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Parker Wolfe's meteoric rise on the track launches UNC into national spotlight

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UNC track & field junior Parker Wolfe poses for a portrait in the Loudermilk Center For Excellence on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Wolfe ran a 3,000-meter race with a time of 7:37.41 at the Scarlet and White Invitational, the fastest time of anyone in the country this season, the third-best time in NCAA history and a UNC school record.

When Parker Wolfe lined up for his first-ever time trial as a 14-year-old, his father Padden was admittedly nervous. There was a pretty significant size disparity between his son, a mere freshman on the Cherry Creek High School cross country team, and his older competition. The chiseled physiques and sheer length of the upperclassmen left Wolfe’s father sure of one thing: “He’s going to get his ass kicked.”

Except he didn’t. Wolfe held his own, finishing in the top 10. Afterwards, Wolfe's parents were approached by Cherry Creek's best senior runner, who said Wolfe’s pace was far beyond anything he had been capable of at that age.

“That’s when we realized at least he had something going [for him],” Padden said

Wolfe improved rapidly and said he finished third in the Colorado 5A state championships as a sophomore.

"I was like, okay, I gotta stick with this one," Wolfe said.

Fast forward about seven years to earlier this February. Wolfe, now a junior at UNC, won the 3,000 meters with a time of 7:37.41, breaking a program record and placing himself third all-time in the NCAA record book at the Scarlet and White Invitational in Boston. Wolfe is coming off of a dominant cross country season last fall, finishing first individually at the ACC Championships and leading North Carolina to its first team championship since 1985.

His recipe for success is simple: consistency. And after years of trusting the process, he is beginning to reap the rewards.

“Parker is going to do Parker things,” Ian Moini, a UNC track and field coach who works specifically with long-distance runners like Wolfesaid. "But a lot of people are not going to be willing to do the things Parker does.”

'It's a whole different level'

Wolfe's college search came in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, so he was not able to take any official visits. Instead, he and his father embarked on several self-guided tours while Wolfe's mother Debbie researched coaches. Being a former collegiate runner herself, she wanted Wolfe's coach to stick with him for all four years.

“I had three different coaches when I was running in college,” she said, "and I think that made it a little bit tougher."

After several phone conversations, the family decided that UNC head coach Chris Miltenberg was the right choice. Debbie remembers Miltenberg’s selling point: creating a family of runners at UNC.

Wolfe committed without ever meeting him in person. Reflecting on it now, Wolfe said he regrets his first impression upon arriving in Chapel Hill.

“I came in like, 'Yeah, I know how to do running — I’ve been doing this for four years,'” Wolfe said. “I didn’t realize it's a whole different level when I got to college, and trusting your coach is a huge part of that.”

Needless to say, he bought into Miltenberg’s process quickly. By the end of his rookie campaign, Wolfe was named ACC Freshman of the Year, establishing himself as a vital part of the program's future.

‘An elite athlete lifestyle’

After a successful first season, Wolfe continued to improve, pushing his body to the brink to get one percent better every day.

“Getting out of bed every day to go run, getting through workouts, it's a huge mental aspect,” Wolfe said. “I think physically, if you do it every day, you are physically going to be able to do a lot more than you think. But mentally, it takes a lot.” 

For Wolfe, consistency is the best cultivator of mental fortitude. Turning the “C-plus” days into “B-minus or B-plus” days is what Miltenberg preaches and what Wolfe practices.

Even off the track, his commitment to excellence never falters. Wolfe prioritizes sleep and maintains a consistent diet — penne vodka and fettuccine alfredo are his go-to's for carbo-loading.

It is a meticulous process that cannot be altered leading up to race day, because Wolfe says, the hardest part of the race is just getting to the starting line. Half of the event is determined before it even begins. Wolfe knows he has a competitive advantage over runners who did not sleep much, who were uncommitted to their pre-race meal plan or faltered just a single time in their training routine.

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“He lives his life from a consistency perspective of really, really buying into an elite athlete lifestyle,” Moini said

'The first guy to plant that flag'

Even though Wolfe is known to be reserved, he is a natural leader by example. Moini, who has seen Wolfe grow over the years, had plenty of praise for his impact on UNC's competitive team culture.

“For the rest of our guys, they see, like, 'Man, if this guy is doing this at the top of the game, at the highest level of the NCAA and really the world — then like for me at the level I’m at, let’s embrace that and just go get better,'” Moini said

But Wolfe downplays his influence on the team and credits Miltenberg for turning the culture around in a program that struggled to gain footing on an ACC or national level. As for Wolfe, his focus is on a handful of his teammates, the high-level runners who are as dedicated to their craft as he is.

With eyes on another ACC title this spring and ambitions to improve at the NCAA meet, Wolfe is not letting his recent success change his secret recipe.

“He’s been the first guy to plant that flag in the NCAA, like we can do this, we can be one of the best teams in the country,” Moini said. “Ten years from now, we will still be talking about his impact.”

@cadeshoemaker23

@dthsports l sports@dailytarheel.com