Benefield: SRJC cross country runners 'not going to let this fire beat us'

With the Kincade fire still burning and air quality across the North Bay in flux daily, the Bear Cubs are trying to get runs in before the Big 8 Cross Country Championship Friday in Modesto.|

Santa Rosa Junior College cross country runner Miranda Huntsinger is the Bear Cubs’ resident climate scientist.

It’s Huntsinger, a sophomore who prepped at Maria Carrillo, who teammates turn to for weather predictions, air quality index readings and suggestions on where, and when, to work out. Her services are in high demand these days.

With the Kincade fire still burning and air quality across the North Bay in flux daily, it’s Huntsinger who is called on to scope out the best places and times to get runs in before the Big 8 Cross Country Championship Friday in Modesto.

“Other people were thinking about it, but I guess I’m the one worrying about it,” she said.

“There are a lot of people on our team who do have asthma and respiratory issues,” she said. “We want to make sure that everyone is healthy and fit.”

These have been chaotic days. Classes at SRJC were canceled through the week. A good number of runners were evacuated from their homes. And all of this came down in the days leading up to the postseason.

Huntsinger was evacuated from her Santa Rosa home. She stayed at an unfinished condo in Rohnert Park this week. The Ramirez twins, Jackie and Evelin (and their three dogs), were evacuated from Forestville and have been sleeping at a friend’s house.

“Everyone is all over the map,” Huntsinger said. “A lot of people had to move out, some of the team lives in Windsor, Healdsburg, Sebastopol. We kept each other updated where we were going.”

Although from the outside looking in, cross country seems like a solitary venture, the Bear Cubs insist it is extraordinarily team-centric. Especially when times are tough - like now. No school, no official practice, no real road map leading into their conference championship.

David Wellman, the team’s coach, wasn’t allowed to mandate practice or even really direct their workouts remotely. He’d catch up with what they were doing via text photos of Bear Cubs doing what they could do wherever they would do it.

He also told them to have confidence that their hard work will pay off now - no matter what.

“The basic message is, we have done all the work through the season. At this point the goal is just to stay consistent and not worry. We have had such a solid season of work and all of that will add up,” he said. “As long as we are active this week in any way, whether that is in a pool or bike or treadmill, we have to be able to rely on that the work is already done.”

But when you are sleeping on someone else’s couch, it can be hard to rally.

“To be honest, I didn’t really want to run,” Jackie Ramirez, an El Molino grad, said of the early days of evacuation. “I wasn’t down to run, with lack of sleep …”

That’s where just a couple of teammates ready to run can change the whole tenor of the workout.

“The group that stayed was pretty motivated,” she said. “We know we have to keep pushing and we have keep running. It’s just a matter of finding a good place to run.”

That’s where Huntsinger comes in. It was Huntsinger who gave her teammates - via a group text thread - information on workout options. She called 24 Hour Fitness in Rohnert Park. Staffers there let Bear Cubs work out for free. Other Bear Cubs opted for a track workout at Casa Grande High, where, per Huntsinger’s numbers, the air quality was at acceptable levels.

One day, a number of Bear Cubs drove to Napa, where ?air quality readings were positive. On Wednesday, a group got a run in around Howarth Park.

But no one seems to be going it alone.

“It’s very important, it keeps you motivated,” Evelin Ramirez said about sticking together. “We are all here pushing. We are all motivating each other and pushing each other.”

Another motivating factor for getting to the gym?

“Taking a shower,” she said. “I need hot water.”

There is a lot to be motivated about.

The women’s team is the defending Big 8 Conference champion and ranked second in Northern California. The men’s team is ranked seventh in NorCal and has been making moves all season.

“I’m hoping we can crack the top three,” Wellman said of his men’s team.

Bailey Williams, a freshman from Technology High, sounded positive about the Bear Cubs heading into Saturday’s meet, despite this week’s significant challenges.

“I don’t think this is a disadvantage at all,” he said. “We have put so much work in over this season.”

Williams even went so far as to say that the “mind-numbing” treadmill days this week could work to the Bear Cubs’ advantage in that they will perhaps be even more primed to race in the open air, just to be let loose on a course.

“It’s going to be fun to race,” he said.

The chaotic week has presented other, more mundane issues, than how to keep primed and fit.

Like what to eat. Comfort food - to which displaced athletes are certainly entitled as they sleep on friends’ couches - doesn’t exactly make an athlete race-ready.

The morning after they were evacuated, Jackie Ramirez said she just wanted something easy. And fast.

“The only thing open was fast food,” she said.

But she thought better of it. They decided to find a grocery story with more healthful fare.

“We had to go pretty far to get food and come back and make it. You have to stay disciplined. That was hard, honestly,” she said.

All of these challenges?

“It will motivate us, hopefully,” she said.

Huntsinger thinks so. Why else would teammates search for the best place to run or seek each other out to share workouts?

“We would love to go to state this year,” she said. “We are not going to let this fire beat us.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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