Monday, November 13, 2006

Cross Country

I covered the Florida high school cross country state championship meet Saturday for a statewide high school sports show to which I contribute. The meet happened in Dade City, about an hour north of Tampa. I stayed at my parents' house Friday night and drove the half-hour or so from there the next morning. There are still winding rural roads this close to Tampa and twice I stopped the car to take pictures of the scenery.

They start early to try to avoid the heat of the day so the first race went off at 8 a.m. The sun had yet to burn off the morning fog and my line in the story about the winner of the first two races emerging from the fog was not allegorical. The girls in the first race could have conspired to take a shortcut and no spectators would have known. You could see that little.

The course is actually a steeplechase horse racing course called Little Everglades Ranch. Runners had to climb a hill to get to the finish of the 5K course. In the girls races, the leader would disappear behind the hill. Then you'd see the bobbing of her pony-tail as she slowly rose. In this shot you can see one girl in the distance. She's the second place runner. The leader is hidden by the hill except for the mass of brown you in the center of the shot.

The winner of the first race (there were 4 classes each for boys and girls) was a sophomore from a school in West Palm Beach who had also won the state title as a freshman. She was less than 5 feet tall and could not have weighed more than 80 pounds. "She's actually filled out since last year," a writer from the Palm Beach Post told me. Only two other girls finished within one minute of her time of 17:02. She ran faster than roughly three-fourths of the boys.

The last shot shows a boy about to pitch forward on the final climb. Guillermo Echarte was the runaway leader in his race until then. He began to stumble, appeared to steady himself then fell, got up, labored forward several steps, fell again, got up, staggered to the finish and collapsed at the line. He finished 12th. The kid in the white shirt on the left side of the frame had outkicked Echarte in the regional meet and Echarte apparently figured his only shot at winning was to build a big enough lead and hang on but he over-ran the second mile. He was OK after an IV and some rest but wow! You should have heard the crowd when the kid went down.

With eight races to recap in four minutes, a lot of good stories won't get any farther than my computer's hard drive (the modern-day cutting room floor). One girl won her class by 40 seconds and then raced to fetch water for exhausted teammates after they finished. "I just wanted to make myself useful," she said. Her team placed six girls in the top 15.

A lot of kids ran their guts out. Or at least the contents of their guts. There was a lot of puking afterward. I didn't see any girls hurling, although I understand one got sick at the starting area before her race. I don't know if the difference is physiological or if the girls knew better what to eat and drink before the race -- and when. They certainly collapsed after finishing as often as the boys so I don't think it was because boys tried harder.

After boys races, when I had to walk among the finishers to find the winner to interview, my biggest fear was being in the wrong place at the wrong time and suddenly finding myself wearing some runner's regurgitated Gatorade. It must have been an especially difficult course. I asked the boy who won the last race of the day how he was doing. He said simply, "I don't want to have to do that again for a while."

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