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Juneau-Douglas High School junior cross country runner Leah Francis placed fifth in the open division at the Nike Team Northwest Regionals Saturday in Boise, Idaho, to grab the final individual invitation to Nike Team Nationals in Portland on Dec. 6.
Francis' time of 21:09 on the five-kilometer track was one second faster than her event-winning time from last season, when individuals were not allowed to qualify for nationals.
"At least I know I'm not getting slower," Francis said. "It was really close for third, fourth, fifth, sixth - I was three seconds behind second place."
Nike will fly Francis out to nationals in Portland, pay for a hotel room and, she hopes, give her a bag full of goodies. All qualifiers for the meet received shoes and clothing worth a total of $345 retail, but JDHS coach Merry Ellefson is still in the process of determining if Alaska high school athletes are allowed to accept such gifts.
Francis' time and placing may have been even better if not for a scary moment midway through the race. She felt a "sharp, weird pain" on her ankle as she ran through a sandy stretch and thought she had been stung by a bee. She broke stride for a few steps, before jumping back in the mix.
"I'm probably (allergic to bee stings). A lot of people in my family are, but I've never been stung so I don't know," Francis said. "There were a lot of bees and I felt what I'd imagine a sting felt like. It's not an excuse for anything, though."
Fellow JDHS runner, freshman Karissa Jackson, placed an impressive ninth in her underclassman grouping of roughly 50 participants. She did not reach her goal of breaking 20 minutes, but her time of 21:09 still kept her at the front of the pack.
"My other goal was to finish in the top 10 and (coach Ellefson) wanted me to stick with the top 15, so I was pretty happy with how I did," Jackson said.
The race was Jackson's first outside of Alaska and probably her last until the next high school season, she said. She does plan to attend a number of running camps over the summer, however.
"I was pretty nervous, but once I got out there I felt pretty good and confident I could run with the faster girls," she added. "I'll probably remember running past the lake the most - it was really calm, sunny and just perfect weather."