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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
American Fork's Katie Cornell, center, tries to catch her breath after completing her leg of the race as teammates tell her that their team broke the 1999 record in the American Fork Grass Relays at American Fork High School on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014.
It’s just something fun and different. —Bingham head coach Lisa Paxton

AMERICAN FORK — It’s their home track, their home course, but for reasons no one could quite articulate, the American Fork girls cross-country team has always struggled in the relay race it hosts at the start of every prep season.

In fact, the girls have struggled so mightily that Cavemen head girls coach Bruno Hunziker and assistant Lindsey Dunkley told this year’s runners to consider the event training rather than stressing its competitive aspects.

The approach worked as the American Fork girls team not only won the varsity relay race, it shattered a 15-year-old record.

“In years past, this is always our most terrible race, for whatever reason,” Dunkley said after the five-person team covered 10 miles in 62:03, beating the old record set by Bingham in 1999 by 29 seconds. “Our history with this race is to barely finish eighth. We keep blowing up, so we tried to take the pressure off of them. I also think it helped them to open up last week (at the Highland Invitational).”

The American Fork Grass Relays are unique in format, and also in how coaches utilize the event to help their runners develop, grow and gauge their summer training. While normal cross-country races are three miles with all of the varsity runners competing at the same time, the relay is a 10-mile race made up of five two-mile legs.

“It’s just something fun and different,” said Bingham head coach Lisa Paxton, whose lead-off runner, Marlee Mitchell, earned the fastest individual split of the day for the girls with an 11:47. “This is not your typical cross-country race. … This is a fun race, they get to jump over barrels, and the varsity girls can actually cheer for each other.”

Hunter’s head coach Ed Morrell said it emphasizes the team concept, which is uniquely important to high school and college programs.

“Team titles are more important, to tell you the truth,” he said. “It gives all seven athletes (on a varsity team) the opportunity to contribute to the team’s scoring, as opposed to just the top one or two guys or girls. And this is just a nice break from the typical 5K events.”

The day starts with freshmen and sophomores running a typical three-mile cross-country race. That’s followed by juniors and seniors running a standard race. The culmination of the competition is the five-person relay, made up of the five fastest members of each program’s varsity squad. This year there were 26 boys teams and 25 girls teams competing in the day-long races.

The American Fork boys also won Saturday’s race, and they were just two seconds off the pace, despite having one runner struggling to come back from an injury. Led by Zac Jacklin, who had the fastest split of the day with a 9:57, the Cavemen boys team won with a time of 51:48. Defending 3A state champion Desert Hills was second with a time of 52:58.

American Fork head cross-country coach Timo Mostert said the unique race can do a number of things for a team.

“First, we have so many rookies who come with their teams, and this might be their first time ever running a cross-country race,” Mostert said. “So this gets them to start understanding how fun cross-country is.”

It also can help focus runners on what’s most important in high school competition.

“Cross-country, in any race, is a team race,” Mostert said. “So maybe just starting with the relay, it does give the varsity guys a little more focus on the idea that every single guy is important.” That was certainly the case for the American Fork girls as the possibility of breaking Bingham’s 15-year-old record became a reality as their third runner, Lexie Green, took off with a substantial lead over the pack.

Sammy Hollingsworth ran the team’s fastest split of 12:07 to start the race and Maddie Bench followed her with a 12:18.

“My goal today was just to go out and have fun and trust my training,” Bench said. “There were moments throughout where I felt really tired, of course, but I just tired to think of all the hard work our team has put in. I just kept thinking, ‘My body is tough.’ Everybody cheering really helped me.”

Green said she felt some pressure to hold onto the lead, but that may have been an advantage.

“I felt a little bit of pressure to hold onto the lead, but that helped me run better,” she said, acknowledging that running alone can be difficult. “I didn’t realize how much of a lead I got until after.”

When junior Sophie Baird took the baton from Green, the team’s lead was almost insurmountable. Still, she felt like she had to push hard because the focus had become beating the course record.

“I think I gave it my all mentally because I was just out there on my own,” she said. “That’s one of the fun challenges is trying to push yourself when you’re by yourself.” Understanding how to hold a pace is key to successful racing, Mostert said.

“When they start understanding pace and what it feels like to run at different paces, that is when they start racing really well because they’re not keying off of someone else,” Mostert said. “They’re keying off of their own abilities and their own level.”

It was junior Katie Cornell who had the task of finishing the race for the Cavemen girls team.

“I knew about the record, but I just tried to go out and have the best race I could, even though there wasn’t anybody pushing me,” she said. “And I tried to have fun. … I felt some pressure, just with all the girls doing so good. I didn’t want to be the one who didn’t get (the record).”

Bench said breaking the record is a huge confidence boost.

“I think this kind of helped us realize the potential that we have,” said the senior. “I think that we just need to keep working hard like we have been and have confidence in our abilities and just keep working together. I knew we had a good summer, but I don’t think we realized. This helped us see how our training has paid off.”

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