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