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 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 11/2 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."
Arundel senior Brett Alvaro, who will run in the 4A race today, was sick on the day of the race last year and finished it in 21 long, painful minutes.
"You don't notice how many hills there are at first, then once you start you notice every single one of them," Alvaro said. "There's a lot of pain. . . . My advice is to not run this course when you are sick."
Because of its numerous hills, the course clearly benefits a runner with more strength versus a runner who has better speed. Some speculate that shorter runners, with a lower center of gravity and shorter strides, have an easier time attacking the numerous sharp turns and inclines. These advantages -- real or perceived -- do not please everyone.
"A state championship course should be neutral," said C.M. Wright Coach Donnie Mickey, whose girls' team won the 3A state title last year despite the loss of the lead runner. "No one runner should have a distinct advantage over another. This course is so hilly that it gives certain runners an advantage over others."
Stephen Decatur Coach Pat Russo, whose team swept the 2A East Region championships, thinks the Hereford course is unfair to his team and the other schools of the Eastern Shore, where the land is flat.
Because of the school's location, the team does not run in any invitationals on hilly courses. The team practices on what Russo, in his 35th year at the school, calls "the only hill in Worcester County" -- a former landfill that has been authorized for public use.
He said that a fairer course could be found in the state, maybe even at Hereford, where a modified route would avoid two trips through The Dip, the long incline at the start of the race and the hill 300 meters from the finish.
"I don't have anything against hilly courses," Russo said. "But I don't believe this course is fair. It's certainly not fair for teams from the Eastern Shore. . . . I've never done an official survey, but I'd be confident in saying that 100 percent of coaches from the Eastern Shore would say that this course is unfair."
Other coaches worry that the slow times run at the course can affect a runner's standing with college recruiters and teams' national rankings. Eleanor Roosevelt Coach Desmond Dunham, whose girls' team won 4A last year and is ranked second in the Southeast Region by Nike Team Nationals, said that he likes the course because "it rewards the teams that are best prepared." He admitted, though, that some elite meets' selection committees could be swayed by the poor times.
"Maybe there are certain people who only see the times you run, so you never know," Dunham said. "But I think most people know that the times will be slower at Hereford."
Several times in the course's history, a vocal minority of coaches has launched attempts to move the state meet. River Hill Coach Earl Lauer, as the state meet chairman five years ago, conducted a straw poll of coaches when he became chairman and found that coaches were "overwhelmingly in favor" of keeping the meet at Hereford.
Severna Park Coach Ed Purpura called Hereford "the quintessential cross-country course," where toughness matters more than speed, where all Maryland runners through history can be judged on an equal plane.
"I'm a fan of tradition, and the one thing that every runner has is that they ran on that course," said Purpura, whose girls' team is a favorite in 3A this year. "In 1971 when I was at Severna Park, I ran on it, and through the years I've talked to runners and that's what we talk about, because that course is something we have in common. . . . As a runner, when you cross the finish line at Hereford, it is really something to be proud of. It's an accomplishment."
In some respects, the legend of Hereford is more daunting than the actual course. Every year, Kalisz and a Hereford assistant, John Roemer, put up a wall of padding on a tree at the bottom of The Dip, about 10 feet from the race path in a spot unlikely to cause a dangerous situation. Kalisz said that every year they share a good laugh when they hear the rumors of dozens of runners falling into the padding.
"I think people come in here psyched out because of all the stories they hear," said Hereford Coach Russ Drylie, who ran on the course as a high schooler at Paint Branch. "A lot of it is mental."
Last Saturday, a handful of teams traveled to Hereford to scout the course, an annual pilgrimage in the weeks preceding the meet, Kalisz and Drylie said.
Lauer brought his River Hill runners to the Bull Run meet, and he trains them in a Howard County park he has been using for years. On a team trip to Pennsylvania a few weeks ago, Lauer stood up and quieted the bus as the team drove past the Hereford exit on Interstate 83.
"I told them, 'This is where you'll be for the state meet,' " Lauer said. "I wanted them to take a look at the hills. But not too close a look."
Staff writers Jon Gallo and Daniel Lyght contributed to this report.