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The cross country career that by all accounts should have gone out with a bang won’t. No bang, not even a race. Just growing acceptance mixed with fervent hope that a stellar track season will right some wrongs.

Matt Salazar, last year’s All-Empire Cross Country Boys Runner of the Year, will not run Saturday’s North Coast Section race in Hayward after finishing fifth at the North Bay League finals last week. His 16:02 finish time qualified him to race Saturday but was well off his personal best for that the Spring Lake Course.

His tweaky right hamstring, the one that plagued him all season long, finally bested him. But Salazar says that by getting rest — starting now — he hopes to be fit and healthy for his senior track season in the spring.

It’s a big if.

“It has definitely not gone the way I wanted it to. I wish it was a lot different than it was,” he said of his prep career thus far.

“I have never been able to show the best me,” he said.

And that’s scary because despite a string of injury and illness since his freshman year, Salazar has still been an outstanding runner.

As a freshman, Salazar stormed onto the prep running scene with a blistering 15:42 on the Spring Lake cross country course. It was the fastest time ever posted by a ninth grader.

He took 14 seconds off his time sophomore year, tallying at 15:28 — the fourth fastest all-time sophomore time. He won the Foot Locker West Regionals at Mt. Sac the same year.

And junior year he posted a 15:24, the seventh fastest all-time for his grade.

But all the while, he was never well, he said.

It was shin splints, or a hip injury, or a virus that causes chronic fatigue and can lead to mononucleosis.

Despite that, Salazar has posted some seriously fast times and done well at big-time races. Last season he helped lead the Gauchos to the North Coast Section Division 2 team title.

But this season he started out behind. Nagging injuries prevented him from accumulating the base miles he thought he needed. And then the hamstring.

“It’s really tight and painful right now,” he said. “It messes me up. I get a really bad heel strike and my gait gets all messed up.”

And perhaps worse, it’s messing with his confidence.

“Every time I run, I feel really uncomfortable. I don’t feel in sync,” he said. “I just don’t know if it’s worth it to keep racing. I don’t want to bring (down) my confidence any more.”

Whereas other top runners in the area, including the junior trifecta of Santa Rosa’s Daniel Pride and Luca Mazzanti, and El Molino’s Brian Schulz, are expected to put on a show of speed at the flat course around Hayward High Saturday, Salazar will likely be behind the tape, cheering on those runners and others.

“They are great runners and they are getting really good,” he said. “For me, it’s hard to see I guess because I wish I could be up there.”

Salazar’s mom, Vanessa Tompkins, said her youngest son has always been motivated. So for him to be sidelined — repeatedly — has been painful to watch.

“He’s an athlete,” she said.

She recalled her boy at five, tearing up and down the soccer field, scoring goals at will.

“They had to take him off,” she said.

His response?

“He said, ‘I need a bigger field.’ ”

The other day, Tompkins said Salazar admitted that his high school career has not unfolded according to plan.

“He said, ‘My running career has not gone the way I expected it,’ ” she said.

“It kind of broke my heart.”

But Salazar is looking to mend. He’s looking to mend his body and ease his mind. His eyes are now on track season and beyond.

He wants to run in college but more importantly, he wants to run pain free.

“I just wish that I could be injury free for one season and have one solid season,” he said.

“I like running. I like going fast,” he said. “I don’t want to stop until I throw down some good times.”

Salazar’s new focus, starting now, is next spring.

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

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