Running is good time for Pirates

Eric Hughes' sense of humor helps keep the grueling sport fun and his Crystal River teammates loose before their regional meet.

Published November 3, 2005

CRYSTAL RIVER - You might call Eric Hughes the class clown of Crystal River cross country.

Funny noises and faces are his forte - when he is not leading the squad as the No. 3 runner.

"He always keeps the team in good spirits," said Blair Beeler, 16, Hughes' best friend on the squad.

In his second varsity season, the lanky 15-year-old is trying to help the Pirates qualify for the state championships. They will compete Saturday in the Class 2A, Region 2 meet at Lecanto High School.

This time, Hughes will try not to get edged by Crystal River's No. 4 member, as happened in the district meet last weekend. Though he has been finishing 5K courses in slightly less than 18 minutes, coach Tim Byrne said Hughes must drop his time to near 17 minutes at Lecanto.

"We're still looking for that magical race," Byrne said.

Hughes says he discovered his running talent in seventh grade when he started track. He once played hockey when he lived outside Chicago, but now running is his only sport.

Despite Hughes' small frame and single-sport outlook, Byrne says the athlete is just as tough as his other runners.

"If you see him hanging out, you wouldn't pick him as being a hard-nosed kid," Byrne said. "But when he runs, he's a tough little cookie." Still, even Hughes is not certain why he puts himself through hard workouts nearly every day.

"I guess I'm pretty good at it," Hughes said. "I can't say it's too fun. But you run and get better and beat people."

Hughes has tried to make the sport more fun, opening his family's Crystal River home to the Pirates' training program.

His teammates relish the days when they run three miles to his house, then jump off the family boat deck into Kings Bay. The swimming provides a nice break from the daily gruel of running.

"We have the best time ever," Beeler said. "His mom is always friendly. We play around in the water for as long as we can, then the hard part starts again."

He is a strong runner, but it's Hughes' sense of humor and general goofiness that appeal to his teammates. Sometimes, Byrne says, he will arrive at practice to find Hughes wrestling with the Pirates.

"He's always trying to get under their skin," Byrne said. "How does he do it? It's just his mannerisms".

While he acknowledges his quirkiness, Hughes says he has just one pre-race superstition. When he is given a race number, he puts it on with three - not four - pins.

Once, he was given only three pins and he finished well, so now the under-pinning remains part of his routine.

It's all endearing to his coach

"Eric is a comedian," Byrne said.

Brian Sumers can be reached at bsumers@sptimes.com or 564-3628.