Benefield: SRJC's Jonny Vargas off and running for cross country team
Reesey Byers will never be a cinematographer.
Byers, an assistant cross country coach at Santa Rosa Junior College, had his phone's camera trained on the steep rollers on the 4-mile NorCal Preview Meet course at Shasta College Saturday.
Before the camera rolled, he and head coach David Wellman had watched a pack of 30 or so runners head into the trees. The Bear Cubs' lead runners, freshmen Jonny Vargas and Patrick Lynch, were in that mix of runners, but on the back side of the group. Byers expected that same pack, give or take, to emerge and hit the only hills of the course - a couple of man-made inclines carved out of bare dirt.
So when Vargas, a standout runner from his Piner High days, emerged from the trees in first place and almost sprinted over the rollers while the chase pack lagged, Byers - well, Byers went berserk.
The camera starts to shake and then drops so we see only dirt. And more shaking. And lots of yelling.
“What? Are you kidding me? Oh my God,” he screams. “Where did that come from?”
Vargas' pace was 5:07 per mile over the 4-mile course, finishing in 20:30 - nine seconds ahead of second-place finisher Patrick Olson of Hartnell College in Salinas.
And that, running fans, was Vargas' coming out party on the junior college racing circuit. Folks in these parts may have known about Vargas because of his exploits over four years of cross country and track at Piner, but the wider junior college racing community now knows him, too.
And that's just fine.
“He thrives on that,” Wellman said. “I don't think it's anything new to him to be the one with the target on his back, the one who people are gunning for.”
Vargas will have a hard time hiding now.
“It was an army of JC kids and I wasn't really expecting it to be that deep,” Byers said of the field Saturday. “It was a war zone. We told the guys to go out conservative. Jonny was really, really smart.”
It was clear Vargas was fit and capable, but when he emerged from the trees, ahead of the “army” of runners, it was a sight to behold, his coaches said.
“All of a sudden, it was that movie scene, that iconic scene,” Byers said. “I still thought Jonny was in like 40th place and he's just charging up that hill and looks stronger than I have ever seen him.”
Vargas' win in commanding style puts his name in the conversation of perhaps a top-10 finish at the state championship meet in Fresno Nov. 17.
“He is going to be really tough to beat this year because he can handle any kind of terrain,” Wellman said.
And Vargas has found a rhythm, Wellman said.
“After the first meet, he was kind of down,” Wellman said of the Big 8 Conference Preview at Diablo Valley on Sept. 14. Vargas finished that race in fifth place.
“He got passed in that last mile and was a little frustrated,” Wellman said. “These last couple of weeks, something has changed.”
But unlocking Vargas ain't easy.
He's a guy who is wicked fast and runs incredibly smooth, and yet describes feeling out of sorts plenty of days before he works out and races.
“It happens every time. Or not every time, but sometimes I just don't feel like running,” he said. “Sometimes I feel lazy, stressed out, dehydrated, telling myself ‘I don't want to run today, this sucks.'”
And even on Saturday, before his explosive “Here's Jonny!” moment, he wasn't sure it was his day.
“I wasn't feeling it,” he said. “I was feeling just regular, not feeling like running. But after our warmup, I was feeling great, ready to go.”
Vargas insists that once the race is on, he can usually shake it off.
“Only by running during the race” can he solve the woes, he said. “There is no yes or no - I just have to do it.
“I don't really care whether I'm hurting or not,” he said. “Either way, I'm going to hurt. For me that doesn't matter at all.”
Vargas is balancing a lot. He has a full academic load. He works about 27 hours a week in shifts that end at 11 p.m. And he has training five days a week at 7 a.m. So perhaps he can be forgiven if he isn't always feeling fired up to run or if he oversleeps and rolls into practice about 25 minutes late, like he did Thursday (despite setting two alarms).
And still Vargas works hard and runs fast. Very fast. And he's a racer.
“He's always been one of those runners, if you can get him in the race in the last 20 percent, if he's close to the lead or in the lead, he's going to pull out on top,” Wellman said. “He just has this final gear that comes out of nowhere.