Sandra Szpott crossed the finish line, slowed to a stroll, and found a tree on which to lean her exhausted body. There was no family to hug and no coaches or teammates with whom to commiserate about just how tough the 5-kilometer layout at Buffalo Dunes Golf Course was during Monday’s Region VI cross country championships.
It was just Garden City Community College’s Szpott and Colby’s Winnie Kibet, all alone for what seemed like an eternity, while a northernly wind whipped through the dreary and chilly course, which delayed the start time an hour because of frost.
The mass of spectators and coaches were trickling towards the finish line just in front of the rest of the field of runners, who were all a minute-and-a-half behind Szpott and Kibet.
The Colby sophomore dueled with Szpott the entire way, with the duo breaking ahead of the pack early and lengthening the distance as the race wore on.
The final 800 meters, beginning with the second climb up the steep 17th hole of the course, Kibet pulled ever so slightly away, and even Szpott — who is more built for track and field’s long runs — could not catch her, despite an impressive kick. Kibet took the top medal in 18 minutes, 45.2 seconds, while Szpott was just behind in 18:48.6.
The next closest runner was Allen County's Abby Steinhauser, who finished in 20:25.1.
“Eight-hundred meters to the finish, she was really strong on the last hill,” Szpott, a native of Poland, said of Kibet. “I tried to keep with her the whole time, but not today.”
The Buster women finished in ninth, a couple of spots lower than head coach Ray Putnam would have liked, while the men were 11th, also too low in Putnam’s opinion. The Buster men were hurt by the withdrawal of Oscar Guzman midway through the race.
Allen ran away with the men’s team title with 50 points, compared to second-place Colby’s 91, while the Colby women edged Cowley, 43-44, thanks to Kibet finishing in front of Szpott.
The No. 17 hill and the up-and-down course at Buffalo Dunes provided the tougher challenge for Szpott, who admitted she’s a better runner on flatter courses.
“I’m fast, but I’m not really strong,” Szpott said, referencing her struggling with an incline run.
Kibet and Szpott have dueled head-to-head twice this season, with Kibet winning the first matchup by more than 20 seconds on her home course in Colby, which also contains a few more hills. Then Szpott had the better time by about 15 second on the flat course in Hays a month later — though the runners competed in different races that day.
“Winnie is a pure distance runner,” Putnam said. “She doesn’t have a lot of speed, where Sandra is primarily a track kid.”
And yet, the progress Szpott made to keep up with Kibet on another hilly course shows that Szpott is ready for a surge ahead of the NJCAA meet in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Nov. 11.
“I think (Monday) shows just how much she’s moved up on Winnie,” Putnam said. “I think if this is earlier in the season, there’s more of a gap.”
“(Szpott) is in a pretty good position, compared to where she was. She’s made some good strides.”
The irony is that Szpott took third at the NJCAA meet in El Dorado last year while with New Mexico Military Institute, and that came on a course with a steep hill at the end that helped Szpott pass several runners with her kick going uphill.
“I beat them on the hill, and I was third,” she said. “I was really surprised.”
Szpott, uncomfortable with the militaristic foundation upon which NMMI is based, transferred to Garden City this year despite the impressive final race.
“A lot of rules, a lot of discipline,” Szpott said, smiling. “Every day there (at NMMI) was stress … I didn’t feel like it was my home there. It feels like home here (GCCC). This is my place.”
And she’s fit right in, taking three first-place finishes and a second prior to Monday. Now, the nationals are in her crosshairs.
“My tactic will be to run behind the first and second girl, and have a strong finish,” Szpott said, implicating that she will try to stay within striking distance and then out-leg the leaders with her final kick.
On a bit of a flatter course, Putnam expects Szpott to make a run for one of the top places.
“She has as good a kick as anybody,” he said. “If it comes down to that, I’ll be putting my money on Sandra.”
Szpott’s performance was one of the few bright spots for the Busters Monday.
Hannah Roemer, a Garden City High School graduate, had a solid day, finishing in 40th in a time 21:56.2, the second-best time for the Buster women. But usual solid No. 3 runner Lourdes Covarrubias struggled to a 73rd-place finish in 23:48.8.
“We’ve been with Highland and Dodge all year, and I was hoping we’d be ahead of them,” Putnam said. Dodge City took sixth with 184 points and Highland was seventh with 189.
On the men’s side, Guzman was the Busters’ top runner, and retired midway through the race, citing difficulty in breathing.
“It just kind of hurt the tempo of the team, because he’s one of the top guys,” Putnam said. “It had a bit of an emotional effect and set us back.”
Jesse Bebb was the Busters’ best finisher in 67th in a time of 30:12.0 on the 8-kilometer course. Edgar Avalos was directly behind in 20:12.7.
Cloud County swept the individual top two places, with Moses Diane winning in 26:09.8.