With just six weeks from the first starting gun to the final finish line, the Alaska high school cross-country running season seems to fly by faster than a pack of runners at the state meet in Palmer.
While there is time to tweak technique, devise strategy and gain mental focus between meets, runners must come into the short season physically strong in order to perform well.
Strong preseason preparation is one reason the young Juneau-Douglas High School cross-country squad carries confidence into this season, which begins Saturday with the Bartlett Relays in Anchorage.
"With cross-country in Alaska, preseason is part of the season," senior co-captain Tim Davin said. "You've got to get that base in, because the season is so short."
The Crimson Bear runners have been practicing as a team since July 28, and on their own all summer, in order to hit the first meet in full stride.
"They've been putting in miles this summer," said Merry Ellefsen, who is coaching the team with Guy Thibodeau.
Many team members ran track or played soccer for the Crimson Bears last spring before delving into a summer running schedule. Some of the younger runners played club soccer until just last weekend.
A few Juneau runners attended the Steens Mountain Running Camp in Oregon last month, where they were challenged physically and prepared mentally to get set for the season.
The Crimson Bears are hoping it all adds up to another in a long string of Region V titles and to an improvement on last year's team performance at the state meet. The girls finished fourth and the boys wound up seventh.
This year's Juneau boys are led by co-captains Davin and Tristan Knutson-Lombardo, a junior and the Crimson Bears' top returning runner. Knutson-Lombardo finished ninth at last year's state meet. Sophomore twins Tyler and Wesley Dinnan are also back to form a strong running nucleus for the Crimson Bears.
While the Crimson Bears lost 2002 varsity runners Gabe Hayden, Philip Dierking and Chris Frank to graduation, they have a strong group of young runners looking to fill the remaining varsity spots this season.
Freshmen Owen Kelley, Nils Domke and Ray Huebschen; sophomores Grant Zwingelberg, Justin Jones, Eric Gullefsen and Quincy Judson; and junior Brian Smith are among the runners that have made good impressions, Thibodeau said. Senior Tim Peterson and sophomore Evan Thibodeau have joined the team for the first time this year.
"We think we can definitely improve on our team performance at state," Guy Thibodeau said. "We'll have to have our four through seven runners come through for us."
The Crimson Bear girls lost much of their veteran leadership from last year's team, as Molly Krehlik, Phoebe Rohrbacher and Heidi Denton graduated.
This year's squad is led by senior captain Greta Thibodeau, who returns after missing last season on a foreign exchange program.
Sophomores Carly Craig, Gretchen Dierking, Jordan Harvey, Jaci Hayden and Jordan Moser are back for their second season, and they've been joined by freshmen Gabrielle Wahto and Gabrielle Vance.
"It's such a great group of girls," Greta Thibodeau said. "We don't have many out, but the ones that are out are very committed."
The Juneau girls lack a single standout star, but they make up for it by finishing in a swarm at the top of the standings. At last weekend's Treadwell Twosome Traverse race - a fundraiser for the cross-country team - Greta Thibodeau, Harvey and Craig finished within one second of each other, with Moser not far behind.
"We're all totally close to each other," Greta Thibodeau said. "We feed off of each other's energy; we push each other."
This weekend's Bartlett Relays will be an important gauge of how the Crimson Bears stack up against the rest of the state. Having fun is definitely part of the mix as the course features obstacles like puddles, logs and hay bales.
The meet is run in five-person, coed teams, with the combined individual times of the five runners used to determine team standings.
After this weekend's meet, Juneau heads to Ketchikan for the first Southeast meet of the season on Aug. 22. The Bears will travel to Sitka for a meet on Aug. 29, then split up on Sept. 6 with the varsity traveling to the major Palmer meet and the junior varsity running in Skagway.
Juneau will travel to Wrangell for a meet on Sept. 13 before hosting the Region V championships - the Crimson Bears' lone home meet of the season - on Sept. 20.
The season will end with the state meet at Palmer on Sept. 27.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at email@example.com.
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