If your impression of cross-country running is the elegant slow-motion montage in the film “Chariots of Fire,” San Benito High School sophomore Kendra Melching is here to tell you that the experience is quite different. Melching, 15, has been running for five years, with two years of experience on the varsity team.
“In the beginning, it is really stressful because it is a big mob of people and you want to get out in front of everyone,” she said. “That is my least favorite time. As I run, I just focus on my breathing and think about the pain I am in. Near the end is the most exciting time but you are also in the most pain. You finally cross the finish line and you start to get in the moment as everyone is cheering you on.”
For Melching, crossing that finish line brings her favorite parts of the race: cheering her teammates on and checking her times. But it is also time for recovery. She says it takes about five minutes after a race to get her breathing back to normal and at least an hour to relax from the stress.
Cross-country races are three miles long but those three miles vary from course to course.
“Every course is a different kind of course,” said head coach Ralph Chavez. “When you talk about distance, it is quite deceiving because some are more hilly than others. The times will vary depending on the difficulty of the terrain.”
Luis Silva’s personal record is 17 minutes, 45 seconds. This is the 16-year-old junior’s second year on the varsity team; last season was truncated by COVID restrictions.
“We went into last year more hopeful but we ended up limited to a shorter time of training,” Silva said. “It was just enough to keep us in shape, mentally and physically, while at the same time keeping up precautions and being safe. This year we have a full schedule and I am looking forward to it.”
Chavez has been the head coach for two years and ran cross-country himself as a student at San Benito High. Before COVID, he would have had a roster of 50 to 60 athletes; nowadays the numbers are down for both boys and girls. For Chavez, with few returning runners, only two returning seniors, and a smaller team, this year is about recovery and looking to the future.
“We have about 30 boys this year,” he said. “This is a very young team with quite a few freshmen. We are going to be working on developing them this year and build for a really strong team in the next years. We have 16 girls but they are a close-knit team. They are very competitive with each other and if they won the championship, it would not be a surprise to us coaches.”
Starting her third year of varsity, junior Gabriella Romero, 16, is one of the most experienced members of the team.
“This year we are getting back to being our best,” she said. “The seniors from last year left, of course, and that was a lot of the power of the team because they led and instructed us. Now we have a lot of freshmen and sophomores and we have to build again.”
Though the number of league events is back to a normal schedule, there are fewer invitationals this year, giving the athletes only six chances to compete before the finals. With a relatively inexperienced team due to the short schedule last year, exactly how well they will do is uncertain.
“Last year was easier in some ways,” Melching said. “Because of COVID, teams were smaller and there was not as much competition. I am excited to see the vibe this year is bringing, with all of our new runners, but we are all going in blind because we don’t know yet what things are going to be like this year.”
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