That was the scene at the start of each race at the annual Nick Martin Memorial Invite, Sept. 9 at the Vista Grande Complex in Sandia Park.
Hundreds of high school and middle school distance runners came together for the annual cross country meet.
“They do that USA Bike Race every year, but other than that, this is probably the biggest event out here,” said Kasi Giovenco, East Mountain High’s athletic director. “It’s like hosting a mini state meet.”
East Mountain and Estancia competed with eight other high school teams, and nine middle school teams also participated in the annual event, named in honor of Nick Martin, an East Mountain High School distance runner who passed away in 2010 at the age of 16.
“It’s just a great way to remember Nick Martin,” said East Mountain sophomore Ruth Trullinger, who finished 13th in the girls varsity race.
Bob and Judy Martin, Nick’s parents, attend the race every year.
Bob Martin spoke emotionally about his late son.
“He was a good kid. He loved running, and girls, and he was looking forward to driving,” Martin said. “He was getting better and better, and I think he would’ve competed well at state.”
Judy Martin added that her son was considered “an old soul, who people just gravitated toward.”
Bob Martin said he enjoys sports and watching all the kids compete at the annual race.
“As long as they have this, we’ll be out here,” Martin said.
The boys’ and girls’ varsity and JV runners competed in 5K races. The middle school runners competed in 1.5K races.
The demanding course starts and ends on the Vista Grande soccer field and loops through the woods behind the high school. The varsity and JV races include two laps through the wooded part. The middle school races consist of one lap. Near the end of the first lap is a rugged climb up a steep hill.
Though some runners were smiling at the beginning, many admitted how much of a test of mental and physical endurance the race soon becomes.
“It was tiresome, I’m pretty bewildered,” said Merrick Tudor, an eighth-grader at Roosevelt Middle School who finished fourth in the first race of the day.
Tudor, who is the half-brother of Caroline Kaufman — a former East Mountain runner who captured several individual state championship titles in cross country and track — only had to climb the dreaded hill once.
The varsity and JV harriers climbed the hill twice — and for many of them, their focus shifted from clocking a fast time to simply completing the course.
Some runners walked up the hill. Some collapsed at the finish line.
“The hill is really hard, and it’s way worse the second time up,” said Pecos’ Lawrence Ragland, who won the boys varsity race with a time of 19-minutes, 23.65 seconds.
Host East Mountain won the boys team title with 48 points. Estancia was sixth with 151 points, while the Panthers boys team took second place with 61 points.
Andre LaJeunesse set the pace for the Timberwolves boys, finishing third in 20:44.86.
“My calves are really hurting,” LaJeunesse said, echoing Ragland with: “The second time up the hill, it kills you but you just gotta finish the race.”
East Mountain’s Joshua Komensky scampered across the finish line less than two seconds behind LaJeunesse to take fourth place.
“I was just trying to keep up with Andre,” Komensky said. “The course is difficult because of the hills, and a guy fell over — I almost had to hurdle him.”
Isaac Callahan, a ninth-grader from Estancia who was running the course for the first time, described the hill as “death-defying.”
Callahan’s teammate, Stephen Barela, finished 12th (21:52.75).
“You gotta dig deep because the second time you hit the hill your legs are burning, and I saw kids walking, just giving up,” Barela said. “I just pushed, and then you see the finish line and you’re like, ‘I gotta go,’ and I just bolted to the finish line.”
Another teammate, Clay Hedges, who played in Estancia’s football game the night before in Escalante and got home around 2:30 in the morning, said he was “running on very little sleep and a lot of honey,” but he still managed to run a 24.02.89 to finish 27th.
On the girls side, Highland’s Raven Thomas took first place in 23:43.73, edging Hornets teammate Makayla Lovato finished second at 23:54.31.
“It feels amazing, I’ve never won a race before,” Thomas said, adding, “I was worried because I heard how tough the course was.”
Thomas said she and Lovato were pushing each other throughout the race, with Lovato leading most of the way — until the second time up the hill. Then Thomas inched ahead.
“Oh my gosh, I was like, ‘Oh dang! I gotta catch up,’” Lovato said. “But my legs felt like tight Jello rubber bands.”
Trullinger led East Mountain, covering the course in 26:49.99. Trullinger was behind teammate Verity Gray until they reached the top of the hill the second time. That’s when Trullinger passed Gray and outkicked her down the homestretch.
“The adrenaline kicked in at the end of the race,” Trullinger said.
Gray, who finished 20th, said as challenging as the hill is, the mental aspect just prior to the climb may be just as grueling.
“Because you’re like, ‘Oh no, here it comes,’” Gray said. “I’d say the hill the second time is the hardest part physically, but the lead up to that hill is the hardest part mentally.”
Lyndi Otis led Estancia at 30th with a time of 31.17.40
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Otis said of the course. “I just tried my best not to quit, not to give up.”
McCurdy School won the girls varsity team title with a score of 46; Highland took second with 85 points; East Mountain was fourth with 124 points, while Estancia finished sixth with 151.
Giovenco said it’s important to keep the legacy of Nick Martin and the race going strong.
“It’s always a good day,” she said. “It’s heavy on the heart but it makes you feel good.”
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