Photo by Brittney Harrison.
0512 Payton Ballard
Payton Ballard sprints during track practice at Mountain Brook High School.
Payton Ballard’s pump-up music playlist is, well, unique. The junior Mountain Brook runner listens to a cappella music before most races to prepare to run.
“Sometimes I get weird looks because I’m dancing at the starting line right before the race,” Ballard said. “During races I always have a song stuck in my head and end up changing the tempo to match my steps in the race.”
The funny thing is, Ballard’s running is anything but simple a cappella. The distance runner’s racing style is a perfect symphony of competitiveness, raw speed and determination, building towards a triumphant crescendo in the last 100 meters with one of the best final “kicks” Mountain Brook track has ever seen.
Ballard has exploded onto the state track scene this year with scorching times in the 1600 (mile) and 800 (half-mile). His fastest mile time is 4:20, good for second in the state. His 1:54 time in the 800 is fourth in the state and ranks nationally even better than his mile time. He broke the school indoor track mile record with a 4:21 this winter.
But with Ballard, the fascinating thing is not necessarily how fast he runs, although his times are astounding. What draws people to watch his races is how he runs. Everyone mentions the word “competitive” when talking about Ballard’s running.
“Payton is competitive as anything, and he is really good in the last part of a race when he has to pass somebody,” senior runner Jack Miller said. “It’s fun to watch. And even though we have some great runners and workers on this team, Payton is out of our league when it comes to how hard he works in practice.”
Almost all track coaches tell their runners to “catch the guy in front of you.” Ballard has taken that philosophy to the extreme. He usually will hang just behind a runner until the final stretch and put on a show by sprinting past him for the victory. The final sprint in a race is referred to as the “kick.”
This year, that philosophy has worked well. Although Ballard has been a runner ever since quitting football after seventh grade (“My mom made me play, I had no clue what I was doing”), his two years at the high school have seen him become the best runner on the team. Much of his success is built on that work ethic Miller brought up.
“Coach just tells me to do something, and I do it,” Ballard said. “I don’t really think about it too much. The only issue for anyone in practice is staying focused. I go out there to push myself, and that’s what I do every day. You can’t be lazy. And that’s what the sport is about. You can’t slack off.”
With the state championships coming up in Gulf Shores on May 4-5, Ballard is looking to finish his junior year by breaking 4:20, although he says he is “happy with his times.” The school record for the mile is just under 4:18, run by Nicholas Lepley in 2006.
The scariest thing for the rest of the state is that Ballard is only a junior. With one year left in high school, there is no telling what records he might break. And after that, Ballard wants to continue his career at the next level.
“College is where everything is headed depending on the offers I get,” Ballard said. “It’s a pretty sure thing.”