Not every high school runner who breaks a school record gets to shake hands with the mayor. But not every high school runner breaks their mayor's 400-meter school record.

Even St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter knew St. Paul Central had a special athlete when, as a junior, Harlow Tong broke Carter's 400 record on his way to a state title in the event.

"That was the first time that I had proof of my talent," Tong said, "having an actual record associated with my name for the first time."

More is associated with his name now. Tong, committed to run at Harvard, is the All-Metro Sports Awards Student First winner for 2024.

Tong found out his speed and his academics improved on parallel paths. He said he was "never a star student, especially in middle school," but as he got faster on the track, he started holding himself to higher academic standards. Tong studied as a part of Central's writing-heavy International Baccalaureate program, he tutored and he founded the school's Homework Help Club.

Tong once felt always a step slower than his older brother. Julian, three years older, spent a year running track for the Gophers. The brothers played soccer together, and teammates and coaches would comment on Julian's speed.

Julian pushed his younger brother to focus on track during high school. The brothers' coach at Minnesota Sprint Factory, Marc Brown, recalled Julian telling him that however fast he was, his younger brother would be faster.

Running track year-round, Tong felt the 400 "click" when he raced it for the first time to qualify for 2022′s Junior Nationals in Sacramento. Earning three All-America honors, Tong said he realized, "I'd barely put any effort into [the 400]. … So what would happen if I did [put in] that effort? And so that's how I really started taking off."

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"Almost, what you would expect, [is] once you start track, then you care about school a little less," Tong said. "I feel like being better at something, being at that level, really showed me that I could be at that level in a lot of other areas. I just chose not to put in the work, and knowing that about yourself really changes how you feel."

At Harvard, Tong plans to explore his environment-related interests. He graduated with a Class 3A title in the 400, a second-place state finish in the 100 and a state record in the indoor 200.

"It's going to be hard to fill his shoes," Brown said. "His mannerisms, his character, just being liked and respected, his leadership qualities."

After a senior spring battling a sports hernia in his hip that kept him out of this year's state track meet, Tong looks forward to seeing "the peak of my potential" at Harvard, athletically and academically, he said.

"I've always been the kind of person where I don't necessarily care about winning," Tong said. "I just want to see how much I can do."