COEUR d'ALENE - At first glance, it would be a little tough to tell that Lake City High junior boys cross country runner Kyler Little has a condition called alopecia areata.
According to WebMD.com, alopecia areata is a type of hair loss that occurs when a person's immune system mistakenly attacks hair follicles, which is where hair growth begins.
Up close, it seems like the 6-foot-1, 148-pound Little is just another 16-year-old who shaves his head - although he does have fake eyebrows.
"In third grade it first came but it kind of disappeared for a while and it didn't really start affecting me until seventh grade. I used to (have hair) but it's been gradually disappearing this past year. I still have a little bit, but it's basically all gone."
Little has been a top-flight talent in the classroom, boasting a 4.5 grade-point average with courses like Advanced Placement calculus and International Baccalaureate biology. He's ranked No. 1 in his class and so far is a candidate to become the school's valedictorian next year.
"It's never been a goal of mine to be the valedictorian," Little said. "I hope to maintain my position and get straight A's."
While dealing with his condition, the Pullman, Wash.-born Little has thrived as he has put together one of the top cross country seasons in the state. On Oct. 12 at the Sandpoint Invitational, he ran a 3.1-mile time of 15 minutes, 48 seconds. That time is No. 3 in school history, behind former Lake City and current University of Idaho top runner Cody Helbling's time of 15:26 in 2008.
On Oct. 24 in the 5A Region 1 cross country meet at Phillips Farm in Moscow, Little won with a time of 18:01, which helped the Timberwolves win a second straight regional title. Last season at the state 5A boys cross country meet at Hells Gate State Park in Lewiston, Little was sixth (16:06.50), which Little calls his best race he's run so far.
Jake Finney, a Lake City junior who finished fifth at state last year and second at regionals, and coach Heather Harmon-Reed help push Little to his potential. Little is Harmon-Reed's teacher's assistant, which gives them additional time to discuss running, nutrition, etc., and he runs nearly 50 miles per week in practices.
"Jake's been great," Little said. "He's a good friend of mine. He's a great teammate, we push each other to be the best we can be. It'd be hard to push yourself. She (coach Harmon-Reed) is the best. She's extremely knowledgable, she's focused on making us good for the long run, not just for this year, which I like."
This Saturday at Freeman Park in Idaho Falls, Lake City and Little will attack a 3.1-mile course that will challenge the entire team. Little said he'd like to finish among the top three and knows that competitors include defending state champion Dwain Stucker of Meridian, a fellow junior who won last year with a time of 15:42.30.
"It has quite a few sharp corners," Harmon-Reed said of the course. "There are about seven hills, but that's a definite strength of Kyler's, he knows how to run well uphill and downhill. It's beautiful the way he runs. He makes it look effortless. He's so detail-oriented, he spends most of his time studying running. He showed talent right off the bat, he's developed by leaps and bounds. He's always been smooth, he's improved with his speed and endurance. He's a perfectionist."
LITTLE SAID when his hair first started disappearing, there weren't too many people that made fun of him. But they were still a little concerned, even though the condition doesn't affect his daily life or his running at all.
"People at first kind of questioned me, they were shocked," Little said. "People automatically assumed I shaved my head, which I did (in my freshman year in 2011) but I already lost most of my hair on it. People kind of thought it was weird at first but I don't get a whole lot of questions now, but some people asked if I had cancer, which I don't think is a question you should ask someone, but it was kind of awkward ... most people actually don't really know I have it, they just kind of assumed that I just shaved my head, so they think it's a stylish thing. It doesn't really affect me, but sometimes it causes me a little stress."
When Little competes in cross country, he said for the most part parents, runners and volunteers haven't really stared at him or made him uncomfortable. He started competing in the sport in the middle of his seventh grade and said he performed fairly decent, placing in a few meets. Little's father, John Little, told Kyler before his seventh-grade year that he wouldn't allow him to sit around, playing video games for example.
"I played football in the sixth grade at tight end and I didn't enjoy it, although I love watching football," said Little, a Seahawks fan. "During seventh grade, my dad made me do a sport. It was a choice between either bike club or cross country. I was going to join the bike club, but I didn't know when it started ... I didn't take it (running) seriously until 10th grade, when I trained over the summer."
Part of Little's transformation from running for fun to competing at a high level included improved nutrition. He eats egg salad sandwiches and fruits and vegetables like avocados and spinach, plus he drinks veggie smoothies, which he mixes with other ingredients for a tastier treat.
Little has met Gonzaga University cross country and track and field head coach Pat Tyson and said he wants to attend either Gonzaga, Stanford or Colorado. Tyson was a roomate of the late Steve Prefontaine, who won NCAA titles in both cross country and track at Oregon in the 1970s.
"I met with Pat and he's a really cool guy," Little said. "Gonzaga's pretty close. Stanford has a good academic program and they have a really good team as well. Colorado beat Oregon, which is one of the best cross country and track teams. I like the area (in Boulder), the elevation always helps with training."
Little said he's not sure what he wants to major in yet, but his focus is on something to do with math or science. He said something in the engineering field might be a possibility.
Little has been a volunteer who in late June helped out with Ironman Coeur d'Alene. He also has aspirations of one day becoming an Olympian in distance running.
"I wish I can do it (compete in Ironman) sometime after college," Little said. "It was fun shouting out their names as they grabbed their backpacks. I have a road bike and I swim a bit. I admire them ... but I could only swim a half-mile, after that I'd probably drown."
For the past two months, John Little has worked as a general manager at Seasons of Coeur d'Alene, a restaurant located in downtown Coeur d'Alene. His mother, Tara Little, works as an executive assistant for Far West Agribusiness Association in Spokane. His older sister, Hailey Little, is an 18-year-old senior who is the No. 1 girls singles tennis player at Lake City.
"Sometimes I take comments (about his condition) and don't always stick up for myself," Kyler Little said. "My sister gets offended and it's nice to have her defend me."
John Little, whose family moved to Coeur d'Alene in 2001, was a managing partner at Outback Steakhouse in Coeur d'Alene until 2010.
"He's the most driven human being I've ever met in my life," John Little said. "He has some big goals he wants to accomplish."
John Little spoke about his son's condition.
"He had a full thick head of hair and he would lose little patches of it," John Little said. "It wasn't too bad early on. At age 14, he was getting it kind of bad and it was real thin and we were driving in from Spokane one day and he said, 'Dad, I've looked at this and there's all these reasons I should shave my head ... since then, he's had the full-on Alopecia and he's had no hair. So he doesn't even shave his head at this point.
"I think any teenager who's dealing with hair loss, it was tough, he's a kid that doesn't share his feelings as much," John Little said. "Every once in a while, it would come out and he was pretty upset. Some kid would say something and he didn't know and he'd kind of make fun of his hair. They'd say (to his sister Hailey), 'What's he shaving his head for?" His sister was sticking up for him. He deals with it as well as he can for being 16. I don't think I'd deal with it nearly as well."
Little has dealt with it well all right, and he's come up big everywhere he's gone.