Cross country program climbs | VailDaily.com

Cross country program climbs

Don Rogers

Cross country running is my favorite sport these days. To watch.Mostly, it’s the kids and watching the Battle Mountain program evolve. This is a parent talking, so please forgive the perspective: As recently as three years ago the cross country team offered the baseline, exercise and keeping the kids busy. (And sending them home tired!) Hey, that’s still the most important factor.The athletes got in shape, had as much fun as you can have making your lungs heave and legs turn to rubber, and didn’t worry about finishing at the tail end of the field at meets. The coaches emphasized running against their own times and enjoying the sport. Two years ago, a funny thing happened. The boys and girls teams showed some promise. Underclassmen started nudging toward the top end of the pack at meets. Two girls qualified for state, Erica Ghent and Molly McGee.Hmmm, the coaches had a little something to work with. Last year the boys and girls qualified for state as teams, for the first time ever. Ghent finished fifth at the state meet, and the girls took fourth out of two dozen of the very best 4A teams in Colorado, a runners’ state. The boys finished in the middle of the elite pack. This year both teams have great expectations. The girls are winning meets, and the boys are right in mix, too. The girls are so strong that their junior varsity team has won every meet this year, and they’ve been in some big ones. A handful of the JVs would be running varsity at most schools.Saturday, the boys were one runner’s tumble from winning their home meet outright against bigger schools and without their top runner, Johnny Stevens. One kid doesn’t fall and it’s a good bet that they would have made up those measely two points and took it. On the girls’ side, Jennifer Bowles found her stride big time and finished first going away, and Ghent came in fourth. The girls also ran without one of their scorers, an ill McGee, which might have been the difference.Either way, only 5A programs beat them, and only by whiskers. Their coaches can and should holler, at least a little. They were so close to being on the fun side of those whiskers. I’m just a proud parent, seeing them this competitive now. There’s no resemblance between the team my son started with as a freshman and this one, his senior year and his freshman sister’s first. Helluva a lot more kids, too. This year the cross country squad outnumbers the football team. That’s saying something.The stopwatch doesn’t lie. That keeps us parents in line; no coach keeping Junior benched or playing out of position. Everything is earned in this sport, often enough in vomit and pure pain. Athletic ability is a big part of it, to be sure. But so is will, confidence and luck. And to a degree that suprised me, there’s a lot more strategy than I’d ever imagined. There’s race day: Go out fast or rein it in early and then try to grind the rabbits down? Packing up, going out ahead, hitting your mile times consistenty, where to start your final kick. And a lot more than I know about.There’s also training through the season. How hard to push. When to work on endurance. When to concentrate on building speed. When to lighten up to get the runners to reach their peak at just the right time of the season. Each race is important, sure. But cross country doesn’t go by wins and losses like the team sports. In cross country it all comes down to regionals. The top three teams at regionals qualify for the state championship meet, as do the top 16 individual runners. So the trick is to peak for regionals, and then the state meet the following week. Or go home. For the coaches, work the kids too hard and you risk niggling injuries that can take your team out of contention, no matter how talented. Miss on your timing for scaling back and you risk missing the window the other way. It’s a bit of a high wire as you point to the crucial race to qualify.I love watching these kids, soaring when they have breakthrough days, feeling for their struggles, and mainly marveling at their willingness to run these long gantlets right up to their limits.We citizens had a chance to experience those limits up close and personal Saturday after the kids ran. Let me tell you, the basketball court gives you nothing for 5K up, up, up and down the mountain at Beaver Creek. As much effort as I see on the kids’ faces while they race, running like that is a lot harder than it looks. In a weird way I delighted in this during the open race Saturday, even down to the cramp that felt like it bit off the right side of my torso on the last turn before the finish on the grass behind the Hyatt.That cinched it. Cross country running is my favorite sport, all right. To watch.Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado