Far From All Downhill

Hereford Cross-Country
Hereford High School hosts the Maryland state cross-country championships and the host team has the advantage of knowing the difficulty of the course. (Mark Gail - The Washington Post)
By Sean P. Flynn
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 12, 2005

To Hereford High School senior Suzanne Stettinius, the biggest home-course advantage she will have at today's Maryland state cross-country championships -- held annually at her school -- will be that she knows exactly how much suffering she has to endure before she gets to the finish line.

"It's probably the most pain I've ever felt in my entire life," Stettinius said. "It hurts. It stinks. That's about all you can say about it."

Chances are, most of the more than 1,500 runners who compete in the state meet will come out feeling like Stettinius. The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association will run championships in all four of its classifications today on Hereford's infamous course in rural Baltimore County -- "the toughest three miles in cross-country," as John Dye, operator of national high school running Web site http://www.dyestat.com , once called it.

The grueling nature of the course is legendary among runners and coaches at Maryland high schools. Coaches take their teams to the course a week before the state championship just so the runners can get a glimpse of what they'll face. Seniors tell freshmen horror stories about the course. Some coaches, meanwhile, argue that the course is so tough as to be a ridiculous place to determine the state's best runners.

Many more, though, think it is the ideal cross-country course, where guts and determination count far more than raw speed and athletic ability.

"To me, it's cross-country," Hereford Athletic Director Mike Kalisz said. "Cross-country is not just about running. It's also about mental toughness. To me, it's life, it's ups and downs. Are kids willing to make the challenge? Are coaches willing to make the challenge?"

Designed by the Baltimore County school district as a two-mile-long championship site in 1957, the course has been the on-and-off home of the state meet ever since. Expanded to its current three-mile layout in 1974 and altered slightly over the years, the course has hosted all but two state meets since 1980 and is the site of the Bull Run Invitational, a top regular season meet that annually draws more than 100 schools.

The course's hills -- notably "The Dip," a steep ravine in the middle of the course that has to be traversed twice -- have done in many of the state's greatest runners. Races at Hereford start with a straightaway on a 500-meter incline and continue through 1 1/2 challenging miles, capped by a trip down and back up The Dip. After another hilly mile through secluded woods and an apple orchard, the runners return to The Dip for another down-and-up with a half-mile to go. About 300 meters from the finish, there is a final incline before the home stretch.

"Just when you think you're coming to the end, you see these hills and it's hard," said Wilde Lake senior Travis Boccher, who first ran the course this fall at the Bull Run meet. "When I got through them, my legs were just burning and I still had a ways to go. I can't remember the last time my legs burned that badly."

No boy has ever run faster than 16 minutes, and only a handful of girls have broken 19. In typical cross-country races -- a sport in which most courses are 3 to 3.1 miles long -- winning times can be more than a minute faster.

Last year, a runner for C.M. Wright led the Class 3A girls' race before she fell 200 meters from the finish line. She tried to get back up, but, exhausted, collapsed again and did not finish. Severna Park sophomore Liya Kasimova was fourth in that race.

"The course is scary," Kasimova said. "The Dip is almost impossible and the only advice I'd give is that you need to be tough because there is nothing easy about the course."

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