Cross Country: The Anatomy of a Distance Runner

By Beacon Staff

Cross country is a rare high school sport in which the top performers – on the girls’ side, at least – are often freshmen and sophomores. It’s largely a biological phenomenon, combined with the simplistic mechanics of the sport itself. Girls’ bodies are mature enough to run long distances when they’re 14 or 15, but maybe not quite ready to battle for rebounds against seniors on the basketball court or elevate for powerful spikes at the net in volleyball.

With the 2008 season, which kicked off on Sept. 5., youth is on display once again for the high school girls of Flathead Valley.

Take Heather Fraley at Glacier High School for example. Fraley coasted to a sixth-place finish at the state meet last year as a freshman without much running experience. This year, now that she’s incorporated a far more disciplined training regimen, both she and Glacier’s head coach Mike McLean have high expectations. A Class AA state championship is not out of the question.

“She’s a very talented kid,” McLean said. “I don’t think sixth place is up to her level.”

Garrett Foot, right, ties up his running shoes while waiting before the start of cross county practice with teammates Richie Boyer, left, and Dan Burfeind at Glacier High School.

Natural talent, says Whitefish cross country coach Bill Brist, can carry a long-distance runner much farther than it can, say, a basketball player. For that reason, a talented young runner like Fraley or Brist’s own Loni Hanson, who won the Class A state title last year as a sophomore, can dominate a field full of juniors and seniors.

“You have to learn fundamentals by repetition (in other sports),” Brist said. “There’s no way of regressing from that. In running it’s not like that. Sometimes you just learn to run fast through genetics. So there are some unique differences between the sports.”

Girls mature faster, though they might not have the strength or intangibles necessary to excel at other varsity sports in their earliest teenage years. Boys, on the other hand, need a little longer all around and this is the foremost reason you rarely see state champions as sophomores or especially freshmen in cross country, or any sport. A glance at the state tournament standings from past years proves the point.

In Class AA last year, the top six male cross country runners were seniors and only two out of the top 10 were freshmen or sophomores. By comparison, on the girls’ side a freshman won the title, followed by a sophomore. Seven out of the top 10 were freshmen or sophomores.

Class A was similar. For boys, the top four state finishers were seniors while the youngest top 10 runner was a sophomore, Columbia Falls’ Shawn Whitman. Only one freshman finished in the top 30. Meanwhile, in the girls’ bracket, a sophomore won the title, a freshman placed second and there were nine freshmen overall in the top 30. Whitefish, the state champion, had three freshmen and a sophomore in the top 20.

Like McLean said about Fraley, training becomes the predominant issue for girls as they get older. For some of the top female cross country performers, running comes easy at the beginning of high school. As their bodies change, they need to adapt by increasing their training accordingly, coaches say.

Glacier High School cross country team members, right, cut across the Kidsports Complex in Kalispell during an after school practice.

“Some girls have natural talent and they find they can run really well without doing much,” Brist said. “As they go on they see that they have to train – it’s more of a frame of mind.”

Youth will also lead the way for the Columbia Falls and Bigfork girls teams. While Bigfork only has three girls and four boys on its cross country roster this year, several have been to state before, like junior Kayla Carlson, who nearly cracked the top 10 last season. Columbia Falls also returns a few runners with post-season experience, led by sophomore Nicki Moser.

Whitefish, the defending state champion, returns 10 out of its top 12 girls from last year, including a solid sophomore class.

“We’re actually a little stronger than we were last year,” Brist said.

Led by Whitman, Columbia Falls’ boys will look to improve on last year’s sixth-place finish. In Whitefish, Coco is expected to lead the way again. Brist said Coco didn’t have a great race at last season’s championship meet and, furthermore, the four boys who finished ahead of him all graduated.

“Drew Coco is pretty amazing,” Brist said. “He’s kind of taken it to a new level.”

Under the guidance of coaching great Paul Jorgensen, Flathead High School has built a reputation as the team to beat in AA, having won seven out of the past 10 state titles for boys and four out of the last eight for girls.

The Braves, who placed second at state this year, lost their top two runners, including last year’s state runner-up Seth Svennungsen. But, as always they have a core of runners with state experience returning, such as Leif Castren. Hillary Heskett and Rose Byrne will lead the way for the Bravettes, who finished fifth last year.

McLean said he has twice as many runners this year as last, and expects the boys to be able to finish in the top six at state and the girls in the top three. As senior Dan Howell points out, while other teams lost key seniors to graduation, Glacier has everybody returning and more.

Fraley is confident about the season.

“I feel motivated this year,” she said. “And we gained a lot of new people like Rachael (Hart). So it’s going to be awesome.”