Kevin Kleckler remembers when the 400 meters was a run instead of a leg-numbing sprint.
The Hayden coach used to teach his athletes to come around the first corner and stride out on the backstretch of the one-lap race.
"Now, you have to bust it the whole way," Kleckler said.
Three Routt County athletes -- Steamboat's Jessica Peters, Soroco's Andy deGanahl and Hayden's Lauren Branstetter --will run their 400 preliminary heats today, as the state track and field meets get under way in all classes.
Peters will be with the Sailors at Jeffco Stadium, while deGanahl and Branstetter will represent the Rams and Tigers, respectively, at Dutch Clark Stadium in Pueblo.
The happy but fatigued smiles each runner wore after claiming a regional championship in Grand Junction last weekend demonstrated what a sprinter endures over the course of the 400.
To have success, an athlete can't have endurance or speed alone -- they need both.
Peters and Branstetter entered their introductory course to the 400 during middle school. A runner's usual start in the 400 is comparable to a young catcher's start in Little League: forced.
The difference between the two is that a catcher usually grows to love the position. A 400 sprinter may never truly love the race, but he or she likely will learn to understand why coaches put him or her in it.
"Everyone had to run the 400 in middle school," Peters recalled. "I guess my time was good and I ran it from then on. I've gotten better, and I like it now, but while I'm running it and right after I'm done I wonder 'why am I doing this?'"
Peters loses feeling in her legs somewhere in the final 100 meters. Branstetter's limbs go numb in the final 150.
"It hurts really bad in the final 100 to 200 meters," Branstetter said. "You come around the back corner and think 'if I can only just get there.'"
At least Peters, Branstetter and deGanahl usually cross the finish line faster than their opponents to end the pain sooner.
Branstetter and deGanahl are sophomores making their second state appearance. Peters is a freshman, making her first trip to the state meet in an event that favors veterans.
But Peters and deGanahl have a shot at winning a state title this year. An underclassman winning a championship in the 400 isn't unheard of, but it isn't common.
The 400 wants athletes with experience and mental and physical toughness, coaches say.
"You have to be strong mentally," Peters said. "I think that's the toughest part about the race."
Soroco Coach Gary Heide can see deGanahl's focus improve with every race, which is uncommon in a young runner. He shaved a second off his time in the 400 last weekend.
"Andy is still learning," Heide said. "He will have to learn to relax this weekend. There will be kids on his shoulder. He'll learn to run his own race, stay relaxed and not worry about other people."
But what deGanahl lacks in experience, he more than makes up for in form and obvious, raw talent.
It's easy to find people staring at him when he runs; even Peters enjoys watching deGanahl race, prompting one to wonder if deGazelle might be a suitable nickname.
"He has beautiful form," Heide said. "Last year, when we got to Steamboat to train, we saw how smooth a runner he is, and form is so important, especially in the 400."
Heide has told deGanahl to dream about being a state champion.
Steamboat coach Andy Reust is preparing Peters for the possibility of coming out on top, too. Both have high seed times heading into today's preliminaries.
"I've been so nervous all week that I haven't been able to think about it," deGanahl said. "Last year, I was hoping not to false start."
What a difference one season can make. Imagine what two or three more could do.
-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail email@example.com