FLR12 Day 2: The Runners are Coming, the Runners are Coming!

Comparatively speaking, Friday evening of the 12th running of the FL-Runners Cross Country Invitational was just a warm up for Saturday. By the first (GROC) race, the whole savory enchilada was just packed and oozing cheese…you know; final long straightaway/midway…I’m a photographer…lots of photogenic people…say cheese. Okay, so my imagery is not always easy to grasp.

Running icon Christin Wurth Thomas, representing Nike (the meet’s chief sponsor), was on hand to act as honorary starter for the Girls Race of Champions. As she was poised, starter’s pistol overhead, some wiseacre shouted “Hey Christin, when you hear the gun, remember that you’re not supposed to run in the race!” Now who could that have been?



Looking down the starting line of the ROC, I recognized the winners from just about every race I’d covered in the past couple of years. They were all there to determine—for October 1, 2011 at least—who was Queen for a Day.  Even the starter was fast. (Christin Wurth was a 2008 Olympian with a current PR of 15:21.35 in the 5K.) Wurth set up in the middle of the field, less than 100 feet from the runners, fired the gun, and still managed to get out of the way before they passed.

Without Wurth’s legs (those are her calves in the candid gallery), or a golf cart, I was forced to wait for the outcome of the ROC with the rest of the spectators at the finish line. However, I was not totally without resources. I had my very own race analyst—who is faster than any golf cart—to run it by me just as it happened.

“Kacy (Smith) took it out,” began Bryce Seymour. “Bridget (Blake) caught her, then it was Shelby (Davidson) and Olivia (Ortiz), and then Bridget again, and at the end Olivia caught up and Shelby followed her.”

Got that?

“I’m pretty sure it was 5:28 or 5:30 for the first mile,” she continued, “2? I don’t know. I guess it was like 11:25. You’d have to ask Bridget. She was up front at the time.”

So I did.

 “Shelby Davidson, Kacy Smith, Olivia, Bryce—I knew we’d be a tight pack the whole race. We definitely pushed each other,” Bridget began. “Coming out of the woods I felt pretty good, so I decided to pick it up. It felt like a good time to go. Afterwards, I realized it was a little early, but you learn as you go.”

A sentiment no doubt shared by more than one finisher in this race, including the eventual winner, Olivia Ortiz. Just a week earlier, at the Mt. Dew Invitational, that race came down to a similarly long, spectator-packed straightaway on the turf of the UF golf course. Davidson outran Ortiz by 16 seconds, finishing in 18:12.

“Coming into this race I knew it was going to be fast,” said Ortiz. “I’m just getting over a cold, so I didn’t know how I was going to run, or how I would feel. I knew that I couldn’t afford to lose contact, and if I did, it would be a lot harder to place.

“At two miles I was in third place. Shelby was within distance, and I followed her around the lake. I passed her after the lake area. There was a little gap; Bridget was ahead. Just before the turn (back) I passed her too.

“Considering that I’ve never been under 18—I ran 18:18 coming in—I thought, ‘This is what I’ve worked so hard for, to be in this position.’ (After that) I didn’t know how close anyone was behind me. I just wanted to finish strong. That 17:35(.82) was a huge PR.”

40 seconds, give or take a few hundredths. Had she paused a moment to look back, she would have seen that “they” were pretty close. Bridget Blake was second in 17:42.54 (a three second PR), Shelby Davidson third in 17:45.26 (a season’s best by 27 seconds), 9th grader Sarah Candiano fourth in 17:51.47 (a 1:04 PR), Bryce Seymour fifth in 17:58.18 (a 28 second PR), and Kacy Smith sixth in 18:09.3 (her season best by seven seconds). In addition to the five girls who ran 17s, 12 ran 18s, and two dozen ran 19s. That’s why they call it the Race of Champions.

Three of the top ten finishers—numbers four, seven, and nine*—run for Estero. Almost lost in the excitement a few places ahead, it is worth noting that #4, Kacy Smith, had early control of the race.

“I knew (Daesha) Rogers (18th in 19:00.04) would go out,” Kacy Smith began. “She does that in every race. But she didn’t go out as fast as we thought,” so Kacy took the early lead, “ and Shelby picked it up at two. Everybody started pushing the pace, and wanting to pull ahead.”

Katy Solis, the number two runner for Estero—she finished ninth in 18:26.13, a XC PR by 24 seconds—hung with the leaders for awhile.

“I try to do good for the team; go out with Kacy, but today I couldn’t stay with her,” Solis explained. “Going uphill, I usually catch up--and maybe in sand or mud—wherever the course changes.

“There was a lot of position switching in the final straightaway. They just had a better kick than me today, because I didn’t.”

While most teams wandered the midway in twos or threes, Estero traveled as a crowd, a sure sign of team cohesiveness. I asked a few of them about their role(s).

Bethany Jenkins, a sophomore (12th overall in 18:47.72): “I just try to keep up with them. It’s all I can do.”

Aja: “Bethany, you just want to beat all of them!”

Maria Frank, a junior (22nd in 19:13.94): “I’m the Mom.”

Katy: “She’s definitely the Mom.”

Kacy: “She’s in charge.”

Aja: “She has a first aid kit, in case anyone needs a band aid. She tells us, ‘Brush your teeth!’”

Alexa Cline, a sophomore (71st in 20:47.56): “I probably contribute team spirit and athletic ability.”

Meghan Slater, a sophomore (85th in 21:05.89): “I just try to do my best in running the meet, and to knock down a certain amount of time. I’m trying to get in the low 20s.”

Joey Story, a senior (113th in 22:47.14): “I’m #1 on JV. We ran ten today, so I ran with varsity. I see myself as another runner on a great team. My role? I’m here for motivation and support; a cheer leader. If I pass one of the girls I’ll say, ‘Come on and run with me!’”

Put that all together and you have the defending 2A State Champions: Smith (1st), Solis (6th), Frank (7th), Curth (12th), Slater (18th), and Cline (42nd). All back again for at least one more run at the title, perhaps two.

Kacy: “Me, Katy, Aja, and Maria will be graduating together in 2013.”

*These are team scoring positions. Places quoted in the story are overall places, and may be off a few places.


With a buildup like that, is it any surprise that Estero won? Although their 70 points here (4-7-9-18-32-33-63) was more than the 43 that won the 2010 2A State title, this race went all the way up to 4A enrollment. John Ferguson had 99 (16-17-19-22-25-27-31) and Lakewood Ranch 113 (1-12-15-42-43-53-72). 127 girls and 16 teams made the scoring sheets.


Most of the FHSAA track and cross country officials that I meet “on the road” are getting up there in years, and I sometimes kid them about needing “new blood.” Nowhere is this more evident than in cross country, where, after firing the gun, the starter has to sprint to keep from being trampled.

Prior to the meet, I teased the “backup starter”—at that time I didn’t realize that Wurth would perform his duties as a ceremonial starter for the GROC--I said, “I was just reading that for certification next year, FHSAA is going to require all starters to run the mile in under 7 minutes. He laughed, almost sure that I was kidding. I wonder, after seeing Wurth, if the specter of doubt crept into his mind.



Upon arriving at the meet, I noticed a girl uniformed in white and green, jogging ever-so-slowly by herself. The next time I saw her was in the lead of this race. In the results, it shows that Alex Eaton won in 18:50.09, a little over five seconds faster than Kelly Fahey, of Trinity Prep (18:55.98). In reality, Eaton’s lead could best be described as “comfortable.”  I asked her about it.

“I just run so much better when I’m relaxed and happy,” she explained. “I warm up a little more than my team. So today I warmed up with them for their part, and then kept going.”

Was she “relaxed and happy” because she felt beforehand that she would win?

“I looked at FLR and saw that I had one of the fastest times going into my race, so I decided to take it out hard and try to lead. After we got out of the first straightaway, I was leading with another girl. I think she had on a blue shirt.

“After a mile and a half, I pulled away. But then there was a pack of three girls 15 meters behind me. For awhile I was worried about them finishing ahead of me. I just kept telling myself that they were as tired as I was; to toughen up and go.”

Alex came into the meet with a 19:03 personal best, set on September 14th when she won the Green Devil Invitational. The St. Petersburg High School sophomore chopped 13 seconds off that time, and left with the Girls Invitational trophy.



This was the biggest race of FLRXII (31 teams and 253 runners), and the scores confirm it. Although evenly matched—or perhaps because they were—the first seven teams were within 90 points of each other, and all were in the 200s. Trinity Prep (2-11-30-72-85-138-141) was at the low end of the 200s; Cypress Lake (9-22-33-63-102-131-172) had 229 points, and Naples (19-20-53-79-82-99-117) had 253.

Long about this time a “new race” began to take form; “Cross Racing.” It wasn’t on the schedule, but every time I looked through my lens, there they were: runners in shorts, pants, and dresses; some ran, some walked, some walked with a limp, and one rode an electric scooter; most had two legs, but some had four; they carried cameras,  caramel corn, corn-dogs, regular dogs, chairs, umbrellas, and sno-cones. I caught some in photos taken in between the finishes of incoming runners, but many, many more can be seen in between runners. It surprised me that none of the finishers was tripped in the mayhem caused by this “synchronized crossing.”

If you don’t get my—or their—drift, I am describing the hordes of spectators that continually criss-crossed the fenced in chutes to “get a better look” as the runners ran from the start, to around the lake.

Short of an electric fence, little can be done to stop this passive anarchy—and race officials tried--so I have a suggestion: allow a leeeetle more time between races so this mass migration has some kind of predictability to it. Either that, or put in bleachers with seat belts.



There is fast, there is very fast, and there is Josh Brickell…and on that note, there is also the double entendre, “race of a champion.”

While many of us with aching feet can confess to having run a double, more of us respect the limits of the American interstate highway system. Lest I get ahead of myself, however, let’s return to the Boys Race of Champions.

“We knew he was coming,” began Elliot Clemente. “It was on the previews. I just went out and tried to run my race. My PR was 15:03 (Footlocker South, November 27, 2011), so I didn’t know…”

what was coming. Somewhere in the hinterlands of the Chain of Dreams, Brickell found the right combination of strategy and surges, and took control of the race.

“He’s a real racer,” Bartram Trail coach Paul Nowicki told me in a recent telephone conversation. “There are runners and there are racers. He picks his spots. He lets the other kids do all the work. He throws in surges. He’s a racer; it’s in his eyes.”

After winning in the ROC in 15:02.4—staying barely long enough to catch his breath—Brickell jumped in his parents’ car and headed north on I-95 towards Jacksonville, and more specifically Bartram Trail High School’s “Bale-n-Trail XC Original,” where meet director Paul Nowicki picks up the story.

“Josh's coach, Ron Clanton, is a friend of mine (35 years or so),” Paul wrote me in an e-mail, “and early in the summer he asked if I had any big names coming to our meet. He wanted Josh to ‘get some competition.’ In September, I suggested taking him to flrunners, as I was convinced that it would be more of an individual test.

“We go to the same camp during the summer, and I am well familiar with Josh's training (which would blow some people's minds) and his talent. At our graduation run, he did an 11 mile run up a mountain road in 75 minutes. And for him it wasn’t even hard. For me, that’s a hard drive.

“Ron and I talk two to three times a week, and I had little doubt that he would handle the flrunners field. Since our meet was a night meet, Ron gave Josh the option of running and nursing some of his teammates along. Ron had checked with the Georgia High School Association to see if it was allowable, and they gave their blessing.

“He is an incredible kid and did just that. As it turned out he did nurse his teammates along, and after sitting in about 60th place until a mile to go, took off and finished sixth (16:27.46).”

His team, Peachtree Ridge High School from Suwanee, Georgia (northeast of Atlanta), placed second (3-6-24-31-34-39-60) with 98 points. (Bishop Kenny won with 72 (9-11-14-17-21-35-46).

“Josh keeps a low profile, and runs just to win. He is a great kid, and a 4.5 student. He is currently a junior, and I think may be one of the best (if not the best) to ever come out of the south.”

“Out of the south” seems an invitation to describe the entire episode. First the Brickells drove 501 miles from Suwanee, Georgia to Titusville, Florida. Josh ran a 5K (add 3.1 miles). Then they drove 115 miles to Jacksonville (add another 3.1 miles), then another 386 miles back to Suwanee. Two races, three days, and 1008.2 miles, give or take a warmup; the race of a champion.


With Josh Brickell running unattached, Belen Jesuit runners scored 1-7-8-9-25-29-45 to finish first with 50 points. Second with 130 was Christopher Columbus (11-12-18-43-46-50-69), and in third was Trinity Prep (6-14-32-59-60-74-93; 171 points).


On the subject of cross country driving, I was very glad to see that AAA Auto Club had joined the list of FLR XII sponsors. I’ve been a member since the early 1990s, and as each of my kids got their own license, I added them to my membership. I never know when one of them is going to have a flat tire, need an emergency gallon of gas, or a tow. That goes without mentioning travel information, emergency cash, or bail. (Hey, they’re kids.)

Although one of the great minds in running, Jason Byrne was not the first to think of the connection between AAA and our favorite sport. Way back in the early 80s, I was in Gainesville to interview Barry Brown (the first, and therefore the fastest 40 year old of the “running class of 1972”) at his house, and Marty Liquori stopped by. The  former high school sub-four minute miler suggested that we all go on a run. I couldn’t bring myself to be honest. (“Well, no guys. You run four minute miles and I run eights, and if I try to stay with you, I’ll probably have a heart attack.) So off we went.

About a mile or two into the run Liquori pulled up and said, “Hang on a minute, there’s something wrong with my shoe.” So he took off his one of his shoes, turned it over, and there was a nail sticking out of his Nike Air Sole. Rather spontaneously, he quipped, “I think I’ve got a flat.” At that moment, I had an epiphany. Runners could use AAA coverage.

Unfortunately, I was born way ahead of my time. It would be decades before cell phones would be small enough to carry on a run.  Sometimes brilliant ideas have to wait for technology to make them possible.



At some point, no matter how dedicated you are towards cross country, so many runners have passed by that you get distracted and start thinking about other things, like free t-shirts. This is not to say that Mark Mutz’s victory in the Boys Invitational was any less important than that of any other runner who was first across in a race. It’s just that I could not track him down. I even looked for the Lakeland Christian bus. Unfortunately, when I found it, we were both on I-95, heading south at 70 miles an hour.

You know how dangerous it is to text message while driving? Well, so do I, but I didn’t want Mark to think that I didn’t care, so I carefully hand-wrote a couple of short questions on a piece of lined notebook paper, and folded it into an aerodynamic jet that an Embry Riddle runner/aeronautical student once showed me how to make. My plan was to drive alongside the bus and fling it into an open window.

I was quickly closing the gap—still doing 70--when up ahead a pickup blew a tire. Apparently he didn’t have AAA, and had to keep going. Also doing 70, he was swerving all over 95, but holding his position right behind the Lakeland bus, and preventing me from getting close enough to launch.

Right before exit 215 (Cheney Hwy.), the truck’s front axle broke, sending debris flying all over the roadway, and forcing me to exit. And the bus kept going. Sorry Mark, but you know how these things can happen….Wait, weren’t you supposed to be in the Race of Champions? Did you miss your race?

Mark’s time was 16:03.34, just shy of his 16:02.32 PR, tenth at the FHSAA 1A Cross Country Championships on November 20, 2010.


Fort Myers, with 100 points (1-11-14-30-44-54-74), Cocoa Beach with 136 (20-22-24-28-42-73), and Circle Christian with 145 (3-9-36-40-57-106-108) were the first three teams. 253 runners and 30 teams crossed the finish line.

Speaking of free t-shirts, at the meet there was a truck load of black shirts labeled “Hope Less” on the front, and “Kick More” on the back. They were actually an idea created by PETA for distribution at the annual week-long Running with the Bulls Festival in Seville, Spain. (To be distributed to Spanish school children.) But they were inadvertently addressed Seville, Florida, and, well, you know how the USPS is having its problems. As it turned out, PETA liked the idea of people running instead of bulls, and decided to drive them over to a Running Festival instead. At any rate, when the announcement was made that “We have 400 free t-shirts to give away,” it created a frenzy that—luckily—was captured on film. I call it “running to a t”. It went over so well that next year there will be a t-shirt race at FLR XIII.

Actually I made all that up.  What I really want to say is: Thank you, Nike, for your shirts, and your generous support of this meet. Florida loves Nike!



Not that her Mt. Dora teammates are complaining, but junior Ashley Heitling was supposed to run in the Girls’ Race of Champions.

“I was going to run against the big runners in the Race of Champions at 8:00,” she said in a filmed interview, “and my team was going to run at 9:30. We were on the way to the meet (with my Mom) and instead of turning north on US 1, we turned south on US 1.”

WWJD? (Remember, he’s a guy.)

“So we stopped at two gas stations and asked two guys, ‘Is Brevard College this way?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, keep going. Then we asked an Indian lady, and she said ‘No, it’s the other way.’ But there were two guys, and that’s a majority.”

Another way to look at it is 2 x 2= 4: (Men are two times as likely to have dyslexia, and there were two of them. So now the Heitlings were four times as likely to get totally lost.)

In all honesty, however, all three were correct. There are actually four Brevard College campuses within driving distance; three in Florida and another in Brevard, North Carolina.

“It turns out that we went to the Brevard College campus, but it was the Cocoa Beach campus, and not the Titusville campus. Then we turned around, but I missed one of the biggest races of my junior year.”

But did she?  Probably because, at this point, her adrenaline was off the charts, and she still got to run, she turned the Girls Varsity into a personal triumph. As a bonus, she has a story to tell.

“It was crazy, but I got to run. I’m really happy to break 19, because I haven’t had a good course to run.” (Think, Mt. Dora) “This was a great course to run your best, and I was really proud. I didn’t have those girls in the Race of Champions, but I pushed myself and ran for time.”

That time, 18:39.92, is 32 seconds faster than her previous best (19:11), which was set at the September 24th Mountain Dew Meet at UF. Such a cascade of good times can be traced to a solid base built over this past summer.

“The biggest difference this year is my coach. He got me on a plan to run mileage every week, and do speed workouts twice a week. This helped so much, because the summer before my sophomore year, that whole summer I was just running by myself.”

Something, as it turns out, that she seems to do quite well. In this race, she finished a minute and 11 seconds ahead of the next runner (Lauren Gillespy, of Father Lopez; 19:50.03).


A relatively small field for this meet (21 teams and 173 runners) showed a lot of heart. Four teams finished within ten points of each other: Jensen Beach, with 151 (10-13-32-43-53-58-60); East Lake, with 155 (15-16-34-35-55); Tavaras, 156 (4-19-31-46-56-61-78); and New Smyrna Beach, 161 (23-24-36-37-41-42-64).

Question: Why is the voice on a GPS feminine, instead of masculine?

Answer: You simply can’t trust a man’s directions. For starters, it is estimated that men are two to three times more likely to have dyslexia than women, and 21% of today’s prison population has dyslexia. This is probably why men rarely ask for directions. Women, on the other hand, have a "tend and befriend" strategy when faced with stress, and when lost probably will ask. Which is okay…just don’t ask a man.  (Unlike the bull shirt story, all this is true…on my scout’s honor…not that I’ve ever been one.)



Like the winner of the Girls Varsity race before his own, junior Jims Thimogene seems poised to make a jump to the next level. His most recent stats point to a breakthrough year--a 16:45.50 second place finish at The Fleet Feet Invitational last week, and a 16:53.64 runaway victory here--an improvement that he credits to his coaches.

“I have to thank my coaches. This summer’s training, which I did for the first time, helped out perfectly. My goal is to break 16. I really think I can do it this year. It’s going to take hard work, persistent training, and I have to keep on pushing.”

But first he has to change his role of a race follower, to that of a race leader.

“I’m working on that right now; run by myself, being able to lead myself. Usually I depend on the first person, or the second person. I wanted to go out a little bit faster (today), but I guess I was by myself and didn’t have to push.”

And after this win?

“Now I’m focused on leading myself and winning the race.”


St. Petersburg High School was the only team with less than 100 points, but with 22 teams and 175 runners, a win none the less. They had 89 (2-5-20-28-34-50), New Smyrna Beach had 119 (4-17-21-35-42-55-59), and Tavaras 156 (8-13-29-48-58-66-130).


No one can argue that a strong summer running program is essential towards building a solid base before the season. But what form should it take? Should you rest up, heal old running wounds and then pace yourself as you gradually build up mileage? Should you stay at home in Florida, and train hard under weather conditions that will certainly linger throughout the state’s tortuous cross country season? Should you spend wads of money, and seek a running camp in the mountains, thus torturing oneself in a different way, on the off-chance that you might be one of the select few that sees a hill in an out-of-state, post-season race? Or should you remember that you’re only young once, and a lifetime of work will come soon enough, sacrificing time for, well, times? Tough choices.

It seems to me that after three months of serious training—14 weeks max—fatigue and injury come knocking on a runner’s door. Timing being imperative to a runner’s success, that might answer a lot of questions.



In the sport of rowing racing shells—other than singles--it’s really tough to figure out who your best athletes are in two, four, and eight man competition.  After all, they work as a team. So one way to select the best crew is to keep switching rowers from boat to boat to boat. The best will keep showing up in the results.

At Spruce Creek, apparently that is true in cross country as well. Hand it to the Hawks, not only to win the meet, but also to find a way to put at least one athlete on the top step of the podium. In this case, it was in the next-to-last race.

“It was my first really big meet,” Monet Bartell admitted. “I ran in Deland two weeks ago, and Orange City-University last week.”

In Deland, her very first cross country race (with 138 runners entered), Monet finished 2nd in the JV race (22:47). SC won with 15 points. So when they ran the Titan Invitational (Orange City-University), they moved her up to varsity. She finished 14th (10th on the team) in 23:22, and they won with 19 points.  54 ran in that one. Back down to JV at FLR XII: first overall (238 entered) in 21:58.33, and SC won again, with 38. In other words, no boat should leave the dock without Bartell at the oarlocks.

“I think I took the lead, probably, in the second mile. It went back and forth, everyone rotating. I saw someone in blue. That’s all I remember. Then, just before the chute, I really stepped it up.”



Since I already let the cat out of the bag, I will sum it up by saying that Lake Mary (98 points; 4-10-12-19-53-54-70) and Norcross (102 points; 2-20-24-25-31-33-37) were next after Spruce Creek.


So far, I have never had anyone turn me down for a mug shot.  Oh, I sometimes hear, “Why me?” But truth be told, we all have something interesting to offer, either by way of style or form, and as long as the photograph is in good taste, everyone who views it is enriched by its content.

The devious side of me occasionally wonders just how far one might go to seize his “15 minutes of fame.”  (This oft-quoted idiom is attributed to Andy Warhol--circa late 1960s--who said "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”) So I pose this question: Within the boundaries of good taste and running decorum, what would you do to be featured in a future montage of running-themed photographs? You are invited to e-mail me through this website. Your response might be featured in an article, and if you’re really clever, in a photo.


Could it be that Belen Jesuit has yet another Elliot Clemente waiting in the wings? After just four races in his life, ninth grader Ryan Rodriguez ran a solid varsity time—17:22.90—to beat not only the rest of his team (a feat in itself), but a whopping field of 349 other JV runners!

“I just wanted to go hard, and help my teammates do better.”

And after today?

“I want to get low 17s, maybe break 17; keep running hard, push my teammates.

Short, and pointed. But you get the feeling that he expresses himself best with his running.


In their heyday—while amassing a string of 88 straight NCAA wins—there was no question that the John Wooden coached UCLA Bruins was the best basketball team in the country. The running joke then was “Who is #2?” And the answer? “It’s sitting on their bench.”

An analogy can be drawn about Belen Jesuit’s JV squad. Sure, the “A” five was first with 15 points (1-2-3-4-5), but right behind them was the “B” five with 47 (6-8-10-11-12). With all due respects to Trinity Prep (114 points; 9-10-27-32-36-49-81) and Spruce Creek (127 points; 7-15-29-33-43-50-55)—teams that would win anywhere else, when BJ shows up at a meet, lock up the extra hardware!

As I wind down after a (cumulative) 32 hours—over three days-- in front of my computer(s), I think the best thing about the FL-Runners meets is that they occur only once a year. It takes that long to recover. Right, Jason? Jason? I guess he’s still asleep.

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