Before becoming a professional runner, before an All-American career at the University of Oregon and before rewriting the Alaska prep history books, Trevor Dunbar’s first taste of national competition was as a rising eighth-grader at Kodiak Middle School.
In 2004, a baby-faced Dunbar ran the 1,600 meters at the North American Hershey Final in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Even back then, Dunbar didn’t disappoint on the big stage.
The young pup — one of only two 13 year olds in a field of nine runners — turned a then-personal-best time of 4 minutes, 53.68 seconds to finish fifth — seven seconds faster than his middle school record.
“For me, coming from Kodiak, to have that opportunity threw some gas on the fire that was already burning,” said Dunbar Wednesday afternoon from Tallahassee, Florida.
Dunbar was surprised to qualify for the North American Hershey Final. Having had a spectacular seventh-grade season, clocking a handful of 1,600 races between 5:00 and 5:05, he approached the local Kodiak games as a time trial. Not ready for the unusually hot, windy late-June Kodiak weather, he labored to a time of 5:21.
There was no way that time was gaining him entry into Hershey. Wrong. A few weeks later, he got the call that he was headed to Pennsylvania, following the paths of Kodiak softball throwers Brandon Miller and Michael Odell, who went to Hershey in 2002 and 2003.
“I was shocked to go, then told myself that I’m going to take every advantage of this opportunity,” Dunbar said. “That was the first time my dad really gave me a training plan, before that I hadn’t done any kind of structured training — it was just go run for fun.”
Groomed by parents who had standout NCAA Division I running careers, Dunbar was caught off guard when a group of Hershey qualifiers toured an amusement park a day before the race.
“I’m sitting in these lines thinking I have to compete tomorrow; I don’t want to be tiring my legs out. I was already thinking like that … I’m going to go sit down on the bench over there while nobody else is thinking that way,” Dunbar said. “Even as a rising eighth-grader, I was getting in that killer mentality and thinking these guys are fools, I’m going to take it to them tomorrow. That was the way I was wired.”
Including Dunbar, four of the nine runners in the race went on to have NCAA Division I careers: winner Kyle Milks (University of North Carolina), fourth-place finisher Miles Svobada (University of Georgia) and sixth-place Alex Muntefering (Colorado State University), who is now a coach at Texas State University.
Dunbar, who finished 12 seconds behind Milks and only .07 ticks back of Svobada, ended up having the best career out of the bunch.
He was an All-American in high school and college, led Kodiak to a slew of state championships and Oregon to national championships.
Dunbar’s best shot at qualifying for the Olympics was in 2012 when he placed 11th in the 5,000-meter finals of the U.S. Olympic Trials. A year later, Dunbar became the first Alaskan to post a sub-4-minute mile, a gigantic feat in the running world. He has dipped under the running barrier three more times during his prolific career.
After graduating from Oregon, Dunbar turned pro and ran for Nike and Boston Athletic Association. With his professionally running career almost in the rearview mirror, he switched gears in 2019 and was awarded his first paid coaching job at Florida State University. After a successful cross country season, his first year with the Seminole track team was cut short because of COVID-19. He is currently waiting to see if his contract will be renewed for the 2020 season. He paralleled the beginning of his coaching career to Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who spent time at numerous colleges and NFL teams before landing a head coaching job.
“I want to be back at FSU and I think we are on a good track here,” Dunbar said. “But, I’m going to be looking into whatever makes sense. I should have a good idea in the next month or so.”
Dunbar discovered he wanted to pursue coaching when he trained Kodiak’s Levi Thomet and another racer for a junior national race in 2016. That experience taught him the importance of prepping racers for everything, including the competition.
“I was more nervous in that first coaching role for their races than I was ever for any of mine,” Dunbar said. “It was really cool to be part of something bigger than yourself and seeing some of these other dreams realized.”
Having a father — Marcus — as a legendary Alaskan running coach, gave Dunbar the knowledge and passion for the sport. The two still talk weekly about coaching strategies.
“We are both natural historians and want to know what the next best competitor had for breakfast two weeks ago,” Dunbar said. “It’s been fun to take him along this journey as I get my feet in the door.”
He is still running, but doesn’t know when his next competitive race will be.
“I’m just running for my sanity, to reflect and connect with nature,” he said. “It has been weird not doing any workouts to gear up for a race.”