Sweaty and completely spent, the North Central High School Cross Country team gathered together near the podium awaiting the official results of the Nike National Championship race. Every runner had raced with a chip, not unlike the ones at Bloomsday, and the real time results had been beamed into a giant reader board each time a competitor passed a kilometer on the 5-kilometer course. This marked a rare occasion when the parents and coaches could follow their team’s overall place in the midst of the biggest high school race in the nation.

But, somehow, one of the NC runners wasn’t showing up correctly – the computer didn’t acknowledge one of their top four runners. Even worse, senior Adam Reid was racing with only one shoe! At the starting line, he was spiked by another runner’s shoe, and somehow lost his own shoe in the jostle. Next, with about 500 meters left in the race, the officials switched the reader board off to protect the results and allow for any executive review of a photo finish. The NC team believed they had done well, but perhaps not good enough. Slowly, unofficial whispers noted that, at the very least, they placed in the top four.

NC Cross County Coach Jon Knight reported a suspenseful pause right before fourth place was announced. Seeing his runners fade in the second half of the race, the possibility of earning a trophy seemed a long way off. It’s impossible to summarize his thoughts at that moment but fourth place was quite reasonable considering three members of the team had been spiked along the course, senior Jeff Howard had battled flu-like symptoms all week leading up to the race, and Reid lost a shoe. But, fourth place went to The Woodlands (Texas).

Then cheers erupted when third place was called for Naperville.

Next, the announcer hesitated, and failed to cover the microphone adequately. He muttered something to the effect of “Is this right?” Then the announcer awarded second place to York High School from Elmhurst, Illinois, and confirmed the North Spokane runners as the champions.

At that moment the North Central team felt an electric excitement so big they could barely stay inside their own skin. National Cross Country Champions! The first team west of the Mississippi River to earn that coveted top spot. This win capped a brilliant season, and, with good reason, caught the attention of the national running media as well as several Division 1 colleges. Clearly this cemented the long-standing notion that Spokane raises some of the country’s best high school distance runners.

Yet, the national title was only half the story. The genesis for this moment formed a long time ago. Long before Spokane launched Bloomsday, the local prep schools had earned some notoriety for winning cross-country titles and championships.

Oddly enough, coinciding with the start of the 2008 cross country season, Running Times magazine released their Special High School Issue, and it contained an article about runner-up Elmhurst cross country. Coach Joe Newton of York High School possesses an incredible legacy of 26 state championships, 11 second-place finishes and 3 third-place trophies in 48 years. Nobody, not even the Portland Meadows announcer at Nationals, thought a little 3A team from Spokane could beat the mighty Dukes from York High.

In the very same issue of Running Times, there’s a little chart on page 39 with a column of high school boys that lists the #1 Ranked 2-miler in the nation per year starting in 1959. Scanning the list of 50 names, I immediately noted Spokane’s greatest runner of all time: Gerry Lindgren. Running for Rogers High School, he cut loose a remarkable time of 8:40 back in 1964. That high school record remained unbeaten for over 40 years – arguably the longest record in high school track. Then I noticed Rick Riley from Ferris also on the list. Next I noticed Chris Lewis from Mead, followed by Micah Davis from Mead. The article that contained the chart focused on an entirely different point. Nonetheless, the best nationwide, high school 2-mile records spoke for themselves. Evidently, in a 50-year period, the Greater Spokane League hosted 8% of the nation’s fastest 2-milers. That’s more than any other State.

Last November, the Spokesman Review highlighted Micah Davis alongside his state champion brothers, Nathan and Matthew. In a nutshell, Micah was a two-time All-American in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and two-time Pac-10 champion for the Oregon Ducks. He earned the Outstanding Athlete Award in 1998, plus he was on the Oregon cross-country team that placed third in 1996, the year his brother Matthew (another Mead runner with multiple State Championships) was fifth in the race. There’s little doubt one could find similar accolades for all of the #1 Ranked 2-milers, but they don’t all come from the same town.

When I relayed this finding to NC Assistant Coach Len Long, he joked, “Must be something in the water!”

When I reported this summary of the 2-mile legacy to Coach Knight, he shrugged and noted similar observations from other writers and bloggers. It was obvious he’s a history teacher first and a coach second by the way he drew his responses from multiple sources. Though some of his answers were too humble, he was quick to point out that this North Central National Championship season is all part of a running program, and this notoriety follows three consecutive 3A State Championships. None of this recent success happened overnight.

Knight works hard to make sure his runners can attend running camps, that they have adequate training incentive in the off season, and he is really keen on making sure his runners do most of their training on trails rather than unforgiving pavement. They mix up their training with games of Ultimate Frisbee, and the team notches a few hundred hours of community service. They’re a very tight band of brothers that hold each other accountable at workouts. “And boy do they sing a lot! Not just occasionally, but whenever. And some of them are pretty good.” Further proof that every guy on the team is comfortable with the rest of the guys.

As far as Spokane’s distance running heritage, Knight alluded to a collection of factors. One, Spokane has fairly good running weather – none of the South’s blistering heat or the impossible humidity of the Midwest. Two, there’s a hint of elevation – just enough so that Spokane runners fair well around the Puget Sound and in the lower elevation of the Tri-Cities. Three, whereas some parts of the US are ‘basketball country’ ergo Indiana, or ‘football country’ ergo Texas, one can argue that the Inland Northwest is ‘running country’. How else can you explain why a community this size has four superb local marathons?

At the Nike Nationals, Dave Devine, senior editor for DyeStat (a division of ESPN), wrote, “Spokane, Washington, has long been considered an American Rift Valley among prep distance fans. North Spokane XC, ranked US#1 throughout the regular season as North Central WA, is the latest team to emerge from this traditional hotbed of high school talent, following in the footsteps of Mead and Ferris, among others.”

Truth be told, the GSL running heritage genuinely includes every school in the GSL. Of course most people, myself included, immediately reflect on the banner years of Mead high school under Coach Pat Tyson. But Coach Knight produced a very keen chart that truly surprised me. Essentially, he tallied up all the Top-4 finishes at the Washington State Cross Country Meet clear back to 1959, and he plainly illustrated how every school had multiple finishes on the podium. This even includes the smaller or younger schools such as Gonzaga Prep, East Valley, even Mount Spokane. Whereas Mead boasts an impressive 27 Top-4 finishes, the fact still remains that each school in the GSL plays a part in the ownership of the Washington State high school cross country running title, and it doesn’t appear to be losing steam anytime soon.

When I presented these stats to Coach Tyson, he responded, “It simply validates why Spokane is a hotbed for prep distance running in America. The coaches get it here. Young athletes ‘feed off each other’ because they’re connected to the rich history. Most importantly the coaches continue to lay the foundation of Spokane being fertile ground for excellence in our sport.”

Without question, Pat Tyson has changed the face of Spokane cross-country more than any other coach or runner. Now the Cross Country/Track Coach at Gonzaga University, his high school coaching credentials read like a wish list. Tyson signed on at Mead in 1986 and by the time he had left the Panthers at the end of the 2004 school year he had produced 12 State Cross Country team titles, nine individual cross country champions and 17 individual track and field distance champions (1,600 meters and above). Several of his distance runners also dot the All-Time Top 100 List for the state of Washington.

Now that he’s at Gonzaga University, some would say he’s just getting started.

Tyson elaborated, “Basically, each of the high schools have coaches who are caught up in our sport. Most leagues have one or two coaches that care. The Greater Spokane League has several men and women coaches who understand what it takes to be very, very good. They’re not coaching for the money. They don’t accept mediocrity. They live the dream every day. Plain and simple, no slackers in the GSL.”

Just to insure I heard from an unbiased yet knowledgeable source, I visited with Curt Kinghorn at The Runners Soul. Highlighted with an incredibly focused and knowledgeable staff, Curt’s shop truly is the epicenter for Spokane running. Local champion and championship team photos sprinkle the walls alongside prominent autographed posters from Olympic runners. It’s not uncommon to find a past or present state champion upgrading or updating their running shoes whenever you step in the store.

Curt says, “For certain, I would place any number one GSL team against any other State team champion in the nation. Number two and number three would probably kick butt too. Frankly, there’s even a chance that a number four GSL cross-country team could compete against another State’s number one. That’s pushing it. But it could be interesting.”

A little later, Curt said, “The GSL has held the Washington State cross country title for so long that most people can’t remember when they didn’t win it.” He then turned to an employee at The Runners Soul and asked if that previous GSL cross-country runner could name the year. His employee guessed ’88. He was right. That’s 20 years of distance running dominance for the state cross-country title.

Kinghorn further emphasized Bloomsday, not only as a major long-term running influence, but because it is so entrenched in the Spokane area that local citizens can’t help but notice it. Elementary school kids consider running because they see it in their parents and in the ever-present Bloomsday T-shirts. Sadly the Bloomsday weekend conflicts with area track meets and pivotal training for the track & field State championships. Otherwise there’s little doubt that the race would be overwhelmed with local high school talent. Even still, if you examine your Bloomsday race results carefully, you can often pick out the rogue high school runner racing against his coach’s wishes.

In the same conversation, I also asked Curt about the local high school girls programs. I wondered if there was a reason why the women’s teams didn’t see the same elevated success. He shook his head and emphasized that the high school girls are just as kick-ass as the boys, however, girls soccer and volleyball also happen in the fall. The GSL girls routinely dominate the State Volleyball podium, and the area soccer programs fare pretty well too. The amount of girls’ sports in the fall dilute their cross-country teams, but he noted lots of great female runners with multiple State titles and State records.

The sum of all these ingredients certainly points toward continued Spokane distance running supremacy well into the near future. North Central Coach Knight elaborated on other Spokane programs that are creeping into the limelight, namely Central Valley, as well as unshakable coaches he admired, such as Coach Mike Hadway at Ferris. He echoed what Pat Tyson said, and emphasized that the GSL is full of great coaches dedicated to the sport of running. He likened the present band of coaches to mentors that were investing in programs of greatness – not just one season at a time.

Truth is, every time I tried to get Knight to speculate on the future, he only reemphasized the running program and directed attention to the work at hand. He is quick to praise the NC Seniors Andy Kimpel, Leon Dean, Jeff Howard and Adam Reid, but he’s equally willing to crack a joke about the fact that the National Championship Trophy is too big for the North Central trophy case. They actually needed to commission the trophy manufacturer to make a smaller base for the NXN title trophy.

In a follow-up email, Knight responded with: “Coach Long and I continued to chat after you left about the group we have coming up. The fun and the challenge in coaching is attempting to solve the riddles of the next group coming through the system. I think it is also wise to focus on enjoying the process; if your focus is on the character and development of the young people that you work with, you can count every season as a success. Winning, on the whole, is transitory.”

The track & field season will have started by the time this article reaches the press. The Flying Irish will soon begin running Spokane again from their headquarters at O’Doherty’s. Bloomsday is right around the corner, as well as a host of local road races that allow Second Seeding (see sidebar). More importantly, the North Central National Championship from December has now morphed from a badge on their sleeves into a target on their backs. There’s over a dozen worthy track teams with gutsy distance runners gunning for their own title or championship, and more than half of them are capable of getting their own hardware. However, every single one of them knows they have to go through the North Central distance squad in order to do it. The North Central distance runners wouldn’t want it any other way.

A few years ago, Gonzaga plucked basketball players Adam Morrison and Sean Mallon from the GSL and made a respectable run in the NCAA basketball Tournament. I asked Pat Tyson if he thought he could do the same thing for the Gonzaga University running program.

He said, “Yes indeed! It will take some time, and I will have to coach like I am 23. However, we do have people who care, and we have people with a passion for the sport. We certainly have the ‘Spokane Spirit.’ What I am finding presently is that some GSL kids care, but I am getting more interest around the United States regarding Gonzaga. I need to find a way to keep two or three Spokane kids in town. We are the best-kept secret in town. It will be exciting in the coming years.”