Griffin is one for the books

With no background in track prior to high school, distance runner Brittney Griffin has become the cornerstone of a highly successful girls program at Digital Harbor.


When Brittney Griffin isn't competing in as many as three individual events at a Baltimore City track and field league meet or the state championships, the first place to look for her is a quiet corner with plenty of sunlight.

That's where Griffin can usually be found reading books ranging from an autobiography by former Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones to a coming-of-age novel by former hip-hop star Sister Souljah.

"[Reading] helps me refocus," the Digital Harbor senior said. "If I'm around my team and laughing all the time, I don't think I'd be as focused as I should be. If I just go sit down and read my book for a while and then get up to go run my race, I'm focused."

Griffin's strategy has paid off.

Over the past three years, Griffin has demonstrated why she is the city public schools' premier distance runner. Since the winter of 2004, she has captured five city titles in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters and six regional crowns in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200.

It's a remarkable achievement considering the path that Griffin took to reach this stage - which includes an acceptance letter to and possible financial aid from St. Augustine's College in North Carolina - in her high school career.

Unlike many of her peers, Griffin had no background in track and field when she arrived at Digital Harbor nearly four years ago. Griffin, who had swum for two summers prior to attending the central Baltimore high school, hadn't even contemplated running until Digital Harbor coach Lutalo Bakari approached her in the hallway just days before the start of the cross country season during the fall of her freshman year.

"He was just like, `You look like you can run.' I guess because I'm little, I can run," said Griffin, who was 5 feet 5 and 90 pounds as a freshman. "He told me to come and I thought, `Well, I need something to do. So I'll run.' "

Said Bakari of their meeting: "She may not have known that she was a runner, but I could tell that she could run by the way she walked. She has a very graceful walk. She walks on her toes. Then when she actually put on the tennis shoes and the sweats and actually did a little jogging, I knew she was going to be runner."

Griffin's first meet was daunting: a two-mile run limited to only freshmen through Herring Run Park.

"I was like, `Oh my gosh, I'm not running [two] miles,' " she said. "But he was like, `Girl, you'll be all right. Just try.' So I just tried it and I liked it."

The result? Griffin won the race, although she forgets her time.

Still, that outcome gave Griffin confidence and she made the transition to the track. Once there, she decided to stick with the distance events rather than participating in the sprints.

"I wanted to [be a sprinter] at first, but then I saw how girls on my team were faster than me in sprints. That's when I said that I'm going to try distance running," Griffin said. "I'm not fast enough. I don't have sprint speed. I've got distance speed."

Since her sophomore year, Griffin has dominated the distance events and been an integral part of a girls program that has collected three consecutive regional crowns since the winter of 2005.

Bakari - who likened Griffin to Gerome Jones and Kevin Johnson, two Digital Harbor graduates who won individual state crowns despite no track and field background prior to high school - said the key to Griffin's success has been her fortitude, which includes never having missed a practice in four years.

"The common denominator among all distance runners is that they have to be disciplined because it takes a disciplined athlete to do the type of workouts that they need to do whether they're with the team or alone," he said. "The time that you put into distance running can be tedious. To be a good distance runner, you have to be disciplined. When you're running the two-mile or three miles in cross country, you have to stay focused for the entire race."

Training at Digital Harbor also takes patience and determination because the school does not have its own track on which to practice. Griffin said the team has one of three options: walking five minutes to nearby Rash Field, taking a 15-minute bus ride to Dunbar High School's track, or running through the rectangular-shaped fourth-floor hallway at Digital Harbor.

Said Griffin of using the school's fourth floor, which measures out to more than 200 meters: "Everybody can't turn the corner at the same time. People will be hitting walls and stuff. But we still practice up there."

The lack of a convenient training site has not diluted Griffin's desire to win. Senior Josetta McDonald, who has known Griffin since they were sixth-graders at Lombard Middle School, called her friend the strongest person on the team - mentally and physically.

"When we're slacking, she's like, `Come on, y'all, we've got to do this.' When Coach is downstairs and we're upstairs, she's like, `Come on, y'all, we've got to work. If we want to be the best, we've got to work,' " McDonald said. "She's almost like our second coach."

As successful as Griffin has been at the city and regional levels, she has struggled at the state championships, where her best finish in an individual event is fourth place in the 800 at the Class 1A state meet last spring.

"I've just been scared," Griffin said. "I don't know. My body just gets tense when I'm close to the last 200 or so. ... My legs just cramp up and then my mind just shuts down and I go somewhere else. But I'm working hard, and this year, I'm winning."

Griffin's last hope of attaining that elusive prize will take place on Memorial Day weekend at Morgan State University. But even if she falls short, Bakari said Griffin's legacy among the Rams is undisputed.

"She will definitely be recognized as the first lady of track and field for Digital Harbor," he said. "She's the first Digital Harbor female athlete to be named to consecutive All-City teams. She's already in the history books at Digital Harbor."

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