The 2023-2024 high school cross-country season in the capital city has officially kicked off as Juneau high school racers competed in the Sayeik Invitational, the first home race of the season Saturday morning.
Both Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé and Thunder Mountain High School runners met up at the starting line, eagerly awaiting the gun to fire and the races to finally commence.
The course, which started at a baseball field at Savikko Park and looped through the Treadwell Historic Mine, was packed full of not just racers, but parents and supporters. Many, donning boots and sandals, spent their time running to and from different parts of the course to catch a glimpse of their runner before they dashed off into another part of the woods.
The boys’ race started first, after an open community race earlier in the morning. The boys’ race invited past alumni to join in alongside the high schoolers. The top high school finisher of the boys’ race was JDHS senior captain Edgar Vera with a time of 17 minutes and 16 seconds.
Vera said after the race he felt great, but noted this year the course was changed up a bit, which meant additional hills were added. He said that was definitely one of the harder parts of the race.
“You definitely just have to run it and push through, but it’s a cool course,” he said. “It felt a little weird with it switched up, but overall I felt good.”
Vera said he was happy with how he and his fellow JDHS teammates performed and worked together throughout the course.
“We all had good times during the run and I think we all felt pretty good about it,” he said. “For this time of season I feel like we just did a really great job.”
The top high school finisher for TMHS was freshman runner Erik Thompson, who closely followed Vera’s time at 17 minutes and 20 seconds. Thomspon said because he is a freshman he hadn’t run the previous course from last year, so he didn’t mind the extra hills. Actually, he said he kind of enjoyed them.
“It was kind of tiring, but hills are definitely my specialty,” Thomspon said. “I made up a lot of ground on the hills and now I have a goal to get sub 17 (minutes).”
The girls’ race started shortly after the last finisher came in for the boys’ race and also included alumni mixed in with the high school racers. The top finisher of the race was Ida Meyer, a junior at JDHS, who finished with a time of 19 minutes 42 seconds.
“It felt really good — we’ve been training a lot of hills — so it probably felt better than it should have felt,” she said after the race.
She and Etta Eller, a senior captain for JDHS, were a power duo for most of the course, feeding off each other’s paces as they handily led the race. However, on the final big downhill of the course, one of Eller’s shoes fell off, which caused a holdup and meant the duo had to split up near the end. However, despite the shoe problem Eller still managed to finish third for high school racers.
“I usually do better,” Eller said, referring to losing her shoe. “But I really enjoyed running with Ida, having a teammate to work with like this is priceless.”
Della Mearig, was the top finisher in the girls’ race for TMHS with a time of 23 minutes 13 seconds. She said she was happy with her performance despite dealing with some pre-race nerves.
“I was really nervous starting, but I knew that as soon as I was running the adrenaline was gonna kick in and I wasn’t gonna have to worry about it anymore,” she said.
JDHS co-head coach Abby Jahn said after the race that unexpected things like losing a shoe or getting a cramp mid-race are bound to happen — especially early in the season — but she emphasized the coaches try to make sure runners don’t let those little hiccups bring them down.
“We try to focus on things like ‘how can we build each other up and be there for each other?’” she said. “Things like making cohesive packs on the course, which they’re starting to do a really good job with that.”
Fellow JDHS co-head coach Knutson-Lombardo agreed and said for about a third of the team this year Saturday’s race was their first-ever competitive 5K race as a high school runner, which meant an abundance of nerves across the board.
“We say a lot to our runners that we believe that all runners are brave — just getting on the start line is really hard for a lot of people,” he said.
Despite the hurdles of a first race, however, both coaches said they were very happy with the entire team’s performance.
“I always get excited for our first official meet of the season — it’s just an opportunity to finally put all the things we’ve been working on into motion and see how the cards fall,” Knutson-Lombardo said.
TMHS co-head coach Jon Stearns said he was beyond excited about the rest of the season following how well the TMHS racers performed on Saturday.
“Our boy’s team did so good, and we have so many young runners, so just getting people race experience is so awesome,” he said. “And I was like super surprised, it was like everybody exceeded their goals.”
Stearns said the race definitely was a learning experience, not just for the runners, but for him as a coach. He said he’s excited to better coach and work with the runners to help them achieve their goals this season.
“From a coaching standpoint, something that I need to work on is having us working as a team, feeding off of each other’s energy, really pushing each other and packing up,” he said.
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at email@example.com or (651) 528-1807.