There’s no doubting Thomas after Saturday’s silver

Fueled by hard work, mental toughness, natural talent, Melina Raab emerges as elite runner with next-level future

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Abbey Saray

Senior Thomas Melina Raab separates from the field at the start of the Liberty Hill HS Cross Country Meet Saturday morning at Liberty Junior High School. Melina Raab ran in the lead pack throughout the race but made his big move late, advancing from about 20th all the way to second place.

Dave Winter, co-adviser

MacJournalism’s pain is Mac cross country’s gain.

Even though Thomas Melina Raab won a national title in sports writing for a December cross-country story he wrote about his teammate Chris Riley’s heroics at the 2020 5A state cross-country meet, he can’t write our story about Saturday’s Mac cross country race at Liberty Hill.

That was when I realized I could really be good at this, and I just kind of never looked back.”

— senior Thomas Melina Raab describing the day last February when he ran his first sub-five minute mile

Melina Raab can’t write a great cross-country story because on Saturday he was the great cross-country story.

He finished second in the 5A-6A boys varsity race in a time of 16:19.0, first among 5A runners. The time also shaved almost a full minute off his previous personal record.

How good a time is that?

Melina Raab’s time on Saturday was 16:19 flat. In his December story, he wrote that Riley ran his best-ever 5K time in his return trip to the 5A state cross country meet. Riley’s PR time on that day was 16:14.

The race on Saturday started off in an unspectacular way. 

Halfway through the 5K race, he was in the lead pack of about 20 runners but far back from the leaders.

In those final two kilometers, Melina Raab slowly started reeling in the runners ahead of him. Their energy was spent while his afterburners were just kicking in. 

“When people started dropping back and I felt comfortable enough to move up and pick people off, I knew it was gonna be a really good race,” he said.

With 200 meters to go, Melina Raab was fifth and gaining on the four runners ahead of him. As he neared the finish he had passed all of them except Bowie’s Nicholas Manire. 

Melina Raab began his steady ascent in his sport by running 40-plus miles a day and by running smarter. He was patient on Saturday running comfortably early. When his competition ran out of steam, he surged ahead shaving nearly a minute off his personal record 5K time. (Abbey Saray)

He was gaining on Manire, but the finish line came three seconds before he could catch him. 

The second-place result was the top finish in the boys varsity race among 5A competitors, and it continued Melina Raab’s recent emergence as a top-flight runner. When Riley returns to the team from an injury that has sidelined him so far this season, Mac will have a legitimate chance to have two top finishes at any meet in which they compete.

To understand how Melina Raab has reached this new peak, we have to go back to last season. It was early fall of 2020 in the middle of the pandemic when Zoom classes and huge stretches of asynchronous time were all the rage.

Thomas is very observant, has a deep understanding of the sport and is incredibly talented. He can analyze the competition and make adjustments and prepare as needed.”

— head cross-country coach Courtney Long

“I decided I needed something I could do on a daily basis because I missed having a schedule,” he said.

And he found that schedule in a rigorous training regimen. 

The regimen includes running 40-plus miles a week. The constant work has led to incremental improvement that was palpable.

In February, he ran a sub-five minute mile for the first time.

“That was when I realized I could really be good at this,” Melina Raab said, “and I just kind of never looked back.”

By the summer, his coach at the Born to Run Track Club, Paul Carrozza promoted him to the most competitive group within the club. Riley, who also runs for Carrozza, said the promotion was both a reward for Melina Raab’s improvement and a catalyst to speed that improvement up.

“He went from being one of the faster people in the middle group to being near the back of the top group,” Riley said.

Nothing makes you train harder and run faster than having the best push you every day.

And Riley is definitely one of the runners who has pushed Melina Raab to get where he is now.

“He’s been really encouraging even while he’s hurt,” Melina Raab said. “He also knows a lot more about running than I do so being able to come to him whenever I have a question or I need some help is really helpful. He’s been one of the guys in the club I try to push myself to run with, so he’s definitely helped me improve.”

While the role models have played a factor, Carrozza says the runner Melina Raab is becoming was always there.

“His potential was always obvious,” Carrozza told MacJournalism. “His work ethic was there. He always wants to run with the lead group. His fitness is making his goal pace sustainable.  It takes time, and consistent effort over a long period of time to make a status change. The progress feeds the future work.”

Clad in blue, the McCallum girls varsity cross country starts the 5A-6A varsity race at Liberty Hill Junior HIgh School on Saturday. The group of runners is bookended by the top two finishers for the team: Lillian Gray (far left) and Kiana Leon (right). (Kaya Stone)

Carrozza said that Melina Raab has both the work ethic and the tools to be a great runner. 

“He is light on his feet, extremely smooth, [has] good speed and his endurance is improving with training,” Carroza said.

Those tools are in part hereditary. Melina Raab’s grandfather Ted Raab ran track at Cornell, and his dad, also Ted Raab, ran for City College in San Francisco.

“They both ran long distance and were very good at it,” Melina Raab said.

His Mac coach, Courtney Long, is in her first year after replacing 17-year veteran coach Susan Ashton.

“Thomas is very observant, has a deep understanding of the sport and is incredibly talented,” Long said. “He can analyze the competition and make adjustments and prepare as needed.”

The combination of hard work and mental adjustments was certainly on display this Saturday.

“His plan was to not go out as fast as he did last week,” Long said. “He didn’t want to start off too fast and then burn out.”

He now knows his dreams will come true if he keeps up the work. … The college that gets him will be getting a diamond in the rough.”

— Born to Run Track Club head coach Paul Carrozza

“I had been going out too fast in previous races and dying really hard,” Melina Raab said. “This race, I stayed with the pack and kept my body and my form relaxed.”

Comfortable and confident in his own shoes, Melina Raab had the leftover energy in the last mile to surge past competition that was hitting “E” as he was accelerating. 

“People run how they feel,” Carrozza said. “Your body gives you constant feedback. As your fitness improves, your mindset improves.  It’s a closed loop.”

While the relationship between fitness and outlook may be cyclical, Melina Raab’s improvement since last fall has certainly been linear and on the rise. And that could mean big problems for the district, region and state competition that Mac will face in the near future especially when and if Riley is able to return to form.

“Having two runners in the top 10 would put us in a very good position for the district meet and may qualify us for region,” said Riley, who added that Melina Raab’s emergence might have an even more fundamental impact on the team’s chances of winning.

“Having the team see his level of improvement over the past six months may encourage some of our other guys to put in that extra 20 percent of work to get to the next level. …  All of the seniors will really want to qualify for region and I think some of the underclassmen will pick up on our enthusiasm.”

Long says that Melina Raab has been extremely helpful in her first year coaching cross country. Her prior experience as an athlete and a coach has been in the pool not the track.

“I don’t know much about cross country since I was a swimmer, but he takes the time at meets to talk me through the course and tell me what other runners will struggle with,” Long said. “He is also helping me learn about region/state competitions ahead of time so I know more going into it. [He’s] honestly a fantastic athlete … and a great human in general.”

His character, example and improvement have bettered his team’s prospects for a good season, but they also have him looking beyond high school to a much bigger, longer race.

 Melina Raab has his sights set on running collegiately, an ambition he credits his club coach with helping him make more possible.

Melina Raab’s second-place finish on Saturday is just the latest and greatest result in a season that has had many highlights. Shown here at the AISD Invitational at Decker Lake on Sept. 3, where he earned a Top 25 finish by running a 16:47, Melina Raab placed third at Yoakum on a sweltering Aug. 21 day. (Kaya Stone)

“He’s the main reason I’ve gone from being a pretty average runner to someone looking at running at the college level.”

Carrozza isn’t just a helpful coach either. He’s a true believer.

“He now knows his dreams will come true if he keeps up the work,” Carrozza says of Melina Raab. “He is very young and the college that gets him will be getting a diamond in the rough.”

Melina Raab’s college prospects are just developing, but he knows if he keeps on his current regimen, the times will come and the opportunities will follow.

Having the team see his level of improvement over the past six months may encourage some of our other guys to put in that extra 20 percent of work to get to the next level.”

— senior Chris Riley on his teammate Thomas Melina Raab

“I know for a fact I can run at most D3 even D2 schools right now,” he said. “I’m just working towards hitting the times I need to to be able to run at the D1 level, and I’m definitely getting there.”

Melina Raab has talked in-depth with a couple of coaches, but it’s a bit early to have those conversations because he is still an improving work in progress.

“It’s kind of hard to [talk with coaches] when you’re on the brink of hitting the standards I need to hit to go to the elite schools.”

So for now, the best approach is to put in the work, week after week, day after day, mile after mile, and see where that takes him.

Who knows? He may just be a collegiate runner just like his dad and his granddad before him.

Carrozza joked that the source of his recent power surge might not be his hard work, his mental approach or his family legacy. 

“My only question is whether he is like Samson,” Carrozza said of Melina Raab’s long hair. “Will he be able to run fast with short hair? We may never know.”

RACE NOTES: Junior Charlotte Wunz placed fourth in the 5A-6A JV girls race. It’s the second time in as many races that she has medaled.

“She’s new to the team and has fit right in,” Long said. “She is already a leader and works super hard.”

Wunz ran the 5K course in 23:04.8, averaging a 7:26 mile.

Coach Long said that the only reason that Wunz is not on varsity yet is because she just moved to Austin from Pennsylvania and her UIL paperwork hasn’t been approved yet.

The top girls varsity finishers were Lillian Gray (21:32) and Kiana Leon (21:48) who placed 21st and 25th overall among 5A-6A girls varsity runners.