MISSOULA -- Dawson LaRance's senior year of track and field at Billings Senior High, simply put, was one milestone shattered after another.
Were expectations high after a strong junior campaign? Yes, and understandably so. LaRance was coming into the 2017 spring as the reigning 800-meter run champion and amid a fairly fresh commitment to the University of Minnesota to continue cross country and track.
But not many saw the feat incoming on May 26, 2017 at the State AA track and field meet in Butte. The favorite to win the 800 throughout the year, LaRance accomplished that and so much more when he crossed the finish line at 1 minute, 50.22 seconds, shattering the 31-year-old all-class 800 record set by Billings West's Stacey Smiedala in 1986. The previous record was 1:51.84.
At the time, Smiedala's 800 record was the second-oldest among the male all-class records.
"All season I'd been training for this race and trying to break this 31-year-old record," LaRance told MTN Sports on the University of Montana campus while recently visiting family in Missoula. "During some of the preseason meets I'd gotten really close to the time, but during the regular season in Montana it was hard for me to get under 1:52.00.
"So going into the state meet in Butte, I'd tapered for the meet and I trusted in my training and I knew what I had to do was get out really hard, and so I know I was extremely nervous because I felt like my entire high school career was leading up to this point."
LaRance's best time that season was 1:51.59, but that came at the Arcadia Invitational in California. The higher elevations of Montana were tougher to crack with his best time being 1:53.10, which came at the Eastern AA divisional meet at Memorial Stadium in Great Falls.
So to best that mark by Smiedala, and to do it at over 5,500 feet in Butte, was no easy task for LaRance to ask of himself.
"I was really worried because during the regular season I was racing at these meets with lower elevations and I was like, 'If I can't break the state record at one of these meets, then how am I going to do this at altitude?'" LaRance said. "But I tried not to think about it too much."
After starting fast, he wanted to cross the 400 mark with a good time and hold it for the final 400.
"Just told myself to hold on, you can do this," he said. "Stay composed and finish strong."
In the final straightaway, LaRance said he glanced up at the scoreboard and saw he was in the 1:40.00 range, and the brief thought crossed his mind that he might even break 1:50.00, let alone set the new record.
He knew once he crossed the line something special had just happened.
"I crossed the finish line and I saw on the scoreboard that it was a 1:50.2, so I was extremely happy," LaRance said. "I was definitely dizzy. Got a headache because I'd raced so hard and I'd put everything I could into it. I was very, very proud of that."
With sore legs and a headache, LaRance said, especially that season, it was probably the worst he'd felt after a race.
"I don't know if it was just overwhelming thinking about what I just did and also pushing myself super hard," LaRance said. "My first 400 was a little too fast, but that was all due to adrenaline of wanting to break the record.
"Definitely felt pretty bad after that 800 but also just overcome with joy that I'd broken the record."
It meant a lot to LaRance to etch his name in the history books, but, looking back, it meant even more to him to be able to prove to himself that he was able to push himself hard both mentally and physically.
He'd spoken to Smiedala and countless others after he won the 800 as a junior, so the goal was there from the start. It was just a matter of making it happen, no matter how difficult.
"It means a lot to me even now to continue to see it and know that it'll be in the record books in Montana for a long time," LaRance said. "It meant a lot to me."
That record capped off a stellar senior season for LaRance. He also walked away with the title in the 1,600-meter run and ran a leg on Senior's 1,600-meter relay team that also set an all-class record that season. LaRance also placed fifth individually at the state cross country meet that fall.
All of that hard work paid off on the track, but LaRance achieved another personal milestone, as well. An openly gay athlete, not long after breaking the record, LaRance wrote for Outsports.com about how that senior year also marked a step forward in completely being himself and not hiding anything from anyone. He credits that acceptance of himself with allowing him to run freer and gain confidence, which ultimately led to his success.
LaRance is one of a number of athletes who use their platforms as NCAA Division I college athletes in the LGBTQ community to help other younger athletes who, like LaRance once did, are struggling to come out and accept who they are.
Now at Minnesota, LaRance qualified for the NCAA Division I Indoor Track and Field Championships as part of Minnesota's distance medley relay team in the winter. However, LaRance and his teammates never got a chance to compete as the championships, which were to be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were canceled the day before they were supposed to start due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was especially a bummer for LaRance, who said he felt things were beginning to click at the college level after a "tricky" adjustment period during his freshman and sophomore seasons. LaRance also qualified for the regional meet during the 2019 outdoor track and field season.
Losing that opportunity at nationals hurt. But as all athletes are doing, LaRance is finding a silver lining going forward as motivation.
"It lights a fire under me knowing that I made it," he said. "I can make it again and we're going to train hard this summer and fall, and I'll be back next year, for sure.
"It's a different mindset, for sure. It's a grind. Every day, day in and day out, but doing well in college and getting those victories and (personal bests) and racing well is all worth the hard work in the end."