By KEVIN THOMPSON
The state cross country finals were over nearly two months ago, but that doesn't mean the running stops.
For three area high school running stars, a competitive race under a national spotlight seems like the perfect exclamation point to an already memorable senior season.
Three area high school seniors were part of the Brokaw Runners cross country team that ran at a national meet in Nashville, Tenn., on Dec. 5.
Representing southwest Kansas were Eric Ruth of Stanton County, who won the state 2A title, JaCee Jarnagin of Holcomb, who was part of the state 3A title team, and Kayson Matthews of Lakin, who won every meet in which he finished this season except the state race.
Yet, for all their personal career accolades, this race was a humbling experience, Ruth said; all their national teammates were equally accomplished runners.
Ruth realized that on the bus ride to Nashville, he was actually running with a lot of other state title winners.
"I was thinking, 'Man, state champions are a dime a dozen on this bus,'" he joked. "Every other person I talked to had won state at some point. I didn't feel so special anymore."
In the 17-18 year old division, Matthews placed 18th out of 80 runners with a time of 17:00 flat. Ruth was 20th with a time of 17:02. And Jarnagin was 28th in 17:30.
All three runners were invited this summer at a running camp to be part of the Brokaw Runners, based out of Kansas City and which has now won five straight national titles. They met up with the squad there on Dec. 4, took a bus caravan to Nashville, jogged the course Friday, and ran the race Saturday.
December 5 in Nashville is similar in weather to Kansas, so that part wasn't daunting to the sunflower state runners. Neither was the 20-mile-per-hour "breeze" they ran into during the race, making the mid-morning race a bit cooler than they would have liked.
When they jogged the course Friday, it seemed relatively flat, Matthews said. Everybody was expecting correspondingly fast times. Saturday, however, wrote a different story.
"I thought I'd be smart and not bring winter gear," he said. "So I just ran with gloves, jersey and shorts. I about died out there," he laughed in recollection.
"The weather wasn't bad, but there was a slight wind," Ruth agreed. "It went from cool to just really biting at you in a hurry. I enjoy the cool weather when I run, so it was to my liking, at least."
Ruth said he didn't think that wearing the warmer gear would be good for his race. But "about a half mile in I was thinking, 'Man, I should have worn gloves,'" he laughed.
The state meet was held in Wamego, designed with quick bursts of uphills and downhills on a golf course.
The Nashville course was different; it was fit inside a six square-mile equestrian training center. Hills for training horses are designed differently from those that test runners.
Besides the chill and the wind, the hills proved to be a huge challenge — long and drawn out.
"From a distance, it looked pretty flat. Then you get out on it and start running the course and you find all these long hills for half a mile or longer that came out of nowhere," Ruth said. "It was like, where in the world did these come from?"
Preparing for the national meet was left up to each runner. Matthews said he ran 10 miles the Monday before, took Tuesday off, ran 30 minutes Wednesday in Pittsburg after a college visit, took Thursday off, and jogged the course Friday.
Ruth chose a different approach. He relied on his summer and season training and didn't really run much since state. Maybe he should have done more training, he said, but things worked out regardless.
Jarnagin had trained hard for a meet in South Dakota in mid-November, so he had more training than the others.
This isn't the first meet in team competition for Jarnagin. Last year he raced in Alabama, and just two weeks after the season this year, he ran a Nike regional meet in Sioux Falls, S.D. Competition at those meets, he said, was good, but this race provided the best competition, including his own teammates.
All the runners were glad for the invitation to compete at this level. They all saw a number of advantages to this opportunity.
"It was a lot of fun, and I met a lot of good runners. The guy who won is going to Stanford to run and the guy who got second is going to Oklahoma State, so I saw what I have to do at the next level," Matthews said.
The Lakin runner wants to run in college, so this race gave him a chance to see runners other than those he ran against all season. The winning time was a full minute ahead of Matthews' time, a good indication of what the next level is like.
"It was a very humbling experience," Ruth added. "It was very different view from the back of the pack. But it was definitely worth doing."
"Eventually I'd like to go Division 1, so I might think about going to a community college to get better," Matthews said.
Ruth is hoping to get into the Air Force Academy, and this helped him, too, see what the next level of running is like.
Jarnagin plans to attend a Division 1 school to pursue a degree in architectural engineering. If running in his future, he said he'll do it.
Accompanying these runners to nationals was Lindall Cox, head coach of the two-time state champion Holcomb Longhorns. He has known and worked with the Brokaw runners and their coach, Dave Ramsey, for a number of years and has traveled to nationals before.
Cox said he understands the advantages of this race.
"It was a great opportunity for kids in this area to run against some of the best runners. These three guys race against each other throughout the year and this way they get to race with each other. And for the ones going to college, it gives them some perspective of what is out there," he said.
Cox said that Ramsey runs a training camp in Pueblo each summer where he helps train runners but the runners are also learning how to run, which it makes it an educational as well as athletic experience. Ramsey has coached runners from elementary age to national champions to Olympians, so he takes the sport seriously.
"There's no question those boys improved a ton (for this past season) because of their knowledge," he said. "There is so much more to distance running than just going out and running," he added, and following Ramsey's successful track record led to these area runners' improvement.
Cox said that he himself has learned how to coach cross country primarily from Ramsey.
"I know of no other way to coach. When my (Holcomb) kids go to his camp, they're hearing what I tell them. We run his system, so all my kids are in his system," he said.
Jarnagin knows that Ramsey's system works.
"Some people say that it can't work," he said. "They say you can't run slower to get faster, but it does." Winning two state titles in a row is proof of that, he said.
And to paraphrase another Dave Ramsey, this coach teaches runners today how to run like no one else, so later they can run like no one else.