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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Monticello High School's Adam Bunker approaches the finish line and wins the 1A cross country state championship race at Sugarhouse Park in Salt Lake City, on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017.

MONTICELLO — Adam Bunker’s first individual high school state track race was as good as it gets and then as heartbreaking as they come.

A few months before that race in May 2017, Bunker opened a letter from Jeff Hunt, the head track and cross-country coach at Monticello High School.

“He told me he’d always wanted me to run,” Bunker said. “He said he wanted me to come run track and that he thought I could help the cross-country team. So I went out for track."

Bunker didn’t aspire to be a distance runner.

“I played soccer, but that only goes until sixth grade,” he said. “In Monticello, there are only two options in the fall — football or cross-country. I hated running, so I played football starting in seventh grade.”

A wide receiver, he might have continued to hate running if it hadn’t been for Hunt’s letter. Once he began training for the 2017 track season, he realized he had real talent.

He qualified for the state meet and won the 1A title in his first race — the 1,500.

“It doesn’t happen very often, but in the second-to-last turn, on the third lap, he pulled out of the turn and passed a kid from Piute,” said Hunt, who has coached the Buckaroo track and cross-country programs for 15 years. “He has such a long stride, he caused the other kid to pull up. We were gritting our teeth, waiting for the call of shame. We knew what was going to happen, but he was really disappointed.” Bunker said he didn’t understand why he was being disqualified.

“I was pretty bummed,” he said. “My coaches went to get more information, but there was nothing we could really do about it so there wasn’t any use in whining about it.”

Hunt said Bunker was visibly shaken by the decision, so he and the boy’s father, who now runs a club running program in Monticello, took him aside as he tried to prepare for the high jump.

“He was really, really disappointed,” Hunt said. “As a coach, you have to understand your kids’ personalities, and his dad and I got in his face a little bit. I wouldn’t do that to everybody, but it worked for Adam. … He turned around and medaled in the high jump after that.”

Hunt said he then returned the following day and “crushed” the competition in the 3,200 race.

“Me and my dad talked a lot of strategy that night (before the race) so the same thing wouldn’t happen,” Bunker said. “It just motivated me to come out and run ever harder.”

Since then, Bunker hasn’t lost a race to a 1A runner in track or cross-country. He gave up football and led the Buckaroos to a 1A state boys cross-country title last fall, and he hopes to do the same this season.

“He’s very intense,” Hunt said of Bunker. “It’s a real go-getter. He doesn’t slow down very much — ever, and just because of that, the kids look up to him. They admire his drive.”

It’s really fun to represent Monticello in that way, and cross-country is the best way I can represent my school.
Adam Bunker

Instead of disappointment discouraging him, it seems to fuel him.

“He outworks everybody,” Hunt said. “I know very few kids who work harder than he does. He’s also a pretty vocal leader. He jumps in and tries to give the kids a boost and that kind of stuff.”

This year’s cross-country team is senior heavy and favored to repeat at the 1A state meet. But just winning won’t be good enough for Bunker and his teammates. They hope to set a new team time record, which means the top five athletes have to run faster than the 85:48.4 mark set by St. Joseph’s in 2002.

Bunker said that in addition to enjoying the challenges of distance running, he loves representing his school and community.

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“Monticello is home,” he said. “I like it when Monticello dominates. It’s really fun to represent Monticello in that way, and cross-country is the best way I can represent my school. I just love to hear when they say ‘Monticello’ on the speaker at the state meet.”

Bunker, who hopes to run in college, said running has taught him many lessons, but maybe most importantly, it’s taught him what it takes to be successful.

“I have definitely learned that to be more than just average at something it takes a lot of work,” he said. “More than I thought.”