At the start of every cross country race, there's a person who walks onto the course about 50 yards in front of the runners. They hold the starting gun in the air, pull the trigger and the runners take off. That's typically the last moment Perham senior Jakob McCleary isn't in first place.

McCleary will go down as one of the best to ever do it in a storied Perham cross country program. The No. 2 ranked runner in Class A has been chased by runners from around the state since he was in middle school.

"It's a feeling that pushed me a lot," McCleary said. "There's always a thought that a kid could be right behind me. I always think the race is in front of me, and I try not to focus on what's behind me. I want to catch the cart in front of me. That's what I focus on, and not any of the guys trying to catch me."

Last Tuesday, McCleary added another first-place medal to his collection at the Heart O'Lakes Conference championships. But a conference title is just the beginning.

Perham is the top-ranked team in Class A and is looking to make it back to state for the 20th time since 2000. The Yellowjackets are the three-time defending state champions. Barring an upset of epic proportions in the section meet, Perham aims to run its best race of the year at St. Olaf once again.

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"We all have our best races at state," McCleary said. "The pressure of competing well at state is always high, especially as a Perham team. We've won it before, and we always compete well. I think we put more pressure on ourselves than anyone else. We go in there telling ourselves that we have to win when we really should just relax. Just do what we're capable of doing and know that we are going to run well."

Perham's Jakob McCleary runs to a first-place time of 16:28 at the Lucky Lindy invite in Little Falls on Sept. 16, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)
Perham's Jakob McCleary runs to a first-place time of 16:28 at the Lucky Lindy invite in Little Falls on Sept. 16, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

"It's not because the stars align or anything like that will make us run well," McCleary said. "We run well because we put in the training, and we've earned it. (Perham head coach Jeff Morris) sets us up so well to peak at state."

McCleary is a state champion in track and field. Last spring, he took home the Class A title in the 800-meter run with a time of 1:56.92. But since his first varsity cross country race in middle school, McCleary has had hopes of standing at the top of the podium at state in the fall.

"I'm a very competitive guy, and our team is very competitive," McCleary said. "If we don't win state, it doesn't mean that our season was a failure. Maybe there was another team that ran just as well. Yeah, we'd love to win, but it's about us going out there and competing as hard as we can. Yeah, I'd love to win a state title as an individual. It's been my goal for a long time. I know there's a couple of guys that are going to be right there, and I'm excited to compete against them."

Running the Roy Griak

McCleary got a chance to see where he stacks up against the top high school runners in the midwest at the 2021 Roy Griak Invitational on Sept. 20, an elite cross country event hosted by the University of Minnesota.

"Time on that course doesn't really matter," McCleary said. "It's hard, and everyone runs a little bit slower. But it was a great opportunity to go down there and compete against the best kids in the state. There were kids from Wisconsin, Kansas, North Dakota, Iowa, and probably more. It's great to see myself match up well against those guys."

Running the Griak wasn't the plan all along. The Perham boys and girls high school teams ran in the Milaca Mega Meet the following day, but Morris called an audible.

"I talked to my coach about it, and the original plan was to run at Milaca," McCleary said. "He proposed the idea of me going there and racing the Griak because it's against the top guys in the state. It also gave our team a chance to run without me to see how they would do. It was so exciting to go down there and race against such a high level of competition. The (University of Minnesota) is also looking at me, so it was nice to show them what I could do in person."

This fall was the first time McCleary had run the Griak since his freshman year. He thought back to who he was the first time he competed at the University of Minnesota and how far he'd come.

Perham's Jakob McCleary runs to a first-place time of 15:51 at the Perham Invitational at Arvig Park on Oct. 8, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)
Perham's Jakob McCleary runs to a first-place time of 15:51 at the Perham Invitational at Arvig Park on Oct. 8, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

"I think I've improved a lot," McCleary said. "I'm more confident in my ability because I know what I'm capable of doing. I think I'm a lot more social with the other runners too. As a little freshman or sophomore, you don't want to go up and talk to anybody. Now that I'm a senior, I don't really care about that stuff. It's cool to talk to the other runners and be friends with them. I could be teammates with them someday."

McCleary finished in 10th place, which was one of his goals going into the meet. But more importantly, he got another taste of what it's going to be like running at the collegiate level.

"I was shooting for top ten, and I got 10th. I was pretty happy with that," McClary said. "It was a fun course, and it was fun to race it. I got to watch the Division I runners before me. There were kids from Iowa State (University) and (Brigham Young University), and I was watching them thinking, 'That could be me in the future.'"

Near or after the end of the season, McCleary plans to make a college commitment. As one of the fastest runners in the state, he's garnered attention from a plethora of schools.

"I'll make my decision pretty soon," McCleary said. "I have a few visits lined up, so right after the season, I'll make a decision. I'm looking for a program that has a very good team aspect. I want to get along with the guys and the coaches. I love a competitive team too. I want to be on a team that wants to be good where they all push each other."

Morris has seen many of his former runners compete at the collegiate level. What he appreciates most about McCleary is his love for the sport of running.

"Whoever gets him is getting a guy that's willing to put in the work," Morris said. "There's no secret to being good. His workouts are so consistent, and he works out at a really high level. He stays really consistent and doesn't make excuses. He has a good perspective of his own running and knows he has to put in the work."

"I think (Minnesota) is one of the main schools for me right now," McCleary said. "They have a big recruiting class, so I would get to grow and compete with those freshmen until we are seniors. There's a lot of things to consider, but I'm confident I'll make the right choice."

McCleary isn't worried about his big decision just yet. He believes his past races speak for themselves and is focused on finishing his final year at Perham on the highest note.

"I try not to think about who's looking at me. The schools will come," McCleary said. "I don't really focus on putting myself out there because I've run the times to get the attention. I try not to worry about it. That's something to worry about after the season."

Becoming a leader

While McCleary's accolades flood his resume, his development into a leader of a young team is his most impressive accomplishment.

"If I had to compare him to any kind of professional, it would be Steve Prefontaine," Morris said. "When he was this little seventh, eighth and ninth-grade kid, he was a cocky little kid. He knew he was good and that he was going to be great. Just to see him grow and gain that humility for the sport has been so remarkable."

McCleary is the only senior on the boys team and has embraced himself as a leader in his most important season. One of the aspects that makes the Perham cross country program so consistently great is its ability to pass the torch.

"Running is hard, and to have somebody who enjoys competing this much is amazing," Morris said. "His teammates see that, and he models that at practice. He has so much respect for his competition. Even if he doesn't win a race, he respects the kids in the back. He's the first one cheering on the kids who run 19 minutes. That's what makes him special."

"He loves this program so much," Morris said. "He knows the (personal records) of the kids on his team. He's going to have set a ton of school records by the time he's done here. Not too many guys will show interest in the kids on the team as he does."

McCleary is an example of an athlete that knows there's always something to improve. No matter how low his time gets from meet to meet, he's the first one to recognize what he needs to do to be better.

"He's a kid that would be the first to tell you he's not perfect," Morris said. "He messes up. He makes mistakes. He's willing to learn from his mistakes and learn from the sport of running. He's also willing to learn from his mistakes as a leader. That's the greatest thing you can say about a leader. He's humble enough to say, 'Hey, I need to do better, and I need to work harder.'"

Perham's Jakob McCleary runs to a first-place time of 15:51 at the Perham Invitational at Arvig Park on Oct. 8, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)
Perham's Jakob McCleary runs to a first-place time of 15:51 at the Perham Invitational at Arvig Park on Oct. 8, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

For McCleary, he just wants to be the best he can be in all aspects of being a runner. His passion for running and for wearing a Perham jersey is the core of what makes him one of the all-time Yellowjacket greats.

"When you're running the last 400 meters, you're hurting," McCleary said. "As soon as you turn the corner and see the people, it's so great to see the fans and the supporters. It's not just the Perham fans. It's everyone, and they all respect the competition. It's nice to hear everyone yell your name and your school. It's like you can feel the weight lifted off of you. That's what I love so much about this."

"I wanted to leave my mark here in Perham, but I know I'll always come back to watch the guys run after I graduate," McCleary said. "I'll always support this team. I think I'll be leaving this team in very good hands too."