If Hotchkiss senior Sam Rodriguez was uncertain about how his cross country season will go, his performance at last Friday's Devil's Thumb Hill Climb should quiet any doubts in his mind. Rodriguez placed fifth out of 107 runners. On a typical cross country course that would be an impressive feat for any senior's first race of the season. But Devil's Thumb, as runners and coaches quickly learned, is no ordinary course.
"It's a heck of a challenge," said longtime Hotchkiss head coach Kelly Cowan.
The course makes his home course, considered one of the toughest in the state, look easier, said Rodriguez. "It makes everything look easier now. I'm not going to find a course harder than this." His time of 23 minutes, 45.55 seconds is three and a half minutes longer than his prior slowest time, set as a sophomore at Hotchkiss, where many a runner has posted his slowest time.
Delta High School planned to hold the inaugural hill climb last season, but canceled due to rain.
In walking the course ahead of the race, head coach Kelly Cowan told his runners to break the course into segments, just like they do in practice. Cowan said he trains them not to focus on how long a hill is or how high they have to climb. The hill leading to the Devil's Thumb is not the course, he said. If that's all they look at, "then it becomes insurmountable. Then it defeats you before you start."
For the remaining three boy's team members, the hill climb was their first varsity cross country race, and all placed in the top 50. Junior Will Ela came in at 43rd, Tevin Keller, a sophomore at Cedaredge High School, placed 47th, and freshman Kenny Drbohlav placed 50th.
Cowan said he's not positive if it worked, "But I was pleased with the way they ran. I saw them finish strong, and that's what we were looking for."
Rodriguez said he started the race hoping for a top-15 finish, and thought he'd come in around eighth or ninth before learning he'd placed fifth.
The course starts on the dirt road near the Devil's Thumb Golf Course and takes off across the dobie hills before heading up toward the Devil's Thumb landmark. Rodriguez stuck with the lead pack from the start. "Everyone was running at a pace... that I felt OK with," he said.
Once they started up the long hill, Rodriguez said he remembered the coach's advice and didn't let it get into his head. That helped. By the time he passed by the Devil's Thumb he had secured at least a top-10 finish.
Senior Hannah Hatheway was the top finisher for the Hotchkiss girls, placing 25th with a time of 36:00.89. Freshman Isabella Spano finished 34th out of 74 runners with a time of 37:15, and sophomore Grace Hatheway finished in the top 50 with a time of 40:31.
Cowan said that while athletes were mumbling about how difficult the course is, he plans to bring the team back next year. "It's a great course," he said. While the bottom part of the course is like a lot of courses, including the Hotchkiss course, the hill "is non-typical of cross country." Unless runners are going for their best times, "It's so much better than running on a manicured golf course."
It also tops the Hotchkiss course in difficulty. For more than 15 years, the Hotchkiss cross country program has boasted one of the toughest courses in the state. But last Friday runners were saying that Hotchkiss won't be so hard after running the hill climb. For difficulty, "I think this 'un just got us," said Cowan.
Hotchkiss hosts its 17th annual cross country invitational this Saturday.
Races begin at 9 a.m. with the middle school girls' run, followed by middle school boys at 9:30 a.m.
The high school varsity girls' race begins at 10 a.m., followed by the boys' race at 10:45 a.m.
Two fatal accidents occurred in Delta County within a two-day span last week.
Casey Gillenwater, 25, of Delta was killed the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 13, in a single-vehicle rollover on Highway 133 outside of Hotchkiss.