LAST WEEK I saw a high-school cross country meet. Actually, I saw the start and finish of a high-school cross-country meet, and during the 20 or so minutes in between, I got to read several pages of the book I had brought along just in case.
(Back in high school, I once ran in a cross-country meet on a dare from a coach. The course started out with a steep incline known affectionately to the competitors as Butt-Cramp Hill. Having covered a couple hundred yards of the 3.2-mile race and already breathing heavily, I decided I'd try to pass somebody. Anybody. About halfway up the hill, I moved to the outside and pulled even with a guy from Granada Hills High. He gave me an elbow to my ribs, which were actually visible back then.)
(I rolled down the side of the hill, gathering cockleburrs and inventing new cuss words as I went. After coming to a rest in a tumbleweed, I scrambled back up the hill and got back in the race. I eventually finished a respectable 43rd, coming in behind the 41 other runners and an octogenarian out for a leisurely stroll. I would have beaten her, but she tripped me with her cane.)
Last week's meet was held at Mehl Park, a nice little patch of green along the north bank of the Rillito, just east of the Jewish Community Center. It serves as Salpointe's home course. This day, in the girls race, the Lancers were hosting last year's 5A-South champions from Sierra Vista Buena, as well as teams from Tucson High, Amphi and Sahuaro.
Cross country is a pure sport, consisting mainly of running over hill and dale -- Dale being the poor guy in front who trips and then gets trampled by everybody else in the race. Competitors run until they puke, and then, having caught their breath and lost their lunch, run some more. I'm really surprised more people don't compete.
At Mehl Park, the race starts on a soccer field with the pack of 50 or so runners scrambling for position. They run the length of the field, then make a sharp left turn onto a paved pathway which takes them on a circuit of the west side of the park. They eventually double back, run down a ramp and across the Rillito wash. That's where my book got really good.
In the wash, they had to dodge some idiot on a dirt bike, apparently attempting to be the Poster Child for Poor White Trash. (Last year, runners had to run past and through a homeless camp which had sprung up in the Rillito bed. That had to be fun.)
Some time later, they emerge from whatever God-forsaken trek they've endured, run back across the Rillito, do a loop of the east side of the park, then head for home, with fans and parents (having returned from the Circle K and/or the errands they ran during the bulk of the race) cheering wildly.
In team cross-country competition, each runner is assigned the numerical value of the place in which they finish (first place gets one point, etc.) with the low composite team score winning. Earlier this season, both Salpointe and Amphi had rung up perfect scores of 15 on other teams. Buena, with last year's individual champ, Amy Heran, figured to make this a three-way barn-burner.
Amphi's Molly Hale won the race in a season-best time of 21 minutes, 59 seconds. In the race, Amphi's top five finished 1-3-6-8-13 for a total of 31. Salpointe went 2-4-5-7-9 to win with 27. With Heran hobbled by a bad ankle, Buena finished a distant third with 70 points.
These past couple years, under the guidance of Coach Rick Fenno, the Amphi squad has made great strides (thank you for noticing the pun). Last year's team, consisting of Hale, Colleen Callahan, Lisa Trestik and Audrey Moreno often finished 1-2-3-4 in races, but didn't win because they didn't have a fifth runner.
The aforementioned girls are inseparable and are strangely similar in appearance. All four are barely five-foot-something and are each a really big meal shy of 100 pounds. They're like the Girls From Brazil.
This year, Lisa's younger sister, Serena, and basketballer Jessica Dryden have joined the squad and helped make it a contender for conference and state titles.
Fenno is a fascinating story. He ran cross country and track in college back in Pennsylvania and then spent years running a variety of distance races all over the world. Settling in Tucson, he set two personal goals for himself -- winning the Tucson Marathon and running a marathon in a time under two hours, 25 minutes. He accomplished them both in the 1990 Tucson Marathon, then moved on.
Fenno looks like he made the Dick Clark Deal With The Devil. He's 42, but would probably get carded if he went to a nightclub. Not that he goes clubbing; he's probably in bed by 10, dreaming of the next morning's eye-opening 10K run. He's a great guy, but you just want to hold him down and force-feed him a cheeseburger.
He has molded the girls squad into a powerhouse and is in the process of doing the same thing for the boys. One odd thing, though. He and the other coaches run alongside the kids during the race, coaching and shouting encouragement. To me, this is like if I were coaching basketball, I'd fill a lane on a fast break and tell the point guard where to pass the ball. Very strange.
At the start of the boys race, I noticed Nathaniel Hart, son of occasional Weekly contributor Vicki Hart. He had the worst dye job I've ever seen. Dude, next time don't settle for the store-brand stuff. Spend a few extra pennies and get the genuine Clorox.
After the races, some poor kid from Buena was on his hands and knees, ralphing up some sort of granola soup as tired runners politely walked past on the way to getting free eegee's which the Tucson High team was providing for all the competitors.
At that moment, "surreal" got a whole new definition. And eegee's got a new flavor.