LA runners head to nationals meet

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By Mike Cote

Its name is mud. Or if it isn’t, it should be.Mud, and plenty of it, will be what the contingent of Los Alamos runners will be seeing during Saturday’s Nike Team Nationals event. The event, bankrolled by Nike, Inc., will be held in Portland, Ore.The team, comprised of runners from the Los Alamos Hilltopper prep cross country squad, goes under the moniker of Los Alamos XC. Because the New Mexico prep season is over, the team won’t technically be running for Los Alamos High School.However, the distinction is mostly just a technicality.The team practiced Tuesday night through the slop and cold at North Mesa in preparation for Saturday’s race, which will be primarily a slop race.The course, while mostly flat, is expected to be muddy because of the prevalent rain that’s soaked the Portland area for most of this week, and is expected to continue through Friday.Additionally, the course will be littered with some artificial obstacles in some areas. Among those obstacles are small piles of dirt that come one right after another in one area, along with some strategically-placed hay bales that the runners must leap over.“All these little things are sort of conducive to our kids,” Los Alamos coach Rob Hipwood said of the course obstacles. “It turns what would otherwise be a flat course into a strength course…it requires a lot of different muscular contractions in a short amount of time.”Los Alamos left from Albuquerque’s Sunport Thursday morning, chaperoned by a team parent — rules forbid coaches Rob and Kathy Hipwood to travel directly with the team — and fly on Nike’s nickel to Portland.The weekend in Portland is going to be a full one, with numerous activities and meetings going on up until race time.But Los Alamos’ contingent shouldn’t be caught by surprise.Last year, Los Alamos was selected to attend the NTN event, and five of the competitors from that team — Allen Pittman, Kyle Pittman, Gareth Gilna, Tom Witherell and Tom Bowidowicz — will be traveling to the event this year as well. Andrew Vierra and Kevin Hemphill, who were on the Hilltopper varsity squad this season, are also slated to run.Because of their experience — the team finished 13th among 20 teams in 2006 — and because of its outstanding prep season just passed, Los Alamos has some lofty goals going into NTN.It wants a “podium finish,” to finish in the top four and be brought up to the podium as the results are announced.Although it will be a tough goal, especially considering Los Alamos is competing among the top clubs in the nation, it’s one the team feels is realistic.“It’s definitely attainable,” Vierra said. “A lot of teams are going in thinking the same thing we are…but the goal is to stay as focused as we can.”While Los Alamos was selected to compete in previous years, it had to earn its trip to the NTN at a regional qualifying race this year.At the Southwest Regional, held Nov. 17 in Tempe, Ariz., Los Alamos finished in a virtual dead-heat with Albuquerque Academy’s cross country club. Each team finished with 93 points, but the Academy squad eked out the team title by virtue of a better finish from its sixth runner.Just the week before in the New Mexico Class AAAA state championship race, Los Alamos upset Academy to take the team state title. Los Alamos placed five runners in the top 11 individually, knocking off Academy by a margin of just six points.In that race, Witherell and Bowidowicz turned in what will be legendary performances for Los Alamos, finishing 10th and 11th overall to cement one of the biggest upsets in recent state meet memory.Academy, which boasts AAAA two-time champion Ben Johnson amid a powerful lineup in its own right, is no stranger to NTN. It finished seventh in last year’s competition, with Johnson finishing as national runner-up.The Los Alamos team has been curtailing its high-mileage workouts for several weeks in preparation for the postseason. However, the team feels going in that conditioning won’t be an issue.“I think they’re in great shape, physically and mentally,” Hipwood said. “They’re excited, and they’ve felt strong physically for the last few weeks.”Vierra said the team has, in addition to its workouts, been doing the little things, such as making sure to stay hydrated and getting to bed at reasonable times.Vierra said he knows grabbing one of the top team slots in Portland will be a challenge, but it would be cap off what has already been a remarkable season for the squad.“We did surprise ourselves a little bit,” Vierra said of the Tempe regional. “But the biggest surprise was winning the state meet. When we did that, we realized we could do some really great things.”

NTN to be streamed live on webThe Nike Team Nationals will have a live video stream for Saturday’s race in Portland, Ore.The race will be streamed on two sites, www.niketeamnationals.com and dyestat.com.Saturday’s boys championship race will start at 11:30 a.m. MST.