CLIFTON PARK — Carter Cukerstein is spending one month getting ready for a race that, if everything goes as he’s planning, will be over in less than 6.3 seconds.
On Feb. 5 at Hudson Valley Community College, Cukerstein qualified for the NYSPHSAA indoor track and field championships with his victory in the 55-meter dash at Section II’s state qualifying meet. It was of little surprise, considering that the Shenendehowa senior has been the fastest in the state — and one of the fastest in the nation — over the sprint distance throughout this winter.
But, because Section II’s qualifying meet was scheduled so early due to issues surrounding facility availability, it leaves quite a long time to get ready for such a short race.
“It’s my favorite event,” Cukerstein said. “I’m a short-distance type of runner.”
OK, technically, Cukerstein’s getting ready for two 55-meter races — and two relay heats.
When the state meet finally comes around March 5 at Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex on Staten Island, he’ll have to run in the morning heats of the 55 to make his way to the finals, and he’s also part of a Shenendehowa 4×200-meter relay team that has hopes of a capturing state championship and running a fast enough time to qualify for the New Balance Nationals Indoor Championships later in March.
Still, four weeks is a lot of time to prepare for 510 very fast, very important meters.
“I’m really pushing myself,” Cukerstein said. “Get that endurance so that I can keep my speed the entire time. So, when I run shorter distances, I’ll be able to run at my fastest.”
And really, for Cukerstein, a four-week wait for a state meet is nothing.
It’s really been a two-year wait, through a pandemic and bad injury luck that kept him from showcasing his individual talent on a big stage until this winter.
“Think of the years that he’s put in to show up and run that short, short distance,” Shenendehowa boys’ indoor track coach Jason Burlingame said. “It takes a lot of patience. Track and field is definitely a game of years and seasons, not just weeks and months.”
Cukerstein first emerged two years ago as part of an all-sophomore Shenendehowa 4×200 relay that reached the state championships. Running along with Tyler Dedrick, Michael McElrath and Sean Mercurio, Cukerstein was part of a team that finished ninth in preliminary heats, missing out on the final by less than three-tenths of a second.
That meet came on March 7, 2020, and within two weeks would come massive shutdowns as the COVID-19 pandemic struck New York. That meant no sophomore outdoor track season for Cukerstein that spring and, it turned out, no junior indoor season the following winter.
Cukerstein finally got back to sprinting last spring during an abbreviated outdoor season, but even that didn’t go to plan.
He posted Section II’s fastest 100-meter dash time of 10.86 seconds during a May 11 dual meet, but did very little running after that as a hamstring injury forced him to pull up in multiple races before ultimately pulling the plug on the scholastic season and missing the Section II championships.
“I came off football and doing a bunch of different things like that, and I wasn’t excited to stretch as much or do any of that stuff,” Cukerstein said. “My warmup routine wasn’t as good as it is now. So, I had a higher risk of getting injured.”
Still nursing the hamstring injury, Cukerstein came back in mid-June at the New York State Showcase meet, finishing third in the 200 and ninth in the 100.
“The fact that he ran at the end of the season at the State Showcase and even placed and was able to run as fast as he ran on a pretty tender hamstring is remarkable,” Burlingame said.
“Remarkable” is also a pretty apt word to describe Cukerstein’s indoor season this winter.
He’s taking his stretching and warmups “way more seriously” to avoid injury, and the results are showing on the stopwatch.
At the Millrose Games Trials in January, he ran the 55 in 6.27 seconds, a Section II all-time best in the event and just 0.02 seconds off the state record. Then, at the Millrose Games, he was second to Terrell Robinson of Mount Tabor (N.C.) in both the 55 and the 60, with his time of 6.77 in the longer event setting a new state record.
Cukerstein said he felt he could have gone even faster in the 55, but let up a bit in the closing stages of the race when he realized he wasn’t going to catch Robinson.
He’s got more in the tank for a run at the state record at the state meet.
“I can definitely break that,” he said. “I honestly do feel like I can run a low 6.2, high 6.1.”
There’s also the chance to race Robinson, whom Cukerstein ranks second nationally behind in both the 55 and 60, in the 60 at nationals.
“I definitely want to race Terrell again,” he said. “I definitely want to.”