Maria Carrillo runners find a breath of fresh air in chance to compete again

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Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here


Read all of the PD’s fire coverage here

‘My neighbor was the one who knocked on our door,” Maria Carrillo High senior Talia Leano remembered. “Thank God he did.”

Flames from the Tubbs fire were approaching the family’s neighborhood in Fountaingrove. There was time to do very little. Leano reached for something near her — her cross-country duffle bag — and put her cat, Arielle, inside. That was all she took with her.

“I really identify as a runner,” she said.

But in a matter of hours, she was a runner with no running shoes, no sweats, no shorts. And, for a time, no team.

Leano’s home away from home is the track and trails she runs with her teammates. In the wake of the fires, Leano’s family headed to her grandfather’s house in Alameda. Even there, the air quality was so poor Leano didn’t dare run.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, the family booked a room at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, and Leano re-connected with her teammates.

And that’s when things that had been torn apart started coming together again.

“My teammates were like, ‘Come to my car, I have a bag full of clothes for you,’” she said. “It was so generous.”

Running, and specifically the cross-country team, proved a crucial part of Leano’s road back from losing almost everything she owned in the fires. And it didn’t hurt that veteran head coach Greg Fogg was with her every step of the way. Fogg, too, lost his home that night.

In all, the homes of as many as 12 cross-country and track-and-field athletes and two coaches burned to the ground in the fires.

And like Leano, Fogg turned to running and to his team to get him through.

“The best thing I could be doing is coaching, where I’m really away from all of that,” he said. “I’m there for the kids because you have to be.”

The support was mutual.

“I can have an OK day at work and it all goes away at practice. It’s a very positive thing,” he said. “It’s the happiest part of their day most of the time, and I’m there to share that with them. To see them smile, that’s good energy for me.”

With so many on the team having suffered loss and so much grief hanging over the community, sport became a place both of refuge and a way to fight back. An athlete can’t control a firestorm but she can control her workout, her focus and her drive heading into her crucial junior season.

“For me, running is what brings me happiness,” Leano said. “Even if I didn’t get to go back home after school, I could still go back to practice.”

When nothing else was normal, running was. So her return to workouts and to her teammates was a major step in finding her way back from the traumas of the fire.

“It was so fantastic,” she said. “Anything that was familiar felt good.”

Still, after that long stretch of not running, Leano felt that her times weren’t what she wanted during her crucial junior season. She lost a lot of training time during the three weeks Santa Rosa City Schools campuses were shut down. Her workouts were hampered by not only where she was living but diminished air quality across the Bay Area for weeks that lingered for weeks.

Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here


Read all of the PD’s fire coverage here

Like everyone else on her team, Leano did the best she could under extraordinary circumstances, in running and in keeping her focus forward.

“I do really aspire to run in college,” she said. “I hope college coaches will take into account our training was messed up.”

Despite it all, the boys’ team were crowned North Coast Section champs. The girls finished second. At the state meet, the girls took sixth and the boys, predicted to podium, fell to 10th.

It speaks to the dominance of the Pumas’ program that those results were disappointing for Fogg.

“I think ultimately, the emotional and physical toll and interruption in our training made it really difficult for us to do what we wanted to do,” Fogg said. “That’s fodder for this year. Let’s go get what eluded us.”

Leano, now entering her senior season, is all in.

“I want to show my coaches and my teammates and myself that I am improving,” she said.

In reflection, both Fogg and Leano described themselves as lucky. No, not lucky that they lost their homes, but lucky their families are insured, lucky their friends and neighbors rallied around them, lucky they had the running community to turn to.

“We were very fortunate that people were there for us. Knowing that you have that community behind you? The whole cross-country community pulled together,” Fogg said.

Fogg had lived on his Ranchette Road home in Rincon Valley for 23 years before it burned down. Only three houses on that dead-end road were lost. His street formed the border of the Tubbs fire.

“The Tubbs fire notches out at our mailbox,” he said.

But Fogg doesn’t wonder how he was so unlucky, with his home razed while houses up and down the street went untouched.

“I have basically concluded that we were very fortunate,” he said.

Why? Because he and his family have a neighborhood to return to. It’s a neighborhood of families who want the Foggs back. In December, someone erected a Christmas tree on their lot and decorated it. A sign stretches across their yard reading “Fogg Strong.”

“I don’t remember being overburdened by the tragedy as much as being touched by the generosity and thoughtfulness and kindness that all of that generated,” he said. “It galvanized the community. It just made you feel like, ‘This is my town. I get to rebuild here.’ We never once were thinking we are not going to rebuild because our neighborhood wants us back and needs us back.”

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