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MARSHALL: A Royal run at Colorado's Royal Gorge

Published 10/4/2012

Every now and then, an opportunity for a good story just materializes.

That's when as a reporter, whether it be news or sports, just can't refuse.

When I discovered in early September that the Garden City High School cross country teams would be traveling to Cañon City, Colo. to run in a high school meet at historic Royal Gorge, with the finish line just at the end of the suspension bridge, I told myself I had to figure out a way to go watch.

It just so happened that the meet was on a Thursday, one of our busiest days of the week for fall sports. I had to find a way to make sure everything else got its due coverage before I could head west to "Colorful" Colorado.

I phoned GCHS cross country Krista Linenberger to express my interest and to inquire about riding on one of the buses that would transport the teams. In explaining that I would also be taking video of the day, she readily agreed to let me be a passenger as long as approval came from the school's administration. Athletic Director Martin Segovia gave the thumbs up, green light, and all was good to go.

A 9 a.m. departure was announced early and Linenberger was kind enough to encourage me via text the night before to bring a pillow as it would be a long drive home that same night. Yep, 270 miles would certainly qualify as the long drive, especially when it would be the second one of the day.

I had my pick of the two activity buses — those big ones with the brown and white USD 457 lettered on the side — that were built in 1999 and 2001. One seats 49 and the other 51 and on this day, the two were transporting the 27 boys and 28 girls in each. No co-ed traveling on this day. Linenberger would be the first to tell you that no extra distractions are necessary on race day.

I opted for the girls bus, primarily so I would be able to visit with the coach periodically as I sought to chronicle the day's activities. Now, most people would expect a bus full of 28 teenage girls to be anything but calm and mostly quiet. But on this day, the girls were mostly all business.

I also had the chance to meet and visit with one of the three regular activity bus drivers — Flo Ramsey. She has been driving USD 457 student-athletes all over the central portion of the U.S. and sometimes beyond for nearly 30 years. The other driver of the day, John White, has been doing the same thing for 21 years. John is a Vietnam veteran and was a helicopter pilot during the war. The third, Jeff Dawson, was back in Garden City, and he has 17 years on the job with the district. He also handles all the bus driver training.

Watching Flo and John handle these big wheels of transportation was interesting and compelling. It's not an easy job, and they seemingly do it with little effort. Concentration would be an understatement for the two of them, though.

That's to be expected when you have to earn a Commercial Driver's License with special endorsements, pass a school bus and air break test, take a defensive driving course that has to be renewed every two years. Throw in CPR yearly training, first aid training once every three years and pass a Kansas Department of Transportation physical annually and you realize the student-athletes, children of tax payers in USD 457, are indeed in good hands.

I found out that the buses have 100-gallon gas tanks and get approximately 8 to 10 miles per gallon. That's a lot better mileage than I would have guessed. When the buses arrived back in Garden City at 1:30 a.m. on Friday, the tanks were just about half full. It's nice to know that we wouldn't be running out of gas on this trip. The thought of pushing the bus was none too appealing.

While traveling, Linenberger had told me of a phone call she received from one of the mother's of a freshman girl who would be competing in the junior varsity race that day. The girl, Kaitlin Smith, has acrophobia, more commonly known as a fear of heights.

I'm telling you, I can understand how that can happen. I'm not exactly the most comfortable when on a high-mountain hike on narrow trails, driving across Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, or in this case, seeing someone run across a suspension bridge, 1,000 feet above the Arkansas River.

I had a lot of empathy for Kaitlin. Shedding a few tears, and perhaps having a case of shortness of breath, she was unsure about whether or not she would run. After a lot of calming words from her older sister, Ashley, her parents, teammates, coaches, and yes, even an aging sports writer, Kaitlin decided to run.

Her early decision was to run the course out beyond the gates and back to the bridge. Then she planned to stop at the bridge's edge before the final one-quarter mile trek across to the finish line.

I would learn later that she indeed reached the edge of the bridge, but instead of stopping, she kept on running, all the way to the finish line, placing sixth in the JV girls division.

When I saw her after the race, I asked her what had made her change her mind, and she meekly said it was because, "I was in 6th place, and wanted to finish." I asked her if she looked side to side, but she confessed she looked straight ahead to the finish line. Can't say I blame her. She also managed to walk back across the bridge with teammates and all was well.

What Kaitlin accomplished that day, overcoming a lifelong fear, was the most amazing thing of the day for me to witness. I was more proud of her than any of the high finishers of the boys and girls runners, who by the way cleaned the clocks of the high-altitude Colorado runners. The Buffs won both the boys and girls divisions at the varsity level, and had they been keeping team scores for JV, the Buffs would have won those, too.

On the way home, a 30-minute stop in Canon City for fast-food dinner, was culminated by two different restaurant officials praising the conduct of the cross country team members. Both Linenberger and I had comments from those folks indicating that the Buffs were as well-behaved as any group they had seen in years.

As we approached LaJunta, Colo., we found a storm had just passed by, dumping nearly four to six inches of small hailstones on the ground. US 50 was closed off by the local police and a detour around the south side of town took a few extra minutes. It looked like an early snowstorm and everyone was amazed.

The remainder of the 150-miles was uneventful, only abbreviated by a short rest stop in Lamar. From there, it was sleep time for the girls and boys and a quiet arrival back at GCHS. It had been 16 and a half hours since departing Garden City.

There were plenty of memorable moments for this writer. The most memorable, however, will be how impressed I was with the coaches and the student-athletes. Garden Citians should take pride in knowing that the overwhelming majority of their kids conduct themselves in a manner in which the entire community can be proud.

Sports Editor Brett Marshall can be reached at bmarshall@gctelegram.com.

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