By Brion O’Connor
Peter Hale, one of the most decorated track and field athletes in Swampscott High School and Williams College history, was no overnight success. His first competitive foray into running was one he’d probably rather forget.
“I remember my first cross-country race very clearly,” said the 22-year-old Swampscott High graduate. “I wore heavy cargo shorts, a cotton T-shirt, and insisted on wearing my glasses. I finished somewhere in the middle of the pack, and got snubbed at the line by a kid from Lynn English.”
In truth, though, running was, and is, in Hale’s blood. Born locally to Ingrid and Sean Hale, an Italian mother and a British father, Hale and his family moved to the United Kingdom when he was 1, returning to Swampscott in 2001.
“When I was a child, I was constantly running off or getting lost,” said Hale. “I guess I was just adventurous. I never really took to ball sports. Cross country and track were natural fits for someone like me.
“I first started running competitively in middle school, although I would say I really got into the sport during my sophomore year of high school,” he said. “I tried football my freshman year, which was an absolute disaster, and switched to cross country the following year.”
The transition wasn’t easy, but the attraction of running was undeniable.
“I’m not really sure why I found running so compelling when I was growing up,” Hale said. “It was the only physical activity I was any good at. It was always a natural fit for me. There was something fun about speeding along the Lynnway, and getting funny looks from people passing by.
As far as racing was concerned, I started out with absolutely no sense of pacing or race strategy,” he said. “I would give everything early in the race and blow up somewhere before the finish.”
Less than eight years later, according to Williams College Cross Country coach Pete Farwell, Hale “put together a senior track season like no other Williams distance runner ever has.” Hale’s results were nothing short of spectacular.
“He broke the 20-year-old school record for the 3,000 meters, won every race but one over the winter – losing only to an open, out-of-college runner – and became national champion,” said Farwell. “He was named National Track Athlete of the indoor season for Division III. In the spring, he lost in his only foray at the 10,000 meter distance, when he placed second at Princeton with the second-best time ever for a Williams runner. He won both the 1,500 meters – in the seventh best time ever for Williams – and the 5,000 meters – over the indoor national champ from Tufts – on the same day in the NESCAC conference meet.
“Next, he handily won the Division III New Englands, running solo to qualify for the outdoor NCAA, and in the process came within one second of the school record, notching the second-fastest Williams time ever,” he said. “He wrapped things up with his sensational, strategic, flying kick victory in the outdoor NCAAs, one of the most brilliantly executed and exciting races I have ever had the pleasure to see.”
At 6 foot 2 inches and 175 pounds, Hale is a tad tall and a tad heavy compared to most distance runners. He graduated from Williams last spring with a treasure chest full of accolades.
“As I got older and finally started taking my training seriously, running became more methodical,” said Hale. “This is probably true of any sport. I couldn’t just run whenever I wanted to for however long I wanted.
“As the racing became more competitive, race strategy and tactics began to play a bigger role,” he said. “In general, training and racing began to take more of a mental toll as I improved. As the mileage increased and the workouts got longer and harder, staying determined and finding the joy in the daily grind played a bigger role in managing the stress and strain of training.”
Managing that stress was key to Hale’s success, both at Swampscott High and at Williams. Like many top-flight athletes, he constantly focused on getting better.
“I was rarely satisfied with my performances over the years,” said Hale. “The thing about cross country and track is that you can always go faster, and there are always aspects of your training and racing that you can improve.
Obviously, there were moments, especially at the end of the track and cross-country seasons, where I was satisfied with the way things came together for myself and for the team,” he said. “However, there were also multiple seasons where I had injured myself and had spent months cross training just to get myself back into running shape.”
Hale’s commitment never wavered. Halfway through his collegiate career, he took that commitment to a new level.
“My perspective on the sport changed dramatically during my junior year of college,” Hale said. “I realized that I only had two years of competitive running left, and I needed to start enjoying each race for what it was, instead of seeing every race as a stepping stone to some big final performance months down the line.
“I made a concerted effort to see the positive aspect in every race and training run, and began – as mushy as this sounds – to comprehend how much the team meant to me,” he said. “That attitude actually helped my running, and I became more enthusiastic about the daily training and less put off when things didn’t go entirely my way. I knew that as long as I valued the effort and dedication that myself and the team were putting in and enjoyed myself along the way, my performances and personal records would improve anyway.”
Hale’s success at Swampscott High, and later at Williams, reveals his character.
“Peter was thoughtful and articulate,” said Jeff Bartlett, Hale’s high school coach. “He really grew into his own as a student during his senior year at Swampscott High, and represented the epitome of the phrase ‘student athlete.’ ”
Hale excelled in the classroom as well, with a dual major in history and English and a minor in German. He was named a Fulbright Scholar, and early this month left for Zwickau, a small city in Germany’s Saxony region, where he’ll teach history and United States culture.
“I’m currently building up my mileage again, and anticipate joining a running club,” he said. “I have a couple of running goals I would like to hit over the coming year, and I’m actually obligated, as part of the Fulbright, to have a presence in the community in which I’m living.”
While Hale is quick to credit his parents, teachers, coaches and teammates with helping to mold him – emotionally, academically and physically – his coaches praise their prize disciple for making their job easier.
“As a teammate and captain, Peter showed the younger student athletes, from all sports, what commitment, tenacity and hard work can do,” said Bartlett. “You can’t deny that Peter is physically talented, but there are plenty of runners out there with more talent who don’t get the results Peter did.”
Following Hale’s remarkable collegiate career, Farwell said: “I now rate Peter as the best Williams track distance runner ever, and our stars go back to a 1920s Olympian who won gold in the 3,000-meter team race. His range of ability over the 1,500, 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 is unparalleled.”
But as coach, Farwell relied on Hale for more than his “on field” performance.
“Peter has been a vital captain and leader of the men’s cross country and track teams all three seasons this year,” said Farwell. “He’s a model of dedicated training, consistent high-level racing, and level-headed thinking throughout this his senior year.
“He is a standout role model for his teammates, in terms of character, lifestyle, training ethic and scholarly pursuit,” he said. “Peter gives 100 percent effort at practices and on race days, motivating his teammates to the same high standard and encourages them to strive for their best.”
David Folsom, a teammate at Williams, said Hale was “one of the most competitive people I’ve ever trained with.”
“I think that’s what really drives him to push himself so hard,” said Folsom. “Peter was one of the more quiet captains, but the lifestyle he lived and the way he trained were such an incredible example for the team.”
According to Bartlett, Hale possessed the intangibles that separated him from the field.
“As a runner, Peter always ran his best when it counted, in championship races,” said Bartlett. “His competitors may have run workouts that seemed more impressive on paper, or run well at other meets, but when the pressure was on at a conference or state championship, Peter was always able to produce a stellar performance.”
Not bad for a lanky kid in cargo shorts who finished in the middle of the pack in his first organized race.
Brion O’Connor is a freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.