Oct. 13, 1999
PULLMAN, Wash. -- Do them a favor, don't pretend to understand Megan Maynard and Oscar Franco-Parra because you plod on the treadmill 25 minutes a day, or, better yet, because you get pulled around the neighborhood by Rocket, your 12-year-old dachshund.
That's "working out." That's "jogging." Runners deserve more respect. Racers, well they are in a class of their own. When's the last time you charged out your front door to run a brisk three miles in the morning, just a warm-up for the perhaps 10 miles of uneven terrain that awaited you in the afternoon? Or the last time your tried to outrun hundreds of other competitors while your mind and body engaged in a vicious civil war of Will versus Ability? Maynard and Franco-Parra, respective leaders of WSU's women's and men's cross country teams, they do that kind of stuff almost every day.
Whether or not you noticed, the 1999 cross country season is underway. But you would be cheating yourself if you didn't start to pay attention. Running -- especially distance running --may not provide enough heat for Sportscenter highlights, but if you gave it a chance you might fall in love. Because cross country is a sport in which success comes to those who dare to dream.
A year ago, Megan Maynard could not have known or even fathomed that by season's end she would emerge not only as one of the Pac-10's best runners, but as an All-American.
"It was one of those distant dreams," Maynard said of her trip to the 1998 NCAA National Cross Country Championships in Lawrence, Kans., and her Top-25 finish. "I had thought about it as a possibility, but it had never actually materialized in my mind."
Why should it have? Last September Maynard was just into her sophomore cross country season, coming off a freshman year that saw her finish 32nd overall at the NCAA West Regional Championships, second on the squad. She was on a team overloaded with underclassmen, a team with only one healthy senior, a team lacking an obvious No. 1 runner. She was running for a school that had not in its history boasted an All-American woman in cross-country.
Not once. Never.
Yet by November, Maynard was toeing the starting line at the West Regionals in Fresno, Calif., vying for a top-two finish and an automatic berth to the national championships. She had led the Cougars in all her races that year, including a 14th-place finish at the Pac-10 Championships in Eugene, Ore. two weeks prior, but her goal was still well beyond the reach of her fingertips.
"I had the race of my life there," Maynard remembered of Fresno. "It was basically do or die. I knew I had to run to my death if I was going to make it to nationals." A grueling 17 minutes and 12 seconds later, Maynard crossed the finish line in ninth-place. It was a performance good enough for the NCAA to send her to Lawrence with an at-large berth.
Her initial dream was realized, but it was track coach Rick Sloan who reminded her that other goals remained unmet. "He congratulated me and said, 'I want to see you bring back one of those All-American certificates,'" Maynard said. "I was so excited I had made it to nationals, I just figured that would be the icing on the cake."
It was. Outdoing her own pre-season expectations, Maynard conquered the 5,000 meter course at Lawrence in 17:38 to finish 22nd. "There was definitely doubt (before the race) because I had never really run with those people before, never really run that fast before," Maynard said.
"During the race I was passing people and I was like, 'Oh my God! I've never passed these people before.' But that's what you have to do. You have to overcome those little barriers that you set for yourself."
Oscar Franco-Parra knows all about barriers, especially in athletics. In fact, it was one such boundary that led him to running by complete mistake three years ago.
"I didn't like running at all," Franco-Parra remembered. "When I lived in Mexico, I played basketball and loved it. But when I moved to Oregon and tried out for the basketball team, the coach said I was too short."
Like many undersized young men before him, Franco-Parra realized his speed would have to do the talking. Recruited by Sunset High's Ken Bell, Franco-Parra gave track a chance his junior year. As a senior, he finished second at the state cross country meet and a runner was born.
"Suddenly running was everything for me," Franco-Parra said. "It still is. It's all I thought about all summer."
However, all his summer visions of WSU cross country included a specific omnipresent aura that is glaringly absent a few weeks into the season. Months after leading the WSU men to the 1998 National Cross Country Championships, two-time cross country and nine-time track and field All-American, Bernard Lagat decided to forego his final seasons of eligibility and compete professionally in the International Amateur Athletic Federation.
It was a blow to the entire team, but especially to Franco-Parra, who calls Lagat his role model. "All the guys are sad because we lost Bernard Lagat," Franco-Parra said. "He's the big boy, he's the best guy in the nation. But I think we're still going to be good without him.
"And now it's kind of my chance to stand up. I want to run fast so that people will pay attention and say, 'Oh, that's the next Bernard Lagat.'"
Of course, that's not all he wants them to say. After finishing 74th at the national championships a year ago, clocking in with the fourth-fastest time by a freshman, Franco-Parra wants to create an All-American identity all his own.
"I don't want to just be the next Bernard Lagat," Franco-Parra said. "I don't want to be him. I want to be better. I want to be myself."
Both Maynard and Franco-Parra have distinct memories of the national championships that have them salivating to return. Maynard remembers the gut-wrenching disappointment she felt when only the top-15 finishers were publicly recognized with plaques in Lawrence. Her mailed All-American certificate is still a source of pride, but her ears ache to hear her name called, her fingers to grab that plaque.
Franco-Parra remembers watching Lagat warm-up for what would be his final nationals. "Bernard told me that when he went to nationals by himself two years ago it wasn't a good experience," Franco-Parra said. "He was determined to take the entire team. Last year, with all of us there, he was so happy. He was so excited. I want to feel that same thing."
It was passion for not just running, but for cross country and racing as well, that played a paramount role in Maynard and Franco-Parra's breakout seasons of 1998. Of course, 1999 will be no easier, especially with much of their anonymity long removed.
Using their words, they are indeed no longer "unknown." The time has come to race for those new goals, and then to race beyond, with all eyes on them.
"This (media attention) has never happened to me before in my life," Franco-Parra said. "I'm on top of the world right now. I just have to run fast."
Just how fast Maynard, Franco-Parra and the Cougar cross country teams race, will determine whether this will be a season to remember, or a season to forget. But barriers beware, there are dreamers on the run.
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