It might be a 3.1-mile course, but the first mile can be the start and finish for some at Saturday's Western Massachusetts cross country race.
The race will be held at Northfield Mountain, a course notorious for its hills and challenging start.
"The first third of a mile can make or break the race," Hoosac Valley coach Ron Namislo said. "Most of our kids are pretty well used to it. A lot of kids have run it a few times, they know it's tough."
The Western Mass. Championships are held at Northfield every season and most of the runners have become familiar with the hilly and challenging course.
"This is one of my favorite courses, really because of the hills," Hoosac sophomore Travis Ciempa said. "The only hard part is the first hill, once you get over it you're having fun."
Last season, Mount Greylock's Emily Kaegi took first place on the course to help lead her team to the Division II title. The Mounties placed four runners in the top 10 and Kaegi finished the course in 20 minutes, 29 seconds.
The Mount Greylock boys also won the Division II title last season.
"I had so much fun on it last year," Kaegi said. "I just love the course and really do have so much fun running on it. I think that is key when running such a tough course, like Northfield. If you can smile and have fun on it, you'll be in better shape."
Including practice runs, this will be her eighth time running on the course. Only teammate Kat Chenail has more experience on the course. The senior placed eighth last year.
Kaegi was a sophomore when she claimed the crown last year. The two runners directly behind her were juniors. Frontier's Natalie Mako and Hampshire's Brittany Dalton took second and third, respectively, and are both expected to be back at the race this season. Whoever has a better start on the opening hill could go a long way toward deciding the race.
"The first hill is just awful," Kaegi said. "You know your legs are going to be dead at the top of it, but as soon as I get to the top of that first hill I know good things are coming."
The junior cited the scenery as one of the reasons she enjoys the course. That same enjoyable scenery could also make it even tougher for runners this year, however.
"We went there this Tuesday to check out the course and I'm really worried about the leaves," Ciempa said. "The leaves on the course can be slippery and make it tougher."
Lenox's Scott Carpenter appears to be the favorite to win the boys race after winning last season and going unbeaten this year. Greylock's Will Kirby finished fifth last year and Carter Stripp took 21st overall. Ciempa took 10th overall and qualified for states.
On the girls' side, the individual race appears to be wide open. Kaegi is the defending champion, but the field will be difficult with both Mako and Dalton returning. Hoosac Valley's Kalyn Alibozek won the Berkshire County meet this season and has added herself to the mix of possible winners.
"I think Mako from Frontier and Kalyn are going to be the co-favorites out front," Greylock girls coach Larry Bell said. "I think there might be a little bit of a gap after that, but Emily and Kat should be up there."
The top three teams will qualify for the state race, as will the top 10 runners that are not on those teams.
The Mount Greylock boys have won the Western Mass. title for the past two seasons and will look to defend it once again. Coach Scott Burdick believes Lenox and Monu ment Mountain will be the two toughest teams in the race for his team to overcome.
"We should be in the top three teams. I know Lenox and Monument are tough but so are we," Burdick said. "We're very healthy and the kids are running the best they have all season. We've won it the past two years and we know what it takes to win because we've been there."
The Greylock girls have also won two years in a row, but they know it's not necessarily the teams that they have to worry about.
"It's a brutal course. The first mile is up hill and then it's all rolling hills and downhills," Greylock junior Jenna Phelps said. "We have to really run what we think is best, and I think coach has done a great job preparing us for that."
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