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Cross country race signals return of preps

A group of masked cross country runners compete Saturday at a meet at Bosque School. It was the first high school competition of any kind locally since the pandemic shut down play last March. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

It looked like an ordinary Saturday morning in the Bosque.

The trails were populated with walkers, with cyclists, several bundled-up fishermen – even two fellas who were trying to spot a porcupine near the top of a cottonwood tree.

But it was not an ordinary Saturday.

Bosque School’s cross country invitational meet marked the return of prep sports to New Mexico following an 11½-month absence.

“When you’re a runner,” Sandia Prep junior and boys winner Nahom Zerai said, “racing is where it’s all at. The energy, where you improve, where you have fun. Competition is what it’s all about. It’s nice to be back and to compete with others.”

A total of 20 girls and 15 boys ran the unusually lengthy 3.6-mile course at Bosque School, which is snuggled up against the western edge of the Bosque.

Bosque coach Ryan Fenton led the girls out on a bike, a couple of minutes past 10 a.m. after a whistle was blown to start the first high school varsity event since the boys Class 5A state basketball final at the Pit on March 14.

“It was hard to fall asleep last night,” said Sandia Prep junior Sidney Harenberg, the girls’ winner.

“It was just a release (when the race began),” said Bosque School junior Ella Adams, who placed second. “Finally, we’re here, and we made it.”

There had not been a prep cross country race in New Mexico since the state meet in early November of 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the New Mexico Activities Association to push all the regular fall 2020 sports, including cross country, to the spring.

And this will be an abbreviated season with just a handful of meets, about half what they’d have in a normal season.

The race began in a far corner of the Bosque campus, with teams, and even the athletes, separated at the start. There may have been hundreds of people watching University of New Mexico baseball on Saturday, but the state is not permitting fans at the high school events, at least not yet.

Saturday’s race was the hopeful start of a slow climb out of the coronavirus shadow and into the light.

“Not coming back would feel like a punch in the gut,” said Bosque School senior Taylor Quintana, who ran second to Zerai. “It was really exciting. The coaches were talking about this being such a big deal, especially to all the other runners in the state. I think it really brought the whole sport together.”

The day didn’t entirely go off without a glitch, however.

Although Adams hit the finish line first, well ahead of the chasing pack, it was determined that she had inadvertently veered off course late in the race. This created the visual of her finishing ahead of the actual winner, Harenberg.

Officials penalized Adams in terms of her time, but as she was running a strong second to Harenberg throughout before the mishap, they left Adams as the second-place finisher.

Harenberg said all the runners were not only thrilled to be competing again, but also were cognizant of those who can’t compete within a close-knit cross country community.

“I think all of us, we’re really excited, but also feeling kind of guilty for the (Albuquerque Public Schools) kids who can’t race,” she said. “We were all thinking about them the entire race.”

Harenberg’s winning time was 25 minutes, 42 seconds. Adams’ official time as listed in the results was an even 27 minutes.

Sandia Prep’s girls and boys were the team champions in a small field that included Menaul School’s girls competing in this sport for the first time at the varsity level, plus Cuba.

“We were excited to be a part of this,” said Menaul freshman Charli Boatman, who finished fourth. “It was definitely a good experience. We’ve been in school all year, and this being the first sport, it was pretty exciting.”

In the second race, Zerai enjoyed a 94-second victory over Quintana. Zerai’s winning time was 21:43.

“My mind kind of went blank (at the start),” said Zerai. “It felt surreal in a way. I was excited and a little nervous.”

All athletes are wearing masks during competition, which was the most bizarre aspect to Saturday’s scene. But athletes have been practicing in them for many months.

“That last mile definitely hurt,” said Adams, “because it’s all wet and sweaty. But honestly … I didn’t care.”

Saturday’s meet at Bosque was one of a handful held throughout the state as prep sports returned.

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