SOUTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. - Devon Carter is a thoughtful kid. He's inquisitive. He likes to speak up in sociology class.

But the Washington Township senior is a savvy athlete, too. He has learned that there's a time for thinking and a time for running, and that sometimes it's best to keep the former away from the latter.

"This was the first time I didn't think too much," Carter said of his victory in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles Thursday night at the track and field Meet of Champions at South Plainfield High School.

Carter used to think a lot during the intermediate hurdles, and his thoughts weren't pleasant. Actually, it was worse than that. He hated the event.

But the event's demanding brew of speed, technique and stamina grew on him during his senior season. By the time he settled into the blocks on a warm, breezy night at Frank Jost Field, he was the No. 3 seed in a typically loaded field.

Just 53.16 seconds later, Carter was No. 1 in the state.

"This is the ultimate goal," Carter said. "I set my mind on trying to win at the Meet of Champions. It's what I set out to do."

Carter was a good hurdler as a junior, not a great one. He wasn't a factor at the Meet of Champions last June, when Washington Township senior Tim Carey fell twice in the 400 intermediates as the top seed. Carey, who is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, got up both times and raced to the end in a courageous display.

"I remember that," Carter said. "It feels good to win it. I can go talk to him about it."

Carter is one of those high school athletes who kept getting better during his career. His best days might be ahead of him, too, as he's heading to the University of North Carolina on a track scholarship.

Carter's improvement was most dramatic in the 400 intermediate hurdles, arguably the most grueling event on the track. There are no shortcuts in the race, no easy way to negotiate those 400 meters and those 10 hurdles.

It takes speed. It takes strength. It takes technique.

Mostly, it takes a towering pain threshold.

"It's like, run 400 meters at top speed and jump over obstacles on your way," said Carter, who came back an hour after the 400 intermediates to finish third in the 100 high hurdles in 14.18 seconds.

"It's the most grueling event. I'm proud to be the best in New Jersey in this event. I think it's as tough as there is."

Carter concedes that he despised the event early in career, even early this season. But as he gained strength, improved his technique and found that reservoir of extra motivation, he came to relish the race's unique challenges.

"I grew to like it," Carter said. "It's like anything else: When you get good at it, you like it more. I could see my potential in it."

Carter is an intelligent young man who likes discussions of cultural and societal issues during sociology class. But he also tends to think a lot during competition.

"Before, I used to think a lot," Carter said. "This time, I just said, 'I'm not thinking out there. I'm just running.' "

Carter had some alarming thoughts as he stumbled over the last hurdle, nearly losing his balance.

"That was real scary," Carter said. "I wasn't sure I was going to make it. I just pushed myself to get my balance back, because I knew people were coming."

Good thinking.

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223 or panastasia@phillynews.com.