The 400-meter race on the track is one of circular simplicity. Run one lap around the oval.
That singular lap, though, can contain multitudes of mental and physical anguish, requiring true tenacity from the athletes who decide to race it. Classified as a “long sprint,” the 400m is arguably the most physically demanding track event, drawing almost equally on the two different energy systems in the body.
“It’s the perfect combination of speed and endurance,” Glacier High School senior Jeff Lillard said following a recent track meet in Columbia Falls. “I’ve done sprinting and distance in my career so far, so the 400 just makes sense.”
For Lillard, properly executing his favorite event takes 49.66 seconds, a time that currently ranks him No. 1 in the state. It’s his best event, too, which is saying a lot for someone whose name can be found in Montana’s top-10 rankings across seven different track and field disciplines.
Before each meet, Lillard’s coaches offer up a game plan for the race. For an event that takes less than a minute to complete, there’s a decent amount of strategy involved. It usually goes something like this: Get out hard the first 50 meters; float until the 200-meter mark; then approach the last half like a 200-meter sprint.
While seemingly simple on the surface, the game plan for a 400-meter race is heavily predicated on the nuance of the middle portion, floating. It requires a sprinter to cover the first half of the race at about 97% of effort.
“My coaches describe floating as pushing yourself as hard as you’re already going, but not pushing any more than that,” Lillard said. “Then after 200 you keep that speed and you push yourself all the way to the finish.”
Lillard’s dad David, who teaches at Glacier, recalls Jeff and his brother Simon as “energetic and always in motion” as kids, willing to spend full days outside swimming, biking or running. In elementary school, as part of Cornelius Hedges Elementary physical education teacher Karen Dunfee’s “feeling good mileage club” that encouraged students to be active during recess, Lillard ran a cumulative 25 miles over the course of one semester.
His knack for running led him to cross country in middle school and by his eighth-grade year he was routinely winning meets and broke five minutes in the mile on the track.
“He would just get out there and could hold the same pace forever,” David recalls. “Since then, it’s been really fun to see him develop and change what events he enjoys doing.”
Lillard doesn’t remember exactly what made him want to try running shorter events in high school, other than thinking he was “pretty quick.”
The COVID-19 pandemic canceled his freshman track season, but as a sophomore Lillard immediately showed his strength as a sprinter. In seven 400m races he got successively faster — 54.58, 54.49, 52.09, 51.86 … on down to a 51.12 personal best he set at the state meet, good enough for third place. Lillard was the only sophomore to make the final, and he started to think about his future in the sport.
“I had really good success for only being a sophomore and thought that if I put more time and focus into track, I could do some really good stuff before I graduate,” he said.
But then, health interfered with Lillard’s junior year trajectory.
While he was running well in the first meets of the season, he felt something was wrong. Moderate workouts left him exhausted, and he began to complain about neck pain and dizziness.
A visit to the cardiologist offered a diagnosis of pericarditis, a condition where the tissue around the heart gets irritated and swells up. The road to recovery meant taking at least six weeks off, ending his season.
“We were pretty devastated. We really wanted to see him run well, we’re as invested in the running as his fans as he is as the athlete,” David said. “But I was impressed with how he handled it. He was upset, sure, but he also understood it wasn’t something under his locus of control.”
Cut to senior year. Lillard’s return to sports was gradual, with limited mileage and lower intensity workouts during the early cross country season. Even so, he was the Wolfpack’s No. 2 runner for much of the fall.
The multi-sport athlete immediately transitioned from the cross country course to the basketball court in November, but his mind began focusing on his return to the track.
“There was a pretty marked increase in his seriousness,” David said. “I’ve been very impressed with the drive he has developed this year to do it all — running, basketball, school, it’s a lot.”
Over the winter, in the cold, dark mornings before the first bell rang, Lillard ran. Some days it was just laps around the Summit Fitness Center’s indoor track; some days he’d crank the treadmill incline up to do hill sprints; and occasionally he’d pop outside in the cold to test his legs on solid ground. On Sundays, after back-to-back days of basketball games, he’d be out the door to get in another run.
In January, Lillard traveled to Spokane to compete in an indoor track meet at the Podium, the city’s world-class track facility. Sporting a plain white singlet instead of his traditional green Wolfpack uniform, Lillard ran the indoor version of his main event. Despite only training three days a week, Lillard clocked a personal best, breaking 51 seconds for the first time.
Now, with the Western AA Divisional meet on deck and state looming, Lillard has twice broken the 50-second barrier and is tied with Gallatin’s Nash Coley for the state’s best time at 49.66. Lillard hasn’t lost a 400m, or 200m, race this season, and Glacier’s two relay teams have won each time he’s been handed the baton.
Lillard is striving toward a couple of goals as the season winds down — Glacier’s school record in the 400m, the individual title in that event, and helping the Wolfpack make a run at the team title. With up to seven events to compete in, Lillard will be in for a busy state weekend.
“There’s definitely some extra drive right now to have my final weeks of high school track finish well,” Lillard said. “I always know there’s probably somebody better than me out there. So the goal is always to improve and get ready for great competition.”
The Western AA Divisional track meet will take place in Helena on May 19-20, and the MHSA Class AA State Meet will take place in Butte from May 25-27.
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