By Gideon Rubin
Sometimes when Kurtis Shaffer finds the right rhythm on long practice runs, it’s not always that clear to him whether life is imitating art, or it’s the other way around.
Either way, it’s become apparent to him that shaving a few ticks off his 1600-meter time and adding a few new wrinkles to a jazz riff aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive goals.
“Sometimes I’ll have melody motifs stuck in my head while I’m running,” he said.
“It’s kind of torturous actually, I can be practicing saxophone during my runs. Even if the keys aren’t there I can imagine where they would be so I can run through scales like that.”
Shaffer can probably use any time-management advantage he can get. The aspiring jazz musician runs on the cross country and track and field teams at Torrey Pines High, while excelling academically too.
“It’s a juggling act for sure, between academics, sports and the music thing I’m doing,” he said.
The “music thing” is Shaffer’s first passion.
He picked up the saxophone in third grade after the Boys and Girls Club visited his elementary school encouraging music participation.
Shaffer initially wanted to take clarinet lessons.
“My dad goes, ‘What, clarinet? If you’re going to play an instrument you’ve got to play the saxophone. You’ll get way more girls that way.’
“He was joking, but I ended up doing that one instead and that’s taken off. Now I’m thinking about a career in music.”
Shaffer’s high school running career has taken off too.
He placed 10th in the Palomar League prelims, clocking 4:27.79, barely missing the cut to qualify for the San Diego Section finals.
Earlier this year he stunned teammates – and himself – when he ran the 1600 in 4:26 in a dual meet against Mt. Carmel.
Teammate Tal Braude, a standout runner, told him to “stay right up there” with him during the meet.
“I ended up going around the fourth lap and I held with him on the finishing kick,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer finished second in the race.
“Everybody’s like ‘You just dropped [about] 30 seconds off your mile time,’ ” Shaffer said. “I was excited about that race.”
Shaffer started running in middle school but he admits it was mostly a social experience. When he went out for the Torrey Pines cross country team as a freshman, the experience couldn’t have been more different.
“When I showed the up first day it was like they were giants,” he said. “They were mostly seniors and I was a freshman, and they could like, run.”
The Falcons went to the to state championships that year.
“I walked in as a freshman and I didn’t know anybody,” he said. “It was little bit intimidating my first run. I was way out of my league, level, everything.”
Shaffer kept at it though, toughing it out through a knee injury (different running shoes eventually fixed that), and along the way developing life skills that he believes have helped his performance on the track and in the music room.
“You have to be diligent,” Shaffer said of the quality that he believes is integral to both endeavors.
And you also have to be driven, he acknowledged, to push out a 10-mile run when you’d really rather go back to bed.
“You have to really want it,” he said.
The early part is the toughest, he said, noting that the cross country team’s tapered training program has him doing the majority of his training early on, then easing off towards the end of the season. The results of the training are not immediately apparent.
“The result is that hopefully we peak in our performance level at the end.”
Shaffer is taking that diligence to his musical career too, putting in the long hours of daily practice honing his craft now — he hopes that will help him reach his peak performance when he’s establishing his professional career down the road.
Shaffer said he plans to study music, perhaps at an elite East Coast conservancy or one of the state’s top programs at UCLA or the CSU Long Beach or Northridge schools.
“Keeping your head on straight in those early times so that it pays off later,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking at in my music career and I know that I have to put in the work now so that it pays off when I go to college.”