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Cross country meet brings back a few old memories

Hey, I went to my first cross country meet of the season last weekend.

The Chamberlain distance runners, kids I would have had to call thin-clads or harriers back in my sports writing days, competed in the Mitchell Invitational. The weather last Saturday was glorious for running, cool with some sun and a light breeze. It was the sort of day I could only have wished for back when I ran in the state meet in the fall of 1961.

Back then, we ran the state meet -- boys only, all classes of schools on the line at the same time -- on the golf course north of Brookings. When my younger son flirted with cross country as a Riggs High athlete, the kids ran on a golf course at a meet in Mitchell, it seems to me. This year's meet was in a pretty little park just north of the high school. The Chamberlain coach thought it was a bit flat for his taste, which runs to punishing hills, I guess. My granddaughter Frankie thought the ground was a bit rough in spots, but she said she had fun.

I loved the place. The only way I'd have liked it more was if it had been downhill all the way. It's about as spectator-friendly as it gets in cross country. Except for a brief period when runners go behind a stand of trees on one end of the park, the parents and other fans can follow the entire race without doing much more than strolling a few yards for a better view of the long loop to the northwest before the kids turn for home and finish between a couple of pretty impressive willow trees.

It didn't hurt my enjoyment of the event that Chamberlain kids, Maci Burke and Trinity Twiss, won both varsity events. In full disclosure, Mitchell High School didn't field a team for the varsity races.

Now, Maci ran last year on a state-championship team for the Cubs. She's an experienced eighth-grader. Trinity ran his first race last weekend, as I understand it, and his performance reminded me of a story my son Scott showed me about a Czech runner named Emil Zatopek, active in the 1940s and 1950s. Apparently in Zatopek's first marathon, he ran alongside the leader, an experienced British runner, and asked if the pace was too fast. The competitor, thinking to mess Zatopek up, replied that, no, far from being too fast, the pace was too slow. Hearing that, the inexperienced Czech kicked it up a gear and ran away from the field. He won in Olympic record time.

Trinity was a bit like that. Alone at the front of the pack, he followed the four-wheeler that led the runners around the course, and it looks sometimes as if he believed he was supposed to stay up with the vehicle. Meanwhile, Geoff Gross, the Mitchell activities director who was driving the four-wheeler, was supposed to keep a safe distance ahead of the runners. Every time he sped up to increase the distance, the Chamberlain kid sped up to try to keep pace. It worked for both of them, I guess, because Gross never got caught, and neither did Trinity.

It was nice to see Coach Gross. He spent a few years as track coach in Pierre before returning to Mitchell, and I miss him. We weren't friends or anything. I haven't had kids in school for years. The kids I watch now are often grandchildren of friends. I never said more than hello to the coach.

The way he worked with young people in our town impressed me a lot, though. He lit a fire in Pierre, gave kids an excitement for track and field that we sometimes don't see in our capital city. Sure, his boys' teams won three straight state titles while he was here. That was impressive. More impressive was the number of high-school kids out for track, and the number of middle-school and elementary-school kids running the streets and competing in the youngster's meets in the spring.

I hated to see him leave our community, but I'm happy that another group of kids in another South Dakota city will benefit from his presence.