Blair, Middaugh win high school trail championship in what could be a new format for racing

Joslin Blair of Eagle Valley High School runs behind Madeleine Burns of Durango at the The National High School Trail Championship in Salida on Saturday. Blair would go on to win, setting a new course record.
Special to the Daily

In what may prove to be the new high school cross country format, Eagle Valley High School runner Joslin Blair set a new course record at The National High School Trail Championship on Saturday.

Battle Mountain runner Sullivan Middaugh also won the boys’ race in a moment which may come to define why the new, pandemic-inspired format adds a level of competition not seen in the standard trail running race.

The race was held in waves, where 10 or less kids would line up at the start, wearing masks, before taking off onto the trails, where they could remove their masks once they spaced out. Ten more kids would line up, and 30 seconds later, they would depart. Organizers used a chip timing system, so the person who crosses the finish line first was not necessarily the person who put down the fastest time on the course. This, of course, makes the person who is out in front push themselves just a little bit more, something that was always missing from a cross country race with a winner who gets out in front early.

“You might be in that first wave thinking you’re controlling the race, but there’s somebody with their sights locked on your pack, coming after you,” said race organizer Kenny Wilcox. “That was definitely an added challenge to putting on the race.”

Middaugh was in one of the later waves to depart, and won the race despite the fact he never caught some of the runners ahead of him.

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“It was a proud dad moment,” said Sullivan’s father, 2015 Xterra World Champion Josiah Middaugh.

Wilcox said most parents and coaches seemed to be pleased with the seeding format.

“One of my co-coaches said you could even see a state meet where it’s even like March Madness, basketball style, where you take smaller groups of teams, and you take the top two and advance on to the next week, and eventually maybe you have a final state meet, where it’s six to eight teams,” Wilcox said. “That could be pretty fun, who knows?

“I think a lot of times we tend to fall into the same pattern,” Wilcox added. “Because this is always how we’ve done things, and then something like COVID comes along, and you say, ‘there’s a lot of different ways we can do this,’ and I think in some ways it could add some more elements and dynamics to our sport of endurance running.”

Social and mental health

The fact that the event took place at all was a relief for many of the families and athletes in attendance. Wilcox said he received an outpouring of thank-you letters following the event, “much more than in years past,” he said.

In addition to his duties as cross country coach at Salida High School, Wilcox is a social worker for Chaffee County.

He said over the years he has noticed similar effects experienced by those in his after-school youth mentoring program through Family Youth Initiatives Chaffee County and the kids who get together every day and run after school as part of the cross country team at Salida High School.

That understanding has been “certainly highlighted and accentuated this year,” Wilcox said.

“I think (Saturday’s event) gave kids an ability to connect with some kids that they haven’t connected with, probably, for months,” he said.

Participation doubled

Now in its fourth year, the event also enjoyed an explosion in popularity this year, with the girls race registering 75 competitors (it had never attracted more than 30 in years past), and the boys race seeing 104 athletes hit the trails, up from 54 last year.

Eagle Valley High School Cross Country Coach Melinda Brandt said she has enjoyed bringing her athletes to the event in previous years not only for the good competition the nearby venue in Salida attracts, but because The National High School Trail Championship, unlike a typical high school cross country meet, invites both incoming freshmen and outgoing seniors, being a summer event.

“They include five years of runners — so we had an incoming freshman and Joslin, who just graduated,” Brandt said.

In a Facebook post, local running club coach Charlie Janssen remarked on the level of talent at the event this year.

“Although a year ago the (Eagle Valley Track Club) girls were the National High School Trail team champions, this year was much deeper with many teams and individuals especially in Colorado seizing the opportunity to knock off the rust since March. To be able to snag a girls 3rd place finish behind the likes of Valor Christian (debatably the best team in 5A) and Niwot (the best team in 4A), was impressive considering the caliber of competition.

“Five girls this year broke Joslin Blair’s course record from last year which stood for 363 days at 38:53.36 which included her sister, Samantha Blair, who also destroyed her personal best on this course by 1:17.39, securing a 4th place finish. In a nail biter, nearly photo finish, Joslin downshifted to a last second kick to uphold her title as the NHSTC’s queen of the mountain by 0.1 second and lowering her course record by 1:24.06. What an amazing official capstone to such a storied high school career!”

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