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Cross country running: Is there a shelf life for success?

High school stars have varying levels of success when moving on to the next level

Posted: August 14, 2014 10:10 p.m.
Updated: August 14, 2014 10:10 p.m.

Saugus graduate Kaylin Mahoney (left), Saugus grad Shannon Murakami (center) and Canyon graduate Lauren Fleshman (right) have all experienced varying levels of success after high school.

 

The Santa Clarita Valley has enjoyed a long history of statewide success in high school cross country.

But in a sport that demands so much physically and requires an incredible amount dedication and sacrifice, it’s also very difficult to sustain the same level of achievement at the next level.

The question is why?

Veteran coaches in the area point out that distance running is a sport that lends itself to more success at older ages than other sports.

And yet, for varying reasons, even some of the area’s most promising prep talents sometimes struggle to carry over their prosperity to college.

In many cases, it’s a simple matter of athletes getting worn down by the relentless training.

“It’s hard because its a 24-hour sport. You’ve got to eat right, you’ve got to hydrate,” said Saugus cross country head coach Rene Paragas. “You’ve got to get enough sleep. ... The true burnout is kids who go to college. And they say, ‘You know what, running isn’t my priority. My education is.”

From what he’s seen in his 10 years of coaching at Saugus with eight state championships collected along the way, Paragas said it’s about half-and-half between distance runners who succeed in college and those who don’t.

He himself battled injuries most of his collegiate career at Cal Poly Pomona following a standout running career at Hart High School.

“The body pays a price because they’re pushing the limits,” said longtime Hart cross country head coach Larry David. “They’re pushing the boundaries. If I do 80 miles, I can do 90. If I’m doing 100, why not do 120?”

Take the example of three of the most successful high school runners of all-time, Canyon graduate Lauren Fleshman and Saugus graduates Shannon Murakami and Kaylin Mahoney.

Those are the only three athletes in SCV history to win individual CIF cross country state championships, and they represent the full spectrum of success beyond high school.

Fleshman was a 15-time All-American and five-time NCAA champion while at Stanford and she’s now a professional runner and one of the top 5,000-meter runners in the nation.

At age 32, Fleshman continues to compete internationally and she runs a popular running blog called Ask Lauren Fleshman.

“I think it’s longer than most other sports,” said Canyon head coach Paul Broneer on the potential for a longer career. “Your sprinters, you don’t hear of any sprinters in their 40s who are running competitively. You just can’t. But you do sometimes see distance runners who are competitive in their 40s.”

But the truth is people like Fleshman are exceptions.

Murakami, for instance, went on to enjoy a strong four-year career at UCLA, finishing as the team’s No. 1 runner and competing at the NCAA Championships as a senior.

Even for her though, the grind became too much after so many years. She chose to take a full year off training after finishing up at UCLA.

“It’s not like you can go into the gym and put in a 20-minute workout and then you’re done,” Murakami said. “You’ve got to put the miles in. You’ve got to wake up at 4 a.m. and go on a run.”

Murakami made a return to the competitive running world this past year, though she said it’s tough to keep up with day-to-day training while working.

Mahoney, on the other hand, had a different experience altogether after high school.

She competed for a temporary amount of time for Columbia University’s team. Due to injuries and personal issues, Mahoney wound up leaving the sport, though she continues to attend Columbia.

From a somewhat outside perspective, College of the Canyons cross country head coach Lindie Kane said some athletes who come from this valley struggle with the transition of college because of high standards set by their high school teams.

“I think our programs out here are very competitive, very intense, very well structured, so when you leave you’re at the top of your game and no matter what sport it is you get into the university and four-year level and now you’re a freshman and sometimes you have to start over again,” said Kane, who has coached cross country and track and COC for 19 years.

Kane and other coaches say there’s no hard and fast rule on which athletes’ talents translate to the next level.

The only certainty is that this sport is relentless and demanding, and for that reason it’s not easy to achieve year after year.

There’s no telling when an athlete will reach the finish line of their career.

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