Alabama… known for its flat landscape, rich history, and obsession with football, isn’t a state that high schoolers flock to. But this past week, the best high school cross country runners in the nation all had their eyes set on December 4th in John Hunt Park, Huntsville, the setting of what would be the most competitive high school race of the season. Before COVID, Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) was the pinnacle of high school cross country, but last season high school teams were robbed of the opportunity to win a national championship due to restrictions and cancellations. While NXN was once again cancelled this year, RunningLane and their sponsor, Garmin, picked up the slack and hosted this year’s national competition.
The Niwot girls entered the race having been ranked in the US top 3 for the entire season with Colorado teams, Arapahoe, Cherry Creek, and Valor Christain not far behind. Ahead of them lay an unknown challenge with other dominant teams such as Buchanan and Newbury Park, both from California. On the boys side the Niwot squad had also been at the top of the national rankings throughout the season. While they weren’t the favorite, the boys’ determination was unmatched and many spectators had them pegged as the dark horse of the race. In Huntsville they would face arguably the best team in high school cross country in history – Newbury Park – and Colorado 4A state champs Cheyenne Mountain. The test that lay ahead of them was daunting, but Niwot’s runners had trained all season with their hearts set on nationals. They were itching to face the best runners in the US.
John Hunt Park was previously a golf course, but was recently converted into a cross country venue, npw used for high caliber high school and college races. Niwot got their first look at the renowned course on Friday – the day before the race. The sun was bright and the air thick with humidity, but the buzz was electrifying. Reporters ran around collecting interviews as the competitors jogged the course in packs. Over the speakers, G6 by Lady Gaga blared on repeat while the runners did strides from the starting line, prepping their legs for the hard effort that lay ahead. Tents selling merchandise and running gear lined the first 300 meters of the course and next to it the stage was set to crown the next day’s champions.
On the day of the race, the weather took a turn. Competitors woke up to a misty, cloudy day. While the wetness would result in slower times, the majority of runners were thrilled with the change in temperature. The energy from the previous day carried into the next morning, nerves and adrenaline skyrocketing. The first gun went off at 8:00 am, signaling the start of the first race, the boys’ blue race, with 6 more races to follow throughout the course of the morning. While varsity teams on both the boys’ and girls’ sides were limited to only seven runners each, Niwot also took multiple runners that raced as individuals with the hopes of running fast times at sea level. In total, 22 athletes, spread across all divisions, represented Niwot: a staggering number in comparison to other high schools that had taken the trip. With the gold races set to take off last, the times got faster and faster, anticipation building as the morning progressed. Fans packed both sides of the course, stampeding to the best points along the course to cheer. Mia Prok described the environment, saying, “It feels like they are all cheering for you, even though they aren’t, that energy really carries you through the finish line.”
It was this energy and months of training that carried the Niwot girls’ to a first place finish. The team consisted of Bella Nelson, Sierra Parks, Sarah Perkins, Mia Prok, Madison Shults, Stella Vieth, and Eva Klingbeil, each athlete pushing through the pain for each other. In the end, all their hard work paid off – they became national champions, beating second place Buchanan by 28 points. Additionally, 4A individual state champ Eva Klingbeil came in seventh place, earning All-American honors. She also set a new school record, topping Olympian Elise Cranny’s time by a mere one second – 16:44. In addition to the girls in the team race, Niwot brought runners Olivia Alessandrini, Tessa Everett, Cayden Justice, Kendall Madine, Lexy Bullen, and Lauren Hendershot, many of whom ran personal or season bests and all of whom demonstrated the grit that comes with being a Niwot runner. For the boys, Carlos Kipkorir Cheruiyot, Freddie Ambrose, Isaac Robinson , Jeremy Gillet, Joey Hendershot, Stefan Haug, and Zane Bergen, competed in the team race. Their race was the last of a long day of competition, but it was also the peak of intensity and excitement. The boys team was ready to showcase their grit. Each runner finished as hard as they possibly could. Zane Bergen led the way, pushing the pace in the front pack and completing the 5k in a time of 14:09 for fourth place. His fourth place finish was the fastest fourth place finish ever – he and the top three finishers all broke the previous all-time high school 5k record. The rest of the seven filed in behind him, finding one another as fast as possible at the finish to embrace and congratulate one another. They held their breath as the team results were calculated and at the end of the day the Niwot boys were officially the 7th best team in the entire country. Freshmen Gavin Entrakul and Keegan Geldean also made the trip to Huntsville to run fast times and gain more experience.
John Hunt was the conclusion to another great season of Niwot cross country, one that was filled with trials, triumphs, and teamwork. Head cross country coach and Niwot counselor Coach Christensen said, “The resilience the team has and the support they all have for each other, that team culture, is the thing I am most proud of.” The team hopes to continue this culture and their winning streak into the spring track season and into next year’s cross country season, with their eyes set on more trophies and titles. This year’s nationals set the foundation for more successes to come, carrying on the successful legacy of Niwot’s running programs.