdsburg, Calif., in April. She never left Boulder and instead enrolled in classes at the University of Colorado, although she has no intention on trying to run for the Buffaloes’ nationally renowned cross-country and track programs. Like her mom, she has also caught the ultra bug.

“As soon as I started doing these races, I knew this was the kind of running I wanted to do,” she says. “Track and cross country are great and I loved that, but now I love getting up into the mountains and running trails. To me, that’s what makes me whole.”

Erba won Power of Four 50K on July 19 in Aspen, Colo., and the El Vaquero Loco 50K in Afton, Wyo., on Aug. 8. She then helped pace Ian Sharman to victory at the Leadville 100. She’ll be running the 55K Flagstaff Sky Race on Oct. 2, an event that will serve as the U.S. Skyrunner Series Finale. —B.M.

Ford Smith, 19
Boulder, Colo.

Although he’s only 19, Ford Smith is already a seasoned ultrarunning veteran with numerous victories under his belt, but the amazing part is how far he’s come in the past three years. He says he was overweight as an adolescent, but discovered “the mindfulness allotted on a run really appealed to [him] and gave [him] space to clear [his] head.”

After getting in shape and finishing second in his first half marathon, he was inspired to give ultrarunning a try by a high school PE coach’s suggestion while living in Utah. (His family later moved to Austin, Texas, but now he’s attending the University of Colorado in Boulder.)

Smith placed sixth in his first ultra at 16, but his experience at the Antelope Island Buffalo Run 50K in Utah was quite a debacle. “Thinking I was fast, I went out aggressively and I think I dropped a sub-6 in there pretty early on,” he says. “I paid the price and hated running by the end of that race, swearing ultras off as ‘the stupidest idea I’ve ever had.’” Nonetheless, he stuck with it, learned how to train better and completed his first 100-miler the following year (10th overall at the Rocky Raccoon 100 in 16 hours, 9 minutes). He went on to win five straight ultra-distance races in late 2014 and early 2015, and although he had a rough go of it in his first Western States 100, he still managed a respectable finish (50th overall in 22:19).

“Ultrarunning makes more sense than any sport,” Smith says. “Grit, determination, and the will of one’s mind are crucial factors in success during races. These are life skills being physically embodied by our sport.” —B.M.

Mary Cain, 19
New York, N.Y.

Any discussion about talented young American runners should start with Mary Cain. Although she had a challenging season in 2015, she’s still expected to be a contender in the 1,500 meters at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. Cain burst on the scene in 2011, running national-caliber times as a freshman in high school. The following year, she began training under the guidance of Nike coach Alberto Salazar. In 2013, she became the youngest athlete ever to represent the U.S. in the IAAF World Championships, finishing 10th overall in the finals. By the time she finished her high school career in 2014, she owned numerous national high school and U.S. junior records, including the 800 meters (1:59.51), mile (4:24.11) and 2 miles (9:38.68). She also won the 3,000m at the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships and the 1,500m at the U.S. senior indoor championships. After deciding to forgo a college running career and a move to Portland to train with the Nike Oregon Project (and taking classes at the University of Portland), she placed second in the 1,500 at the 2014 U.S. championships, and subsequently starred in two Nike commercials. However, perhaps because of her busy class schedule and physical adjustments to an increased training load, Cain fell on hard times in 2015. She didn’t approach any of her career-best times in any event during the outdoor season and managed only an eighth-place finish in the 1,500 at this year’s U.S. championships. Time will tell if this season was just an aberration of growing pains, but those close to Cain think she’ll rebound by the time 2016 rolls around. —B.M.

Allie Ostrander, 18
Boise, Idaho

In the fifth grade Allie Ostrander won her first race at a community 5K in her hometown of Kenai, Alaska. “That wasn’t the moment I decided I was good at running, but that was the first significant race in my life that I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I did that,'” Ostrander says. At 12 she tackled a grueling 3.5-mile race up and down the 3,022-foot Mount Marathon in Seward, Alaska, and continued to win six consecutive 17-and-under junior titles, including her 2014 win, where she clocked a new girl’s record and PR of 28:54 and beat out all the junior boys by 42 seconds. She placed second in the open women’s field at this year’s race. Ostrander also claimed three state cross-country titles her sophomore, junior and senior years of high school, and placed first among the country’s top high school runners at last year’s Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Ore. Now a freshman studying kinesiology at Boise State University, she hopes to bring a competitive and positive spirit to the team. Her advice for other young runners: “If you can just tell yourself you’re not going to lose to anyone, then you can find a whole other gear you didn’t know you had.” —E.P.

Ajee Wilson, 21

If it weren’t for an untimely injury in August, Ajee Wilson would have had a shot at contending for a medal in the 800 meters at the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing. But given her meteoric rise and continued improvement as a half-miler, she’s likely going to have plenty of chances. In high school, Wilson was a two-time world junior champion in the 800m and ran the second-fastest time ever by an American prep runner. Although she was recruited by numerous colleges and initially planned to run for Florida State, she eventually signed a pro contract with adidas and started taking classes at a community college in New Jersey. After finishing third in the 2013 U.S. championships, she placed sixth in the world championships in Moscow with a U.S. junior record of 1:58.21. She later transferred to Temple University and trained with high school boys as she continued her development in the pro ranks. It’s a formula that has paid off quite well. In 2014, she won her first U.S. championship title (1:58.70) and later lowered her personal best time (1:57.67, the fastest time in the world in 2014), a win at the Diamond League meet in Monaco. She continued her success in 2015, placing a close second in the 800m at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., running a sizzling fast 1:57.87 to finish a half step behind 2013 world champion Eunice Jepkoech of Kenya. She followed that up by notching her first big international win on June 13, winning the 800 at the New York Diamond League meet in 1:58.83. Despite the tibia stress reaction injury that kept her out of the world championships in August, the future looks bright for Wilson. —B.M.

Elise Cranny, 19
Palo Alto, Calif.

Elise Cranny dominated the Colorado state meets from 2012 to 2014, winning two cross-country and six track titles, and breaking longstanding records held by the high school legend Melody Fairchild. She also placed second at the Nike Cross Nationals cross-country race and ran an eye-popping 4:10.95 for 1,500 meters, which converts to a 4:31 mile, in a college meet at Stanford. That time not only made her the third-fastest U.S. high school runner of all-time, but during the 2014 season only two college runners were faster than Cranny’s high school mark and both wound up winning NCAA titles. Cranny capped her high school career—one of the best ever by an American prep runner—by placing fourth in the 1,500m at the IAAF World Junior Track & Field Championships later that summer. She continued her ascension as a Stanford freshman, finishing 12th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships last November—the highest finish of any first-year runner in the meet—and then set a new American junior record in the 3,000m (8:58.88) while placing second at the NCAA indoor track championships and finishing 10th in the 1,500m at the NCAA outdoor track championships.

While Cranny should be in contention with the top individuals at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in November, there are already younger runners following—and in some cases surpassing—Cranny’s footsteps. In May, Jordyn Colter broke Cranny’s year-old Colorado state’s high school mile record with a 4:46.22, while former high school rival Katie Rainsberger (who’s a senior this fall) has also emerged on the national level. But unlike Mary Cain, Ajee Wilson or Alexa Efraimson—who all skipped college running to turn pro early—Cranny’s success will come through the traditional NCAA system, which requires more racing during a three-season school year. Ultimately, that could mean her progression will come more gradually because it likely won’t afford her the chance to race in big international meets in Europe during the summer. —B.M.

Jonah Gorevic, 11
Rye, N.Y.

Jonah Gorevic is used to standing ovations. Before sprinter Usain Bolt and distance runner Ben True wowed the crowd at the adidas Grand Prix in New York last June, it was the Rye, N.Y., middle-schooler stealing the show in the youth mile race. In an event dominated by Gorevic, the sixth grader stormed to victory in 4:51.85, the second fastest time ever run by an 11-year-old. His win drew a roaring ovation from the crowd, only matched by Bolt’s applause. Also a soccer player, Gorevic has taken the youth running scene by storm. Training three days a week with the Tailwind Track Club, Gorevic has shown glimpses of greatness. In New York, whispers of him being the next Alan Webb can be heard. Gorevic has won AAU Cross Country National Championships, gold in the 1,500 and 3,000 at the USATF Youth Indoor Championships, and completed an unprecedented triple crown in less than 24 hours at the New York Junior Olympics. He’s already the mile world-record holder for 10-year-olds. “I’m excited,” he says about the future. “I hope to be a professional someday.” —Chris Lotsbom

Elliot Daniels, 11
Campbell, Calif.

Elliot Daniels is a runner who is clearly ahead of his time. A member of the Pina running team, he runs 25 to 30 miles per week—mostly with an adult running group called the Ujena Fit Club—does loads of dynamic and static stretching and many hours of yoga each week. That beyond-his-years training approach has helped him drop his 5K PR from 21:52 to 17:39 in the past two years and the catalyst for him being able to set a half marathon world record (1:29:14) for 10-year-olds at the Oakland Running Festival in March. He shattered that mark on June 20 with a 1:27:28 effort (a 6:41 pace) to place third overall at the Zooma Half Marathon in Napa, Calif. (He’s also run faster than the 10-year-old world records for 8K, 15K and 10 miles, but those times were not run on record-certified courses.)

“I have met and run with many seasoned runners who have all been very helpful in my dream of chasing Olympic gold!” says Daniels, who just started sixth grade. “I have also learned many things from people on my running team and other individuals who have gone on runs with me.”

Speed runs in the family. A cousin of Daniels, Jerome Dino Daniels, holds the world age-group 10K record of 39:06 for 10-year-olds that he ran in 1984. (He also won a junior national title in the half marathon, set five age-group national records and was an age-group champion at the Honolulu Marathon several times in the 1980s.)

“Because it gives him [Elliot] such joy and he has so much potential, we, as a family, love to watch him run and develop,” says his father, Brian Daniels. “I run with him some, but I can’t catch him.” —B.M.