Lindsay Stanford has a theory on what happened to coach John Smith's brown hair.
He wanted to dye it, no question. The original plan was to go pink and green if the Steamboat Springs boys and girls cross country teams won the regional meet last weekend.
Neither did, but the girls came close, and both teams finished in the top four to qualify for today's state meet, so Smith went blond.
Today marks the final cross country meet for Smith. Earlier this season, he said he and his family are leaving Steamboat so he can return to school to become a teacher. According to many of the cross country runners, however, Smith's been teaching for the eight seasons he has been the Sailors' coach.
"He's very honest when he talks to us," senior Katie Conrath said. "He definitely believes in us, and that's one of the main parts in the way we view ourselves."
Smith didn't run cross country until college, using it to get in shape for track. He was a high school football player instead.
"I may have the build of a football player, but I have the specialness of a cross country runner," Smith said.
It's been Smith's experience that the high school students usually participating in cross country in Colorado and elsewhere aren't the "party kids" or the "cool kids," he said. They are different and often find answers about themselves by being part of a team. He embraces this culture at Steamboat, urging his runners on in meets, practices and beyond the athletic realm.
"He pushes you to be yourself," junior Mike Gleason said. "He doesn't care about who is on the team or whether they are even good runners. He's here to help you. He doesn't care what others think, and it's contagious."
The Steamboat girls have won academic team honors for four straight years, including this season, maintaining a cumulative grade-point average higher than 3.2. This season, the girls have a combined GPA of 3.59. Last fall, the boys earned academic honors with a 3.39 team GPA.
"We're all here to be wicked nerds," Stanford said, repeating one of Smith's expressions. "He makes running fun. I didn't think running could be fun."
In most sports, running is just conditioning. In some sports, coaches use extra running as punishment, to discipline an athlete. In cross country, running is the sport, and extra running is a chance for the team to have an "adventure," another of Smith's expressions.
"It's hard not to run for him," Gleason said.
Today's meet is an opportunity for the varsity runners to run not only for their departing coach, but also for their school, themselves and the Western Slope.
Before Thursday's practice, clad in Hawaiian print shorts, Smith stood before his runners and talked about respect -- and the repeated lack of it -- that Steamboat's cross country teams have received heading into today's state meet.
In state previews, there was no mention of either Sailors team, despite their consistently high finishes and strong performances against larger schools all season, especially the girls team.
Representing Steamboat at today's state meet are seniors Lauren Lightfoot, Conrath and Tara Wernig, juniors Jennifer Hooper and Kelli Parnell, and sophomore Sarah MacCarthy. The female alternates are Stanford and Laura Philip, both seniors, and junior Madison Proper.
The Steamboat boys will be without senior Tyler O'Leary, the team's top runner, who can't run because of an injury. His replacement will be one of the alternates, senior David Manthei, freshman Matt Hill or sophomore Kieran Corrigan of Soroco.
The other Sailors running are seniors Alex Miller, Davis Miller and Matt Legrice, juniors Gleason and Andy Garber, and sophomore Sam Tarrant.
The Class 4A State Cross Country Meet begins at 10:30 a.m. for the boys and noon for the girls today at the El Pomar Youth Sports Complex in Colorado Springs.
"If we run within ourselves and don't worry about where other teams are, we can have shockingly good results," Smith said.