Benefield: Windsor senior Lucas Chung delivers race to remember at NCS cross country championships

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HAYWARD — Lucas Chung ran like he knew.

The Windsor High senior ran the Division 3 North Coast Section cross country championship race at Hayward High School Tuesday like he knew that his would be the last race of the day, even though it was smack dab in the middle of the meet schedule, like he knew people would be disappointed when the meet was called off because of poor air quality moments after he crossed the finish line.

“Let’s leave them with something special,” his performance seemed to say.

Chung took off amid a loaded field that included the highly touted Maria Carrillo team as well as perhaps the most heralded distance runner in the nation, Redwood High senior Liam Anderson.

Anderson, who is committed to run at Stanford next year, came into the season ranked No. 1 in the country by MileSplit50 after finishing third in last year’s Nike Cross Country Nationals. He’s a two-time Nike cross country All-American, but that didn’t stop Chung from charging out of the gate and leading the entire 3-mile race — until the last straightaway into the finishing chute.

Anderson got Chung at the line. He crossed in 15:02 and Chung finished in 15:06. But Chung was all smiles. He knew what kind of performance he put in.

“That was awesome. I knew he was holding back and just waiting to get me at the end, but I was like, ‘You know what? I’ll just enjoy it for as long as I can.” I just went as fast my legs could carry me,” he said.

It was a highly anticipated race because of the talent level in the division, but it became the final race of the day when officials called off the meet after all of the boys had crossed the finish line. The air quality index had reached 154, past the section’s threshold of 150 for competition.

The Division 3, 4 and 5 girls, as well as the Division 4 and 5 boys, did not race Tuesday. Their fate was left up to a committee of three who were set to decide on paper who advances to the CIF state cross country championship Saturday in Fresno.

But nobody knew that letdown was coming when they were watching the electric performance of Chung battling Anderson.

Chung led across the opening flat, he led at the first mile marker and he led the repeat loops over the hills. And his lead was healthy. It didn’t look like Anderson was playing with him, letting Chung lead so he could use up all of his energy. Chung simply looked like he wanted to go wire-to-wire and win the darn thing.

“It started out and everybody crumbled into a pack and I was like, that’s not me. I just wanted to run my race,” he said.

For perspective on how fast Chung went, he finished the same course last year in 15:45 to take sixth place and earn a spot at the CIF state cross country championship in Fresno.

With no chance to train outdoors since Nov. 8 because of the poor air quality from the deadly Camp fire in Butte County, Chung said he’s been working on his mental game. Trapped inside, there’s really not a lot else he could do, especially after his one turn on the treadmill made him feel seasick.

“I’ve been studying Buddhist stories and practicing visualization — oh, my God, it helped so much,” he said. “I felt great the whole time.

“Like Bruce Lee said, ‘Be like water.’ I was like water that race,” he said.

And he knew going in that the same poor air quality that changed his lead-up to the section meet was being dealt with by most of his competitors.

“It’s smoky for everyone,” he said.

And he was quick to say that dealing with hazy air during training is not such a big deal when considering the source of the smoke.

“My heart goes out to those in Paradise and everybody affected by the fires,” he said.

After such an anxious week with worry over where and when the section meet would be run and who would earn a place at the state meet, there was real excitement when racing got under way at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. But that was replaced by bitter disappointment just two hours later when the announcement was made that it was over.

Chung had just crossed the line when the meet was officially canceled. People were still buzzing from the best race of the day. And Chung was still smiling.

“I feel great,” he said. “I feel like I could do it all over again.”

If all goes well, he will. The state meet is Saturday.

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.”

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