For all the time Tristan Knutson-Lombardo spends leading the pack in Southeast cross country races, you might think the Juneau-Douglas senior was first in line to join the team his freshman year.
But Knutson-Lombardo's first foray into high school running was made with some hesitation, some doubt that cross country was his calling. As he heads into the final Southeast meet of his decorated career, it's hard to imagine Knutson-Lombardo wasn't sure if he should be a runner.
Knutson-Lombardo will run for a second straight individual title Saturday at the Southeast Championships in Sitka. He'll lead the defending region and state champion Crimson Bears, who will be joined by Ketchikan and Sitka in the Class 4A boys race at 2:15 p.m. on a totem-lined trail at Sitka National Historic Park.
The defending region champion Juneau girls run in their Class 4A race at 1:30 p.m, while Class 2A and 3A schools run earlier in the day. Southeast squads will compete for team and individual berths at the state meet, which takes place Oct. 2 at Skyview High School in Soldotna.
The Crimson Bear boys traveling to the region meet are seniors Knutson-Lombardo and Greg Frank, juniors Tyler Dinnan and Wesley Dinnan, and sophomores Ray Huebschen, Nils Domke and Andrew Flansaas.
Juneau's girls squad includes senior Megan Bush, juniors Jordan Harvey, Jordan Moser and Lexi Garvey, and freshmen Kirsten Jorgensen, Katie Krehlik and Isabel Bush.
Growing up in Juneau, Knutson-Lombardo - son of Matt Knutson and Rosary Lombardo and older brother of JDHS sophomore tennis player Kaelen - participated in a variety of community fun runs and ran cross country in middle school. But he was a bit uncertain if he wanted to make the jump to prep running as a freshman.
He jokes that what clinched his decision to go out for cross country was a new pair of running shoes his dad bought for him before his freshman year.
"I felt obligated to do it," Knutson-Lombardo said.
Once on the team, Knutson-Lombardo found success in his early races and a welcoming atmosphere from upperclassmen like senior Jesse Stringer, who won the region title that fall.
"There were some great leaders on that team," Knutson-Lombardo said. "It felt like a place I wanted to be."
Juneau coach Merry Ellefson, who started coaching the Crimson Bears in Knutson-Lombardo's freshman year, remembers taking him and the rest of the Juneau junior varsity runners to a meet in Wrangell that first season. They arrived at the meet 10 minutes before it started due to travel troubles, but Knutson-Lombardo persevered and posted his first prep win.
"I remember watching him being so far ahead, and the big step he took in confidence," Ellefson said.
Since then, Knutson-Lombardo has progressed to win the region title last season and become one of the state's top runners. He also runs track in the spring, and won the state title in the 1,600 meters last May.
"He's been a really committed runner," Juneau cross-country coach Guy Thibodeau said. "He's a year-round runner, and puts his heart and soul into it.
"All that hard work has really paid off. He's developed into a distance runner with a lot of speed, so if he's close at the end of a race, he's going to have a tremendous kick."
That's thanks to training that goes far beyond the track and cross country seasons. Last winter, Knutson-Lombardo cross-country skied and snowshoed. He won several snowshoeing ulus (medals) at last year's Arctic Winter Games.
Over the summer, Knutson-Lombardo started out running 30 miles a week and ramped up to 60 miles a week over time, at a target pace of six minutes per mile.
"He gets up at six in the morning and runs on days when he has practice at three in the afternoon," his father said. Knutson said that for his son, running has evolved from "a high school activity into a passion."
Around town, Knutson-Lombardo likes to run Perseverance Trail - in part because of the bench memorializing former JDHS runner Ben Blackgoat, and in part because of the name. He said his favorite training run is along East Glacier Trail.
A common story line at meets this season has been Knutson-Lombardo out in front, inspiring his teammates to run faster. But what drives Knutson-Lombardo?
Knowing his leadership role is part of what pushes him to run faster. Knutson-Lombardo also thinks about how his "up north" rivals might be doing in their meets - runners like defending state champ Jesse Cherry of Chugiak, or Peter Doner of Colony.
"I think of the guys up north - Jesse's going to run this time this weekend, or Peter's going to run this time," he said.
Knutson-Lombardo said he'd like to try and break the 16-minute mark this weekend, but he's also focused on team goals for the region meet and, hopefully, the state meet.
"We've been so fortunate to have so much talent on our squad," he said. "We're focusing so much on running not just for ourselves, but for the six other guys out there who want us to do our best."
Beyond his senior year, he'd like to run in college and is still scouting out possible schools.
Ellefson said it's been "a privilege" to watch Knutson-Lombardo grow as a runner, and as a person.
"He's such a hard worker, (dedicated) not only to running, but to every aspect of running - health, teamwork, stretching," Ellefson said. "And he's always sharing that with the rest of the runners. ...
"I notice his joy - how much he loves it."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at email@example.com.