The longer the distance, the better the race for Tim Gruber.
The Cannon School long distance runner has given track and field a try, but cross country's longer courses tend to play to his strengths.
After finishing fourth at the NCISAA state meet last year as a sophomore, Gruber returns as a state championship contender this season and looks to lead his team, which is ranked No. 7 in the NCRunners.com NCISAA boys preseason poll.
He'll be the Cougars' top contender when they host the 12th annual Cannon Invitational at their on-campus course Sept. 11. Coach Russ Campbell says most of Cabarrus County's public schools will be among the 20-plus teams participating.
Gruber didn't even know he liked running until he tried it in seventh grade. At the time, he was looking for a way to stay conditioned when the in-line hockey that he played was out of season.
Competing at the middle school level, Gruber says he was about the fourth or fifth fastest runner on the team, which was nothing to be excited about. The following year, he still wasn't one of the top runners on his team, but some summertime training helped him vault to Cannon's varsity team.
With Cannon being a member of the Metrolina Athletic 3A, Gruber made all-conference. At the state meet, he was the Cougars' fourth-place finisher, despite finishing as the team's sixth or seventh runner in most races.
That finish lit a fire under Gruber.
"I know I wanted to get better," said Gruber. "I knew I was going to train. I was still getting a good grasp of things."
With several seniors having graduated, Gruber climbed to No. 2 on the team in 2008, behind Andrew Powell, who is one year his senior. At the state meet, Powell finished 21st and Gruber was 26th.
Trying track and field for the first time as a freshman, Gruber set the school record in the two-mile run but he admits that he should have paced himself over the course of the season. He ran out of gas and the year ended uneventfully.
Gruber increased his off-season training between his freshman and sophomore years and it definitely paid off. Early in the 2009 season, he won the Cannon Invitational, setting the school record for its home course and tying the overall course record.
His season finished as strongly as it started. With Cannon competing in the more competitive Charlotte Independent Schools Athletic Association, Gruber won the conference meet and finished fourth at the 3A state meet. Powell placed sixth.
Heading into the track and field season, Gruber's most challenging opponent became his diet. He was 122 pounds but he employed the services of a nutritionist just so that he could get on a more disciplined diet.
Admittedly, Gruber says he took the nutritionist's advice to the extreme. He limited his food intake and by the end of the season had dropped to 110 pounds, too light for his 6-foot frame. After the season, he changed course.
"I went back to the nutritionist and increased my eating," said Gruber. "I ate a lot of peanut butter and I've been increasing my caloric intake."
Gruber has a chance to do as well as he did last season at this year's state meet. But the three runners who finished ahead of him last year all return.
Campbell said Gruber's best days are yet to come, when he can compete at greater distances.
Campbell sees Gruber running 5 and 10 kilometer races in college and being an outstanding marathoner long term.
Gruber's already half way there. He competed in half-marathons in 2009 in Dorchester, Md., and in Davidson and was the overall winner at both events. Each had fields of more than 200 runners.
Gruber's next half marathon will be in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 11.