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Cross country faces thrill of morality

The Cyclones Darby Spence sets personal milestones at girls state cross country meet.

Boys disappointed by performance in season finale.

If you have ever doubted that competitive distance runners are a rare breed—and even a little bit crazy — consider these scenes from this year’s girls 4A state cross country race at the Norris Penrose Events Center in Colorado Springs.

One hundred and eighty three racers lined up in 28 “shoots.”

At the gun they sprinted to get to the front of the pack before having to funnel through a gate to their left, or through a barn straight ahead. Since one of the runners was knocked down and trampled in the first 100 meters, the gun sounded again, and all runners stopped.

The dirty, bloodied and bruised runner was snatched up by their teammates, and helped back to the starting line for a restart.

Once they had a “clean start,” the mass of humanity somehow made it to the two infamous Penrose hills that quickly separated the contenders from the rest of the pack.

There was plenty of congestion and jockeying for position.

Some runners slipped, some fell, and those who remained upright felt their legs turning to concrete.

Most extended far too much energy simply surviving the first quarter mile.

Even the seemingly benign downhill stretch of the course claimed a few casualties.

A couple runners had gained too much momentum and tumbled down the hill.

One girl had to be carted off to the first aid tent.

The other got to her feet, brushed herself off, spit out a mouth full of dirt, and limped onward.

ONE MILE DOWN — 2.1 miles to go.

Unlike NASCAR, there were no yellow caution flags on this course.

The pack just put their heads down and forged ahead, each runner trying to find a rhythm.

Many of the racers could never “get their breath back,” and the hot Southern Colorado sun began to cause fatigue and dehydration.

Yet most of these 14- to 17-year-old girls just kept running as hard as they possibly could.

The lead runner (Niwot’s Elise Cranny) finished in the clear at a blistering pace of 5:51 per mile.

But the majority of the racers were packed up, and they finished the final 100 meters in a mad dash.

It only seemed fitting that the finish line was set up in a rodeo arena.

After crossing the finish line most of the girls grimaced, fought for breaths and headed for the water table.

Some smiled; some cried.

Still others bent over and vomited.

The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat was indistinguishable.

A few exhausted and disoriented runners tripped over the timing mats. A couple (including one of the leaders), collapsed in complete exhaustion with their eyes rolled back, their skin a frightening shade of grey.

Remarkably, this scene played out through all eight of the races on the day.

Fortunately, the EMTs were well-prepared, and all runners recovered relatively quickly with the help of ice, I.V. fluids and oxygen.

TO THE UNINITIATED, this may seem like madness.

But to the coaches and runners, including the Cyclones Darby Spence and Bailie Jones, it is just part of the sacrifice and demands of running.

“They picked this course for the state championship for a reason,” Bailie Jones said. “It definitely separates the disciplined and strategic runners from the rest of the pack.

“Only the strong survive here.”

Darby Spence agreed.

“I learned the hard way on this course last year,” Spence said.

“I got boxed in, and came out way too fast in the first mile.

“But today I stayed disciplined and felt really good the whole race.”

It certainly showed, as she improved by over fifty places from last year’s state meet.

The senior leader for the Cyclones finished 53rd in the field of 183 with a time of 21:14 (a 6:15/mile pace).

The Cyclones head coach Matt Sherman was very proud of Spence’s performance.

“Darby’s race was the highlight of the day,” Sherman said.

“She tied with a [Aubrey] Till from Canon City, who she has been chasing all season.” “And she had a tremendous overall improvement from last year.”

Sherman’s other senior runner, Bailie Jones was also happy to survive the course, and to finish strong in just her second year in cross country.

Jones finished 109th with a time of 22:20 (a 7:12/mile pace).

Unfortunately the agony of defeat was clearly distinguishable on the faces of the Cyclones boys team after their much-anticipated battle for the state title.

The spirits of the Cyclones faithful began to sink as they watched four Broomfield runners…than four Coronado runners…than two Classical Academy runners stumble across the finish line before the first West runner came into view.

The Cyclones Zack Retzlaff made it in at 17:41, good for 35th place out of 189 runners. Even with his teammate Jacob Sloan just two seconds and three places behind, Zack knew it wasn’t enough. The Cyclones next runners finished several waves behind, with Corban Pagnotta clocking a 17:57 (54th place), Wyatt Swanson tallying an 18:03 (62nd), and Jace Montera an 18:06 (67th).

WHEN THE DUST finally (literally) settled, the Cyclones had finished fourth, behind Coronado (third), The Classical Academy (runners up), and Broomfield (state champions).

Clearly, for most high school cross country teams, a fourth place finish at state would be cause for great celebration.

But Sherman and his boys had their sites, and their hearts set on winning it all.

“It was a rough day for the boys team”, Sherman said.

“I am not sure what happened…we had guys getting side aches, and feeling sick out there.

“These things just don’t happen to our team.

We trained so hard—and even trained on this course,” Sherman added.

Senior Wyatt Swanson took the “loss” especially hard.

He had certainly hoped for a better finale to his remarkable cross country career.

As the sting of disappointment begins to wear off, the Cyclones will begin to put this season in perspective, and appreciate their many outstanding accomplishments.

Hopefully non-runners and running enthusiasts alike will also appreciate just how remarkable it is to have five, very fine young men — who can also run sub-six minute miles in the state championships — on the same team.

We have not heard the last from these “crazy” young men by any means.

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