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Oh, to be a little birdie on the bow of that slightly sinking boat.

The two fastest boys in Redwood Empire cross country this season were cooling down after a grueling duel in the 31st annual Viking Opener Invitational last weekend when they heard on the loudspeaker that awards for the senior boys race were being given out. At that point, Santa Rosa High’s Luca Mazzanti and El Molino’s Brian Schulz were halfway around Spring Lake and in no condition to run any more.

“We saw a couple paddling by and we asked them for a ride,” Mazzanti said. “We just wanted to get back in time.”

So the mystery couple obliged and paddled two of the fastest runners around across the lake and to the awards podium in most unusual fashion.

“With four of us, it was riding pretty low,” Schulz said. “We were at the weight limit.” It wasn’t hubris that made the boys ask for an elegant cross-lake paddle, but fatigue. Neither thought they had the wheels to get back to the finish line in time.

And who could blame them? Their legs had done enough work on the day.

Mazzanti and Schulz dueled to the third- and fourth-fastest times ever run in three decades of the Viking Opener. Mazzanti bested Schulz with a time of 9:51. Schulz crossed the line in 9:53.

And it’s no small meet. More than 800 athletes competed last Saturday.

It marked round two of sorts between these two guys in the still-early 2016 season.

At the Rancho Boys Invitational on Aug. 26, Schulz beat Mazzanti on the 3-mile course while running the second-fastest time ever: 15:07. Mazzanti posted the seventh all-time result there with a 15:17.

Mazzanti’s result Saturday moved him into third place all-time at the Viking Opener, behind only Erik Olson of Novato High, who ran a 9:40 in 2009, and Piner grad Luis Luna, who ran a 9:46 in 2011. Schulz is now tied for fourth on the all-time list with Piner’s Dawit Tesfasilassie, who ran a 9:53 in 2003.

Those names should indicate that something special went down last weekend, said Santa Rosa’s assistant cross country coach, Carrie Joseph.

“Erik Olson was All-American at Stanford. Luis Luna? Total legend,” she said.

“It’s pretty remarkable that they did that, for sure,” she said.

In conditions that were approaching too warm for comfort and on a fairly hilly course, both runners said the other made them better.

“We were pretty neck-and-neck,” Schulz said. “I think we definitely push each other a fair amount.”

“It’s awesome being shoulder to shoulder with someone the entire race. It brings out the competitive spirit,” Mazzanti said.

It also highlighted the differences between the two. Mazzanti and Schulz have somewhat contrasting styles.

Schulz says he runs on “feel,” and tends to go full tilt from the gun, while Mazzanti says he had a game plan to hang with Schulz as long as he could and try to manage a kick in the 400 meters. Mazzanti is built for speed, while Schulz can run all day. Maybe that is why the race last Saturday proved such a fun showdown.

“It’s shorter than a typical race,” Joseph said of the two-mile course at Spring Lake. “Most races are around three miles.”

Joseph said this was a marquee matchup that running fans were waiting for.

“They weren’t disappointed,” she said.

“There was some good competition there, but those two were clearly the class of the field,” she said. “Schulz is always a gamer.”

Speed? Mazzanti’s first mile was in 4:57 and his second was 4:54.

“It’s impressive that they ran that fast on the second mile. It’s a challenging second mile,” Joseph said.

Ask for a race rundown and the two said they traded the lead multiple times. Mazzanti had to catch a streaking Schulz, who let loose on the downhill.

“He was hauling on the downhill, just flying as fast as he could,” he said. “I just kind of go with it and let it take me and he was pretty much sprinting down.”

“With about 500 to go at the top of the dam it was neck-and-neck, trading off,” Mazzanti said.

Schulz had taken a slight lead when Mazzanti heard Joseph telling him to make his move.

“My coach was helping me, ‘You gotta go now’ and ‘Beat him with speed,’” he said. “She seemed really confident. I trusted her and just went with it.”

As much fun as folks said Saturday’s battle was, it may be the last time these two square off. Matchups from here on out in the cross country season will likely be determined by school size and section.

But the battle helped both runners recalculate their goals for the season. Schulz finished seventh at the CIF state cross country meet last year. Mazzanti didn’t fair as well in his first go-around in Fresno, but said he’s not thinking that far down the line. For now, he’s eyeing a top finish for Div. II at the North Coast Section meet.

Both said these strong early races have given them confidence heading into some bigger upcoming meets.

“I’d say this is more of a benchmark of how I’m doing at this point in the season compared to last season,” Mazzanti said. “I kind of stepped back and thought, ‘I’m a little ahead of where I thought.’”

“This is the beginning for me, I guess,” Schulz said.

So, if this was the last time these two competitors share a podium, we have two anonymous paddlers to thank for delivering them across the lake on time.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield.

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