During the drive to the 2009 Alaska State High School Cross Country Running Championships in Palmer, a large metal sign along the Glenn Highway told me to "Give Moose a Brake." I snickered at the cute word change, but then I realized it was the perfect sports story opening - after all, the Palmer High School mascot is a moose.
A large number 37 hung below the text - the number of moose fatalities caused by highway traffic encounters. I decided it would be perfect for my story's finish, as Juneau's Leah Francis was sure to win her fourth straight state title and the Juneau boys team was sure to contend for the team banner. I looked out across the wetlands and, sure enough, two moose walked slowly through the morning air.
Sitting through the early morning coaches meeting always helps me discover what secrets the course could yield. Legendary Mat-Su Valley runner and coach Mike Janecek said the trails at Palmer were solid with no mud - surprising since there had been a light rain all night.
"But, please note the temperature," Janecek said as he went over the state course. "Tell your runners to leave their warm-ups on until asked to remove them." I loved it. I pictured my headline - "Juneau Heats Up State Course."
ASAA president John Andrews told us that a record 65 schools were competing this year. I smiled as I imagined the number of "moose kill" would be instrumentally higher at the races' end, as the red, black and white of Juneau-Douglas High School competitors crossed ahead of the others. And since the course had been slightly changed from last year's state route, each new time would be a course record. Francis won the Palmer Invite just weeks ago, setting the new record of 18:45.63, and the Juneau boys barely were out-pointed for that win. The day would be wonderful, I just knew it.
The fall leaves had all been raked away, an actual bull was herded off the course by volunteers on four-wheelers, and the grass along the first 100 yards was firm. The wind was moving in a direction that would be at the field's back as they ran along the winding, tree-buffeted trail. Lazy Mountain, Pioneer Peak and the Chugach mountain range framed the setting.
"Picture perfect," I thought. "Mail it in, JDHS state champs!"
Southeast Region V was well represented. Sitka (fifth), Craig (seventh), and Mount Edgecumbe (ninth) boys' teams broke the top ten in the ½/3A ranks. In a battle of Wolves runners, Sitka sophomore Niko Freidman nipped Wrangell junior Patrick Howell for fourth place. Ketchikan senior Isaac Updike was fourth for the big schools as Crimson Bear juniors Sage Thibodeau (sixth) and Zachary Bursell (eighth) battled back from being hemmed in early, and sophomore David Francis (15th) put in a late surge. The Bears took team second (freshman Tal Norvell 26th, junior Andre Bunton 29th, senior Robin Woody 63rd, sophomore Jesse Miller 73rd). Sitka finished second in the ½/3A girls race (fifth Skagway, seventh Craig) and Wolves runner Kari Paustian nipped Panther Amanda Jensen for individual ninth. For the second straight year, Kenny Lake sophomore Kailey Wilson won the state title in 18:56.1.
The 4A girls stretched for the final race of the day. Still recovering from the effects of flu, Francis looked peaked ... yet everywhere she stepped, she exuded confidence. I envisioned a record number of moose kills by race's end.
Spectators saw most of what they hoped for. Francis battled and disposed of Wasilla's Jenna Ford early, then held off West Valley's Courtney Kisner and Skyview's Ivy O'Guinn. But Francis was not 100 percent. She fell back, and Kisner took first (18:58.4), O'Guinn second, Ford sixth. Francis placed 21st (19:53.4), still tops for Southeast runners. Teammates Annika Ord (29th), Sid Browning (40th), Melissa Skan (56th), Lillian Burger-Pothier (71st), Alice Ottoson-McKeen (72nd), and Aubrey Brisco (80th) helped the Bears place eighth.
Somewhere on the run, Francis had fallen. Somewhere she had actually run off the trails and had to backtrack. She stopped as soon as she crossed the finish line, faltered and collapsed. For a half-hour, she was surrounded by others' compassion and strength, traits she gave to competitors for four years.
In that moment, I was no longer a media guy. My camera clicked off when she crossed the line. The patch of ground in the finishing chute, which Francis had dominated for four years, was now her monument to the sport, her place to rest among her peers. Her imprint in the grass, etched with those who knelt with her, remained long after the ambulance took Francis away from the spotlight.
Sports are a reflection of life. There is a reason you play through the final out, that you don't stop until the buzzer sounds or the whistle blows or the field umpire's hands gesture wildly. Anything can, and does, happen; and as in real life, you don't have to win to be a champion; you don't have to inspire by breaking the tape. Sometimes just finishing is enough, and sometimes just competing is inspirational.
Kenny Lake runner Wilson's win last season inspired more classmates to turn out, and subsequently the school qualified as a team this year. Janecek's volunteer work inspires more help each season. Just watching Leah Francis tie her running shoes, warm up with teammates, run and finish was enough for me. It was enough for a record number of competitors. It was enough for teammates and fans. And it was more than enough for little girls tying double knots on their sneakers who will go to sleep tonight dreaming they can be like Leah Francis.