Runners star on Crown Mountain stage

Dale Strode
The Aspen Times
The high school boys break from the starting line Saturday morning at Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel for the annual Longhorn Invitational, hosted by Basalt High School. Montrose swept the boys and girls team titles in the 11-team meet.
Dale Strode/The Aspen Times |

Crown Mountain Park transformed into a running stage Saturday morning.

Top high school cross country runners from the region stepped into the spotlight at the annual Longhorn Invitational and its circuitous course around the popular El Jebel park.

Montrose High School was first to take a bow — winning the team titles in both the girls and boys divisions.

Plus, Montrose crowned individual champion Ian Meek in the boys 5-kilometer race, reinforcing his standing as one of the premier Class 4A runners in Colorado.

Glenwood Springs freshman Claudia Hirons won the girls race under brilliantly sunny skies — her first high school cross country victory.

Eleven teams from around the Western Slope convened in the midvalley for Saturday’s invitational meet, which featured more than 200 prep runners and two dozen middle school runners.

The featured boys 5K brought together three of the state’s top-ranked runners based on times this fall.

And the trio captivated the crowd of fans, friends and parents by charging away from the pack early as the course headed into the first mile.

Meek, Rifle’s Brendan Wagler and Basalt’s Zach Walsh led from the front, pulling away just as the trio did a week ago at the Delta Invitational.

“When it started, we were going a bit slow,” said Meek, a Montrose sophomore. “I said, ‘What’s going on here?’”

He looked around and saw familiar faces from last weekend’s race.

“That Zach Walsh guy from Basalt, last week I was behind him the whole way,” Meek said. “And he was flying.”

But Saturday, when Meek felt the pace was too slow, he upped the tempo.

“I started pushing harder, and Walsh started staying with me,” the Montrose runner said.

But by the 2-mile mark, Meek was alone.

“I was wondering where they were,” he said. “Then, I kept looking behind me. I always tell myself don’t look behind. But it’s so tempting just to check.”

Especially on a course with a lot of twists and turns, like the Longhorn Invitational.

When Meek looked back, he saw his 4A rival from Rifle.

“I kept noticing the Rifle guy (Wagler) was there. And I knew he was coming for me,” Meek said after winning the 5K in 16 minutes 29 seconds. “I just tried to stay ahead of him.”

Wagler finished second in 16:40. The two have posted the two fastest Class 4A cross country times thus far this season heading into Saturday.

Walsh, a leader in the 3A division, was third in 17:06 and first among 3A runners.

“It was a fun race,” Walsh said. “I took it out a lot faster in Delta, but my legs weren’t going to let me stick with them this time.”

He said he enjoyed the revised course at Crown Mountain Park.

Walsh, with a solid summer of training miles, won the annual Basalt Half-Marathon right before the start of the high school season.

The son of James and Adair Walsh said he’ll take a break from racing next week to take the ACT test.

Then, it’s back on course with an eye on the State Cross Country Championships on the hilly course in Colorado Springs at the end of the season.

That same state championship course hosted a preseason meet two weeks ago, giving Glenwood Springs freshman Hirons her first start in a high school race.

Two weeks later, she won her first race — at Crown Mountain Park.

“This was a lot better than I thought it would be,” Hirons said. “We started off all three girls together. Then, I noticed that they were slowing down a little bit, so I went ahead.”

And finished ahead.

She crossed the line in 20:43 with Lauren Cook of Montrose second and Kelly Coombs of Rifle third.

“I just had to try to keep a good pace,” said Hirons, the daughter of Bobby and Cheryl Hirons.

She had finished 16th in the Colorado Springs meet.

Hirons helped the Demons finish second in the girls team standings with 63 points. Montrose won with 38.

Hotchkiss was third in the girls division with 91 points. Rifle was fourth (106).

The Montrose boys totaled 51 for the low score and the division title.

Glenwood Springs was second with 102. Coal Ridge was third (112) with Hotchkiss fourth (145-tiebreaker) and Basalt fifth (145).

Middle school titles went to Henry Garth and Sophia Vigil, both of Glenwood Springs Middle School.

Meek, the boys winner, said he trained for the cross country season by working a construction job near Ouray and Ridgway.

“Yeah, dude,” said Meek, the son of Yvonne and Harris Meek. “After you work construction for a summer, you get back to this and you go run. And you say this wasn’t that bad (compared to construction work).”

Girls team scores

1, Montrose 38. 2, Glenwood Springs 63. 3, Hotchkiss 91. 4, Rifle 106. 5, Paonia 131. 6, Olathe 192. 7, Coal Ridge 193.

Boys team scores

1, Montrose 51, Glenwood Springs 102. 3, Coal Ridge 112. 4, Hotchkiss (145-tiebreaker). 5, Basalt 145. 6 Paonia 174. 7, Olathe 217. 8, Rangely 228.