Heading into last Friday's Devil's Thumb Hill Climb cross country race, coaches were telling their runners that due to the technical level of the course, times weren't a priority.
Paonia head coach Brandy Sparks told her runners not to worry about times. They were running a new course, and all she wanted was for them to compete and show their competitive edge. "You're taking in that prep person in front of you and not letting them pass you back," said Sparks.
They didn't disappoint. The boys team's five top runners placed in the top 15 out of 107 runners and finished second overall with 44 points. The girls placed three runners in the top 15 to finish fifth overall.
Senior Brooke Hillman and junior Katya Schwieterman led the girls team, placing 10th and 11th in a field of 74 runners. They were also the top Class 2A placers.
This is the first year for the Hill Climb, which was hosted by Delta High School. The race was first scheduled for last September, but was canceled due to rain.
Runners knew the course would be tough, but they didn't know how tough until they hit the hill for which the Hill Climb is named. "I didn't really have any idea what to expect," said Hillman. "All I heard is that it was on a golf course. But it wasn't really on a golf course."
The course rolls along for a few hundred yards, then ascends what Hillman describes as a "major hill," climbing up, up, up to the Devil's Thumb landmark before heading back down a steep incline. Because of the steep terrain, competitors said that going up the hill they found they could move faster by walking.
"Everybody walked it, so no one felt bad," said Schwieterman. Coming down, she said, some runners slid on their butts.
The final section of the course was a series of hills similar to the Hotchkiss course, said Schwieterman, only steeper.
With temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s, water stations were placed along the course. "That's not normal, but it is entirely necessary," said Schwieterman.
Alex Eaton placed 15th overall, for which Sparks had nothing but praise. "She has stepped up into that third-place role, right where we need her to be," said Sparks.
First-year senior Jordan Evans and freshman Ally Reedy finished 35th and 36th for Paonia.
On the boys side, Caden Meilner finished eighth out of 107 runners with a time of 24 minutes, 49.33 seconds.
For his first race of the season Meilner said he was happy with eighth place, "considering the course, the heat," and running against Montrose, Gunnison, Grand Junction and Rifle. One of the biggest challenges, he said, was not stumbling. Especially on the steep downhill, where at one time he said he almost fell forward, "You really had to watch your feet," he said.
Going up the hill, he kept up with the lead pack. Runners thought they could just push their way up the hill, but even they found themselves walking up part of it. "It was really slick," said Meilner. "I looked up and all the top guys were walking, so I thought I might as well save some energy."
Within a minute after Meilner's finish, Ethan Bartlett, Logan Green and Elijah Evans and Harley Ewart had crossed the finish line, placing 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th, respectively. Their combined 44 points gave the team a second-place finish behind Gunnison with 34 points.
That Green, a freshman, was running his first high school race on this course and finished so well is a good sign. "For his first race, he did really well," said Evans, a third-year senior.
"We had no idea what to expect coming up here," said Bartlett, who finished the course in 25:36.72. "But the name 'Devil's Thumb' is also a pretty scary name." And there's the "hill climb" part of the name, too.
Antonio Gonzales, Hunter Norris, Calvin Reese, Michael Hofman and Orin Blankenship also competed for Paonia.
All returning runners are showing improved performances. Seeing how everyone did the last two races and how much they've all improved, "I think we're going to have a really good team this year," said Bartlett.
"I think this is the best team we've ever had," said Meilner after hearing the race results. At Basalt last week, without Meilner and Green, the team had two top-10 and four top-20 placers and finished second behind 4A Glenwood Springs. Paonia is ranked fourth in early-season state Class 2A rankings. "I'm really happy," said Meilner.
Sparks said this is what the boys were talking about when they told her their goal is to make the podium at state. "They're doing it," she said. "Every day at practice they're killing it. They're doing everything that they need to do."
Paonia competes this Saturday at the annual Hotchkiss invitational. The course is considered among the toughest on the Western Slope for its long, steep climbing start and up-and-down terrain. "Hotchkiss might be harder, in that you can run the whole thing," said Schwieterman, looking up at the Devil's Thumb landmark. "But you cannot run this. It does not work."