The boy was probably no more than 6 years old as he peered through the barbed-wire fence at his grandfather’s ranch in Stanley.
There was something about the way the horses on the other side of that fence ran. So he snuck past the barbs and joined them.
Curtis Beach is still running. On April 15, the Albuquerque Academy and Duke grad and decathlete will make his professional track and field debut at the Mount SAC Invitational.
But his first races were with horses on the high plains of New Mexico.
“I’d sneak through the barbed-wire fence and chase my grandfather’s horses forever,” Beach said.
He was into playing soccer at the time, but his father, David, having seen how much Curtis enjoyed running, suggested signing him up for track.
“What’s that?” the boy wondered.
“You run and do nothing else,” his father said.
“No, way. That’s awesome,” the boy said.
By the time Curtis reached middle school, he had also discovered the high jump and hurdles. By the time he got to Academy, he was open to everything. He said it was there that he learned to “see beyond the tunnel vision of track, to see life’s bigger perspective.”
Instrumental in that development was Academy coach Adam Kedge.
“He is full of life lessons,” Beach said. “I think he sets an extraordinary example for all his athletes to live a really good life, to make sure it’s meaningful for everyone else.”
Beach was a seventh-grader when he first approached Kedge and told him he was planning to attend Academy. Kedge watched the lanky kid run in a midschool event and saw some raw talent. But something else impressed him.
“Probably the one thing that stood out was his enthusiasm, his vigor for life,” Kedge said. “He was always full of fire.”
Beach was on the Academy varsity as an eighth-grader and entered the district meet intending to qualify for state in the high jump.
“He high jumped 6 feet, which, as an eighth-grader, was impressive,” Kedge said. “But he got third and didn’t qualify. So he came to me, begging me to find another event to be in so he could make it to state. We looked and there was the mile. He ran the 1,600 meters and took off like a bat out of hell.”
Beach failed to qualify in that event, too, but he showed Kedge the drive he had. By the time Beach was a freshman, Kedge knew he had a national-caliber athlete. Beach went on to win 17 state titles and set national records in the decathlon before his Academy time was up.
Then it was on to Duke, where Beach noticed similarities between his high school and his university.
“A lot of the same lessons,” he said. “Work hard, think outside the box. I think I grew up a lot.”
He worked mostly with associate head coach Shawn Wilbourn, and his academic advisor was Wilbourn’s wife, Makeba, a professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience.
“I talked to them about all sorts of stuff,” Beach said.
He found he enjoyed studying psychology and that became his major.
“I wasn’t thinking about what kind of job I could get,” Beach said. “It is what I loved studying. I love studying the mind. Maybe I should have taken a couple of more science classes and been a neuroscience major. That would have been a little more sophisticated sounding.”
He managed to make it to some Duke basketball games.
“I was a Cameron Crazy a few times,” he said.
Of course, he is picking the Blue Devils to win another NCAA title, but admits, “I pick them every year, even when I probably shouldn’t.”
Beach is nothing if not loyal. That’s something that struck Kedge.
“He really appreciates his family,” Kedge said. “His love and affection for his parents, his aunts, his uncles, is strong. I’ve never seen a young man willing to show that much affection in public for his family.”
Then there is Beach’s loyalty to the Cleveland Browns.
“When I was 4, I was watching a Browns-Cowboys game with my dad,” Beach said. “I remember really liking those orange helmets. I told my dad, ‘Whoever wins this game will be my favorite team.’ ”
The Browns won, and 21 years later he remains a fan.
Of course what remains, too, is the passion he has for running, going back to the boy chasing horses.
Beach would love to qualify for the World Championships in Beijing this year, would love to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. A medal in either would be great.
“I don’t necessarily do it for that,” he said. “I really like doing 10 events and trying to get better, working hard every day at a high level. Maybe it’s not the most profitable thing, but it’s fun. It’s a chance to do something I love.”