Ever since Jackson Barna won the NJ Middle School XC Championship three years ago, big expectations have followed him into just about every race he's run.
And Barna, combining a blue collar work ethic with a high octane motor, has risen to the challenge every time, dropping his times every season on his way to becoming one of the state's biggest stars on the trails and the track.
Barna, now a junior at Ridge, burst on the high school scene with a huge freshman year, highlighted by a sub-17 at Holmdel Park and a 4:22.21 for 1600m on the track.
Then last fall, Barna threw down a monster PR, hitting 15:55 at Holmdel when he placed seventh (first among sophomores) to lead Ridge to a sixth place finish at the Meet of Champions, and he also won the Somerset County XC title. He followed that up by running a PR of 9:17.81 in the 3200m at the Indoor M of C last March.
Barna's success has given him lots of confidence heading into this abbreviated season, which he's set to begin on Saturday when he his NJ No. 3 ranked pack opens its season at the loaded Cougar Invitational at Bucks Mills Park, which features NJ No. 1 Christian Brothers Academy.
NJ MileSplit recently caught up with Barna for an in depth and enlightening Q and A. We learned a lot about Barna, including what makes him tick, the big goals that drive him to try to become the best in the state and one of the best in the nation, and a whole lot more.
So sit back, throw your feet up and enjoy.
Jim Lambert: First off, congrats on all your great accomplishments! You have really been crushing it on the track and the trails during your first two years at Ridge! I know you rolled an ankle (two weeks ago). How is it feeling now?
Jackson Barna: My ankle is feeling a lot better, swelling has gone down and the pain is gone. I may not be 100%, but it's important for me to run to help the team. I'm definitely going to race (at Saturday's Cougar Invite). We have big goals this year and I want to make sure I do my part.
You were obviously super fit last winter and came off had such a great indoor season, highlighted by your PR 9:17 in the 3200m. How excited were you by the times you ran and what did you think of your indoor season?
I was very happy with the times I ran, especially in the 3200. The indoor season went well for me and the rest of the team;. At the Millrose Games, we won the 4x800 and throughout the season I continued to progress in the 3200.
How tough was it to not have an outdoor season? I felt so bad for you and all the runners in the state. Can you put into words just how difficult that was to go through? You probably had some big goals for the spring?
I can't even begin to express how disappointing it was. After I heard Indoor (Nationals) was cancelled I immediately focused my training for the outdoor season. I trained for months doing time trials alone all in hopes of any race, but unfortunately everything was cancelled.
The last couple years you and your teammates have been one of the top teams in the state, winning some tough battles with North Hunterdon and Westfield at sectionals. How badly and how much of a huge goal is it for you and your teammates to break through and win a state Group 4 title before you graduate?
It's definitely up there with some of the biggest goals, and I think that with the team this year in cross country we would have been able to pull it off. It's unfortunate that we don't get the opportunity to race in groups, but next year we are returning a majority of our top 7 and I think we have a good shot at winning.
How do you feel about this XC season? Not having a State Group Championship meet and a Meet of Champions is something a lot of runners and teams are understandably disappointed about. You and your team obviously would have had a great chance at winning Group 4, and could have made a run at the Meet of Champions and qualifying for Team Nationals. What are your thoughts on how your team could have done at at those meets, and how tough has it been to deal with losing so many big meets due to the pandemic?
I'm frustrated that we don't have any of the big state meets to compete in and I think I speak on behalf of my team when I say this since we were hoping to win groups and go for it at MOC's. As far as Nike Nationals goes, qualifying would have been a big goal for our team this year. I think even if we didn't qualify for the NXN we would have come very close. It's annoying at this point that so many meets are cancelled, we'll just have to take advantage of any opportunities we get.
Can you talk about your training since the end of indoors? How much did it change with no outdoor season and with the late start to this XC season? Where did you do most of your training?
After the indoor season everyone was hoping for the best. My coach didn't ease off the training much and for good reason, if any race were to happen we would have been ready. We started training at the beginning of summer despite the delayed start to the XC season. At first I did most of my training on the roads, it's not the greatest running surface but it's accessible. Later on I started meeting up with the team to do long runs at River Road, or the Columbia Trail just to get on softer ground.
Let's rewind the clock. When, how and why did you get involved in running?
I started running when I was nine years old. My parents signed me up for the Ridge track camp, and I remember forgetting my running shoes the day of the mile race. I stayed after and ran the mile alone and ended up running a fast time. I immediately knew this was something I wanted to keep doing.
What are your best running accomplishments before you got to high school?
One of my best accomplishments before high school running was when I won the middle school state championship for cross country in eighth grade. This was my first big win, and it was my biggest accomplishment in middle school. Winning the team title in XC and track was also a great memory for me from middle school. I really enjoy the team element of the sport.
When was your first big breakthrough race when you realized that you had a special talent in this sport?
I used to run in the Lakeland League when I was 9-11 years old. I raced in it for a couple years and wasn't anywhere near the best. I was extremely excited whenever I came in the top 10, and all of a sudden one race I took it out and won, it was amazing. At this point I realized I had a real talent for the sport.
What do you consider your biggest highlight in your running career and why?
It's really hard to think of just one highlight, but if I had to choose one thing I think it would be winning my first varsity race and getting interviewed by you afterwards. Going sub-16 at MOCs at Holmdel, and winning the team Sectional title this past year would be right up there as well.
Have you done any racing at all since the end of indoors? A virtual time trial?
I haven't done any races since the end of the indoor season. Although I have not raced I did a few virtual time trials alone during the spring season. It was hard finding places to run since all the school tracks had been closed down, so I managed to do a couple of time trials on a track and on a flat road just to gauge where I was in my fitness level.
What did it mean to you to drop a 15:55 and place 7th at the Meet of Champions last year? That must have built your confidence a lot.
Oh yeah! The race felt unreal to me, my goal that entire season was to go sub 16 at holmdel. I couldn't believe my eyes as the clock came into view toward the finish. Our team won 6th place medals too, that was the icing on the cake.
What is your biggest personal goal for this XC season, and what's your long term goal as far as a time at Holmdel? After being the top sophomore at the M of C last year, I imagine winning a state XC title and winning M of C XC title are huge goals for you as a senior next year? How much would it mean to you to be a M of C XC champ?
Although I won't get the opportunity to run at Holmdel I still have two big goals for this season. First, I want to beat the course record at my home course, Pleasant Valley Park, where we will run once this year. My second goal this season is to run a sub 15:30 at one of the other courses, most of which are challenging in this short year. For next year, my number one goal is to win the Meet of Champions. It would mean the world for me to win MOC's, and it would be even cooler if our team was also crowned champions, and I think we'll have a good shot.
Barna after his win at the Bernie Magee Class Meet in 2019.
Obviously, your junior year is a big year as far as throwing down fast times to help gain more interest from colleges. I know there are runners who are looking to get into races that the Garden State Track Club is having, and finding other big races to jump into. What kind of plans do you have to try to find fast races to compete in? Anything definite yet?
Nothing is definite yet, but my coach has a plan for me this season to run some fast times. A lot of the GSTC races conflict with team meets we already have on our schedule, so I'm not sure if I'll get a chance to run in one of them.
You wasted no time showing the rest of the state how talented you were when you burst on the scene with a great freshman year at Ridge with times of 16:59 at Holmdel and 4:22 on the track. Looking back on that, what was it like to deal with the big expectations that got placed on you with all your early success? You seemed to handle it great, which can't always be easy.
After running those fast times I felt like it motivated me even more to succeed. I think that running fast in my freshman year gave me the confidence I needed in sophomore year, when I began to realize that I could run just as fast as the best runners in the state. It really felt great to become a contributing member to our team so early in my running career. I had some great senior captains (Lindrud and Glock) that year to learn from as well, and that really helped me.
What is your biggest goal for your running career? Every runner dreams about fast times and has big goals?
A MOC title, breaking 15 in a XC race, or going sub-9 in the 3200m are all big goals of mine. But I think finishing in the top 10 at NXN or Foot Locker Nationals would be really cool.
What do you love the most about running and about XC?
I love running because of the competitive aspect and the fact that it requires you to be strong mentally. What I love about XC is the team aspect and that every runner in the top seven matters. It's great cheering for our guys battling for the 5 spot after I finish.
If you could go for a long run with any 4 pro runners ( past or present) who would it be and why?
I would go for a long run with Prefontaine, Kipchoge, and Mo Farah to ask them about both their mental and physical training tactics. I'd also love to run the Holmdel course with Cheserek to learn what it took to go sub-15 there.
What is the most impressive NJ XC/T&F accomplishment you've ever witnessed, and what made it stand out so much to you?
The 3200 at indoor MOCs my freshman year was one of the best races I've ever seen. The energy and noise in the bubble on the final lap of that race was incredible. Seeing a huge underdog like Liam Murphy just go for it and take down one of the best 3200 runners (Devin Hart of Point Boro) in state history, made me realize you are never out of a race as long as you believe you can win.
Favorite running season and why?
XC is my favorite season since it is heavily team involved and the camaraderie with teammates makes for exciting races. I also enjoy the different challenges that each course brings. I love climbing hills and being out on the trails in nature. My family does a lot of skiing and hiking trips to the mountains, and XC running reminds of that.
Favorite subject in school and why?
Math or science. I like solving problems.
If you weren't a runner, what sport would you be playing?
I might still be playing lacrosse since I played during middle school. Or maybe ski racing if my family had stayed in Colorado where I was born. Note - Barna moved to NJ in 2007.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I could see myself running marathons ten years from now, or maybe triathlons, but I really haven't thought that far ahead yet.
What advice would you give now to the younger you when you first started running?
I would tell my younger self to enjoy running and not take it too seriously yet because it really doesn't matter until you get to high school.