ROYAL CITY — The beauty of cross country is that it doesn’t matter if you come from Los Angeles or Royal City, start the clock, stop the clock — what do ya got?
It doesn’t matter if you’re tall or small, man or woman, or a little kid competing in a man’s world. Time tells all. It’s just you and the course and that’s the way three-time 1A state championship qualifier Kay Lester from Royal City likes it. The gun goes off and it’s on you to make the best of it.
“The mental part of it is so challenging. It pushes you to a wall in your mind that you have to break through,” said Lester, whose best finish at the 1A cross country championships is 23rd place. “It’s physically demanding. You’re running so fast for so long. I really enjoy the mental and the physical challenges when I run.”
It must feel all right, all the time, because the Royal senior has finished in the top 10 of every race so far this season. She was eighth in the 60-runner field at the Moses Lake Invitational, running against some of the best 4A programs in the Pacific Northwest. She was fourth at the Apple Ridge Invite Division III race. Lester gave them a taste of Royal Knights tradition in the 115-runner field at the Wenatchee Invitational where she clocked 19 minutes, 39.30 seconds to place sixth in an exceptional field.
“Kay started with us when she was in the middle school program,” Knights coach Ben Orth said. “The Wenatchee meet was a great race for sure, but I would say her best race of the season was this last league meet (with Connell, Goldendale, LaSalle, at Goldendale Golf Course). She beat three runners she’s never beaten before.
“The thing I like about her, outside the running, she’s just a great kid to be around.”
Lester clocked 19:47.00 to win at Goldendale and the week before that she posted 21:01 to place second in the SCAC meet with Goldendale, Granger, College Place on the home course at the Royal Golf Course.
She was just a seventh grader when she started taking this cross country thing seriously. She has put in the work and she’s gaining momentum.
Royal City is a football town. They work the orchards, they work on the farms. They know an honest day’s work and they support their own.
When you don the black and gold it means something, no matter what the sport. The girls cross country program won SCAC District championships in 2012-13. The Knights are the defending SCAC East League champions, also winning in 2013-14. It’s a big deal to represent your school and your town.
“Wearing black and gold means representing my school in a good way. When I put that on, it definitely means something,” said Lester, who hopes to run at the collegiate level next year. “I train with the guys just because they really push me to train as hard as I can. I have high goals this year and they’re really pushing me to get there.”
The feeling is mutual. She’s forcing the boys to train harder, because there ain’t a guy in this world that wants to get beat by a girl.
Lester’s racing style has changed over the years. She was just a 12- 13-year-old when she started training. It didn’t take long to understand she had to work hard during the summer if she wanted to run tough in the fall. You can only race as hard as you train, she says.
Used to be she’d go out comfortable and pick up the pace as the race developed. She’s starting to go out harder as she has gotten stronger. Now she can run with the lead pack and is a force to be reckoned with.
“I used to go out with the idea of having a really fast second half. But my senior year, I’m going out harder and continuing to pick it up as the race goes on,” she said. “In a big field, you have to go out fast, because if you get boxed it’s a lot of work to get back to the top group.
“I like to run with the lead pack because I’m able to.”
Lester runs with the big dogs because she can. But In the end, it’s just her and the course and the one willing to bare their soul when lungs are burning and legs are spent, is the one that wins.
Rodney Harwood is a sports writer for the Columbia Basin Herald and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org