By Chris McCarty
Hands down, 2017 Southside High graduate Hunter Nails is one of the most accomplished high school athletes to come out of Etowah County.
Since joining the Panther varsity cross country, indoor track and outdoor track teams when he was a seventh grader at Rainbow Middle, Nails has accumulated an impressive collected of hardware while competing mainly in the 800, 1600 and 3200-meter runs.
As a senior this past track season, Nails won Class 6A state titles in the indoor 800-meter run and the outdoor 800-meter run and finished second in the indoor and outdoor 1600-meter runs. He is a 12-time All-State selection in all three sports and won his fifth Etowah County MVP title this past spring.
Over his seven-year distance running career, Nails has 62 total individual wins, been a part of 11 relay-winning teams and a member of seven sectional-winning teams. He currently holds eight records on cross country courses throughout the state and five records on outdoor tracks.
Nails earned a track scholarship to UAH last fall and plans on majoring in aerospace engineering.
“If you don’t love this sport, you’ll struggle, because these workouts are so painful to get through,” he said. “There’s a reason why you have to run as punishment in other sports – running hurts. Everyone wants to run a fast race, but not everyone wants to wake up a 6 a.m. for a workout. There are no days off from running, and it’s rain or shine.”
What makes the above accomplishments all the more impressive is that Nails suffers from congenital vision impairment in his left eye that distorts his depth perception. When he was very young, his parents brought him to an eye specialist, who tried everything but corrective surgery to correct his vision.
The condition, which renders him legally blind in his left eye, hindered Nails while participating in sports that involved a ball or moving object. He discovered as much playing in a baseball game as a fourth grader when a ball hit him in the chest while he was attempting to catch it.
“I had a bruise for about three weeks,” he said with a laugh. “I played two seasons of basketball and never scored a point. I usually don’t catch a Frisbee very well. My hand-eye coordination just isn’t sharp enough in those situations. I also need to sit in the front half of the classroom at school so I can see the board.”
Nails recalled that the biggest optical issue he faced was not on a ball field but at the local state department of motor vehicles office when he was 16.
“Even though I had 20-20 vision in my right eye and could see perfectly, they wouldn’t issue a license until I got a cou-ple of forms from my eye doctor,” he recalled.
Nails played soccer for a local Fusion club as a youngster and played on the Southside High junior varsity until his sophomore year.
“A lot of soccer is about running, and I was always in pretty good athletic shape as a kid,” he said. “In fact, I ran cross country in seventh grade pretty much to stay in shape (for soccer).”
Nails said that his parents – longtime area high school teachers and coaches Charles and Kim Nails – were always very supportive in his athletic pursuits. Charles currently serves as defensive coordinator for the Southside High football team, while Kim is the school’s varsity girls basketball coach and a member of the Etowah County Sports Hall of Fame.
Hunter Nails’ ambivalence toward distance running began to change during his eighth grade year when Adam Swann served as SHS cross country coach.
“Coach Swann invested in me, and I became more mature about it,” said Nails.
In the outdoor track season that spring Nails ran the sixth-fastest time (5:02) in the country for an eighth grader in the 1600. He then shaved 12 seconds off that time at the sectional meet, which earned him a wild card for the Class 5A state meet, where he took off another three seconds in the event.
Nails accomplished as much while devoting only one weekday at the most to track practice and the rest to soccer.
“I wasn’t even expecting to set so many PRs (personal records) and make it to state,” he said. “I figured that if I could do that just on soccer conditioning, how far could I go if I committed to all-out training (for distance running)?”
Nails juggled both sports through his freshman year before deciding to hang up his soccer cleats in the late spring/early summer of 2013. From that point on, he competed in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track. Nails pointed out that the seasonal transition was not merely a matter of changing running shoes three times a year.
“The strategies and tactics are completely different in every sport. The indoor track, with its banked curve, is way different from a cross country course of dirt and gravel and asphalt. Then I have to get used to the outdoor rubber track again. You have to have a kind of mental re-set before each season.”
Nails said the deciding factor that convinced him to commit full-time in distance running was the mental challenge as much as the physical. He likened it to a moving chess match.
“There’s a total science to racing with strategy and tactics,” he said. “There’s so much more to it than which kids are the fastest one out there. Once I started to realize that, racing became fun. It’s like when you’re on the third lap of a 1600 (meter race) and trying to decide when the right time is to make your final move. That’s when things get exciting.”
Since his freshman year, Nails has received the majority of his coaching for the cross country and indoor track seasons long distance from the West Coast.
Philip Harrell, a 1987 Southside High graduate who won six state championships during his prep career, has been sending Hunter daily workouts from San Diego, California, since his freshman year. Kim or Charles record Hunter’s races and send them to Harrell for feedback.
Harrell is a six-time state champion who as a senior in 1987 set the Class 5A state record for the 800-meter run with a time of 1:53.28. Harrell also won state in the outdoor 1600 and 3200-meter runs and the indoor 800-meter, 1600-mter and 3200-meter runs. As senior year at the 5A state meet in Selma, his performance placed Southside fifth in the team standings.
After graduating from Southside, Harrell received a full scholarship to Florida State, where he competed for one season before transferring to Auburn. As a senior at AU in 1992, Harrell was selected to the All-SEC team.
The two met through Charles Nails during Hunter’s freshman year.
“I was still playing soccer, and full-time running really wasn’t on my radar yet,” said Nails. “I told him that I really didn’t have a coach after Adam Swann left, and Phillip told me that when he ran at Southside he was very fortunate to have a coach that knew what he was doing and that he wanted to do the same thing for someone else.”
Harrell and Nails exchanged contact information and Harrell began sending workout schedules and racing strategies via telephone, text or e-mail. The two communicated on a daily basis for the next three years.
“From my end, it was a very interesting experience on multiple fronts,” said Harrell, who relocated to Texas last year. “First and foremost, it was my first experience in coaching an athlete. When I was running in high school, I received a tremendous amount of help, especially from Jimmy Owens, who kind of kick-started the track program at Southside, and my late mother, who was very resourceful in getting some me help from around the community. So when I met Hunter and agreed to help him, it was kind of like the perfect storm.”
Harrell noted that he was in a similar situation 30 years ago when he was Southside’s lone distance runner. Tom Gray, a former All-SEC runner at Auburn who at the time was the track and field coach at Central-Tuscaloosa, offered his long-distance coaching services to Harrell. In the pre-internet era, however, the two relied upon snail-mail for communication.
“Tom would mail workout instructions and strategy on index cards, so the parallels with Hunter were very interesting. It was an opportunity for me to give back, and feel very blessed that I was given the opportunity to work with Hunter. From a strategic perspective, I’ve been in the world that Hunter was in, so I think I helped him the most in that area. Hunter has the talent but he also has a great work ethic, which is crucial when you’re doing the type of intense workouts he does. Plus, he didn’t have a group of people to train with and didn’t have a track to use, which makes it much more challenging. Hunter’s not only a great athlete but he’s also a great kid and a great student.”
Although he has watched many of Nails’ races online, Harrell has never seen Nails compete in person.
“It was kind of bizarre sometimes, like once when I watched one of Hunter’s indoor races of my cell phone. It’s crazy how that all works with today’s technology. It’s also kind of neat that the two state championships for Southside in the 800-meter run happened exactly 30 years apart.”
For the most part, Nails did not know what his daily morning workout would entail until he checked his e-mail for Harrell’s message. Due to the size of the files, Nails frequently posted his races on YouTube for Harrell to critique.
“I’m so grateful for Phillip taking the time to do that,” said Nails. “I wouldn’t be a fraction of what I am today without him. I’m very lucky and very blessed to receive his help. It was difficult at times in that sometimes it’s hard to explain in a text what happened on the track, but looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
At certain times, however, Nails said that he missed the actual presence of a coach when a decision had to be made quickly, immediate advice was required or extra motivation was needed.
“Sometimes Phillip’s workouts were so hard that I had my mom or dad or my brother Taylor be at my solo workouts just to keep me accountable,” he said. “Time management is the biggest thing.”
Harrell said he is excited to see what Nails can accomplish at UAH.
“The name of the game in middle distance running is closing speed, especially at the collegiate level. The last lap the 800 is kind of like a controlled sprint, and Hunter is really good in that area.”
Even after several years of competing in pressure situations, Nails still gets butterflies prior to an event.
“Eliminating bad thoughts beforehand is a battle in itself. I get pretty bad nerves, especially before a big race like the state meet. But once I actually get on the track, I focus on what I need to do and all those nerves seem to drop. Track is a pretty simple sport in that you put in your workouts, listen to your coach and race.”
A key competitive edge Nails developed over the years is doing his homework on the competition for an upcoming event.
“Over time, you do learn other runners’ tendencies, like when they like to move up, when they kick it or when they hang back. A lot of it has to do with just being patient and reacting to the other guy’s move. You have to evaluate the situation and determine a solution, and you don’t have a whole lot to time to do it.”
Another challenge Nails faced was that Southside is one of the few Class 6A schools in the state with no running track on campus. The 50 to 70 miles that Hunter put in on a weekly basis were too much to use the unyielding asphalt surfaces exclusively, so he traveled to the nearest rubberized track located at Gadsden City High School. Nails appreciated the school’s willingness to accommodate his workout requirements.
“I was out there while the [GCHS] track team was practicing, and I just stayed out of their way and they stayed out of mine. I pretty much just picked a [running] lane and stuck to it. Coach [Ali] Smith and Coach [Buddy] Wright are always real nice to me over there.”
For cross country training, Nails mainly uses the James D. Martin Wildlife Park walking trail that runs from behind the Gadsden Mall to South 11th Street.
“I’ve ran so much there that I can walked that thing backwards blindfolded,” he said with a laugh. “It was definitely hard to stay focused and motivated when you’re going back and forth on a short trail, but that’s what it took to keep off the asphalt and stay healthy, and it paid off because this season was the only one that I was completely healthy.”
Nails said that SHS track and field coach Ray Cargill helped him with his form and technique while at the same time trusting that Nails knew what was best in terms of distance workout strategies.
“Because I already had the relationship with Phillip, Coach Cargill knew that I would put in the work and effort and kind of let me do my own thing. He was very understanding.”
Nails also embraced his role as a leader and mentor the few past seasons.
“ A lot of the younger guys definitely look up to me. I really love this sport now, and I try to instill that love with them. I think that me, Austin McClellan, Jared D’eath and Tyler Cline did a good job this season to get the younger guys fired up about the sport.”
Nails firmly believes that effort trumps talent every time in track.
“It’s one of the very few sports that what you put in, you will get back out. If you drop some crazy workouts and dedicate yourself and go 100 percent, you will run fast races and see the results. If you’re a little guy who has nothing when you start and put in three years of solid training, you can win a state title. If you want it bad enough, you can get it.”
Cargill said that in his six years at Southside, he has never had an athlete who worked as hard as Nails, both at regular practice and on his own.
“I’m so proud of this young man for his achievements,” said Cargill. “I’ve never had to tell Hunter what to do; he knows what he needs to do to excel in all of his races. His work ethic is unbelievable. That makes my job as coach a while lot easier, and I can see Hunter as a coach in the future in the way he helps our younger athletes. If he gets any better than he already is, I honestly believe that Hunter will be running in the Olympic games.”
Logan Cornutt, who was head track and field coach for Ashville High School the past four years and recently took the same position at Albertville, has admired Nails from afar over the past several years at various high school meets. While at a student at Ashville, Cornutt won the 2007 Class 4A indoor and outdoor state championships in the 400-meter run and was a member of the Bulldogs’ 2006 Class 3A state championship in the 4×400-meter relay. At Shorter College, he was a member of the Hawks’ bronze medal-winning 4×400-meter relay team at the 2009 NAIA indoor national championships and was selected as an NAIA All-American.
“You can see the drive and determination in Hunter’s whenever he runs,” said Cornutt. “He runs with grit and has a willingness to succeed that just don’t see in every athlete. Hunter’s mental toughness is just amazing. As long as he stays focused, I think that he’ll do great things at UAH.”
With regard to implementing and maintaining a personal workout schedule, Nails advice to young distance runners is simple
“It’s all about self-confidence and staying motivated and winning those mental battles. It’s pretty easy to tell yourself at 5 a.m. when it’s pouring rain and dark out that it’s okay if you don’t get up and get your mileage in. If you do that just one time, you’ll do it again and again and again. It’s a snowball effect.
“The best thing to do is not to think about it. The more that you think about how brutal that day’s running will be, the less likely you’ll want to do it. It’s human nature to make excuses, and when start doing that, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
Not all of Nails’ practices and races were solo, as he enjoyed the bond he had with his fellow relay teammates over the past few years.
“One of my favorite things about running is the relationships that you build with your teammates. When you and three other guys are killing yourselves in workouts, you can’t help but draw closer. That’s why I always did my solo workouts either before or after our team workouts.”
Toward that end, one of things that Nails is looking forward to at UAH is having most of his workouts with teammates instead of solitary runs.
“I’ll have three or four guys in the mid-distance group with me, so that will make the runs a lot more enjoyable,” he said. “I can’t wait for that. Plus, [UAH] has great facilities and has several great places to run around the Huntsville area.”