PALMER — At the largest gathering of endurance athletes in Alaska high school sports, a first-time champion and a long-time champion took home the titles during the annual Palmer Invitational Saturday at Palmer High’s Michael Janecek running trails.

Chugiak senior Hyrum Nelson won his first ever cross-country race, legging out a blazing fast time of 15 minutes. 18 seconds in the Division I boys’ race on a drizzly, wet day. West Valley senior Kendall Kramer stood atop the podium yet again, extending her claim to the state’s fastest high school endurance runner after a victory in the Division I girls’ race.

Palmer sophomore Katey Houser led all Valley runners with a fifth-place time of 18:33 in the Division I girls’ race. For Kramer, the last time she lost a race in the Last Frontier was at the Palmer Invite, to running rival Sadie Tuckwood of Juneau, who came in second just nine seconds behind Kramer. Kramer said he was happy to see her competition for the state title for the first time this season.

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“I like coming out of this because I usually get like 10 or 20 seconds faster at state and I know that if I get a good time here and they can’t really touch me here, then when there’s hills involved then I’ll do even better,” said Kramer.

Kramer’s first place finish was not enough to lead the West Valley Wolfpack girls to a team title at the Palmer Invite, as the South Anchorage girls beat West Valley by just two points at the largest cross-country meet in the state. A total of 48 teams and 1,244 athletes ran the Palmer High cross-country course on Saturday afternoon. Kramer is also a member of the U.S. Ski team, taking her speed to the snow once the running season is over. While Kramer feels more comfortable running on an incline, she enjoys the flat, fast course at Palmer High.

“The pace can be consistent without it being boring and repetitive and so this is probably my favorite course,” said Kramer.

Kramer led the race early, followed closely by Tuckwood and South Anchorage Junior Ava Earl, who finished 25 seconds behind Kramer in third. Nearing the downhill curve around four kilometers, Kramer began to put distance between her and Tuckwood. While the goal of cross-country running is to be faster and the method for measuring that speed is time, Kramer bucks the trend and does not wear a watch. She and her coaches believe that the added pressure of a time distracts her from running her own race.

“Once I get a lead and I don’t see them out the corners of my eyes, I like to see how increased my lead is getting and I’ve been in front of a lot of the cross country races and so how I gauge that is seeing when people cheer for me and seeing how long it takes them to start cheering for the people behind me,” said Kramer.

Palmer’s girls led the charge for the Valley teams, coming in fifth, followed by Colony at eighth and Wasilla at 14th. A group of Valley runners finished together, just as the Valley runners did in the Division 1 boys race that followed. Palmer’s Sophie Wright came in 25th with a time just under 20 minutes, followed by Palmer senior Lydia Ortiz in 29th and freshman Madeline Ortiz in 51st. Colony was led by Lydia Bushey, who finished in 35th place with a time just under 21 minutes. Bushey was closely followed by Knights senior Sofija Spaic and Shea Alaniva. Wasilla was led by senior Abbi Boucher, who also finished just under 21 minutes. The second through ninth finishers from the Valley in the girls race were separated by less than 90 seconds.

While Kramer enters every race with an expectation to win, Nelson had finally had enough. Service junior Alexander Maurer shot out of a cannon at the start of the race, leading the front pack at a near sprint. Nelson used his long legs to catch and eventually pass Maurer, after frustration turned to determination on the course.

“I’ve just got to get out in front of him, get in his head and I did it and it worked,” said Nelson. “I was like this is my chance. I’ve got to go for it and so I just kicked it into another gear and just dropped him.”

Nelson’s kick into high gear after the three kilometer mark put him in position to coast to victory, his first ever in his high school running career. Nelson clocked a time of 15:18.96, which is second only to Kodiak legend Trevor Dunbar’s 15:07 clocked at the Palmer High cross-country course. Maurer came in twenty seconds after Nelson, the only two runners to break 16 minutes. After his first win, Nelson was ecstatic, and dreaming of making it to the Foot Locker National meet in November.

“I’ve never won a cross-country race before and just to be able to finally do, it it’s on my bucket list. It feels amazing. I’m so happy. I’m so pumped. I’m trying to grasp what happened,” said Nelson.

Similar to Kramer, Nelson’s fast finish was not enough to lead his team to victory. The Dimond boys took the Palmer Invite title over the Mustangs by 10 points. Colony led the Valley teams with an eighth place finish, followed by Palmer at 10th and Wasilla at 14th. The Valley boys also finished the race in a pack, led by Lane Meier of Colony in 32nd place with a time of 17:20. In the 10 seconds after Meier finished, he was followed by six other Valley runners, including Palmer junior Noble Gurney, who stayed at the back of the trail pack for much of the race before turning on the jets for the last lap. Gurney followed Meier at 17:23 and was chased by Colony Junior Garrett Streit in 38th and Wasilla sophomore Landon Hayes in 39th.

Valley freshmen led the way in the Division II race, with Houston freshman Samuel Stapley in 33rd place with a time of 18:59. Redington was led by freshman Dawson Cowell in 60th place with a time of 20:07. The Huskies had a strong performance in the Division II girls race, lead by Anna Stephan in 27th place. Faith and Hope Walker finished in 35th and 36th for the Huskies, just a minute behind Stephan.

For first-year head coach Stacie Stigar, arranging races for over 1,200 athletes was no easy task.

“We have so many community volunteers and people that just jumped in,” said Stigar.

Stigar was not only proud of how her runners finished the race, but how they bonded together prior to the race start. Before any of the starter pistols had gone off, public address announcer Wolfgang Winter held a moment of silence for Carrie Toro, the mother of a Palmer runner who had died recently.

“It was really important to the runners that we were able to acknowledge her and they all have ribbons on now in her honor. A lot of pride on this team, it’s our home town, it’s a very small town we’re very close,” said Stigar.

Houser was nearly moved to tears with the moment of silence prior to her race, but was able to keep it together for the race, keeping the glitter that the team wore together in tact.

“We ran with glitter for Rosemary’s mom. We wanted to run with our ribbons, I have mine on now and we just had her in our thoughts,” said Houser.

Houser achieved a personal record by more than 20 seconds on Saturday, employing a new strategy to trail Eagle River junior Emily Walsh, who finished just 18 seconds ahead of Houser.

“I’m going to run with this girl. She’s strong but I’m also going to run my own race and it ended up working out so well so I’m really thankful for her and she’s a good running buddy,” said Houser.

Not only did the tragedy bring the Palmer team together for their home meet, but the vibe around the Palmer invite was hampered by the consistent rain showers. The one sore spot for the meet was the half-dozen bee stings reported by runners along the back edge of the trail.

“Everyone wants to cheer each other on. It’s not just about your team, it’s everyone’s in such a good mood that they’re cheering the other teams on,” said Houser. “It’s not like such a rivalry, it’s like oh my gosh those are my friends they’re having great races and it’s so fun to see everyone.”

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