On Saturday, dozens of young athletes from across the Delta ran a brutal race through the sandpit off of Bethel's B.I.A. road. And while the middle school and high school students were technically competing against each other, the real enemy of the day was the course, which coaches described as a test of endurance.
On a bright, crisp morning at the B.I.A. sandpit, three high school girls from Akiachak burned across the finish line at the annual cross country “Pit Race.” The sidelines were crowded with parents and classmates in brightly-colored parkas. A small group of coaches wearing sunglasses and warm-up gear reminded their runners to stand up straight and to breathe.
The winner of Saturday’s high school girls race? Acacia Chingliak, age 15, from Akiachak.
"It was good!" Chingliak said as she struggled to catch her breath, adding that she was proud of her time. "But with the sand... I'm so tired!"
Eleven-year-old Hannah Howell from Bethel agreed that the course was difficult. She and her friends competed earlier in the day.
"That race was really beast mode," she said. "That’s all I can say!"
Saturday’s cross country course was one lap for middle schoolers, two laps for high schoolers. That's a five kilometer race for the older kids. Nelson Lliaban, a cross country coach from Kwigillingok, said that the race is hilly, but that it’s the sand that will get you.
"It takes everything from you," he said. "It hurts in your lower back, your calves, your stomach muscles, your thighs."
Kwigillingok doesn’t have sand, so his runners were at a disadvantage. Running through mud or the tundra won’t prepare you for something like this. According to Doug Boyer, Bethel Regional High School's assistant principal, runners should expect their times to be close to two minutes slower then they would be at a different meet.
Across the pit, about 60 high school boys gathered by the starting line, looking jittery and focused. The teams that competed in Saturday's match prepped for the course in different ways. Ronald Merritt from Quinhagak said that he trained for the race by running to and from his house. The Bethel Regional High School (BRHS) boys, meanwhile, have started working out with Nate DeHaan, Bethel’s resident Ninja Warrior contestant.
Matthew Hunter, age 18, is a senior at BRHS. He’s one of the fastest runners in the state and had spent some time training in the sandpit. His goal? To get a time of 18 minutes 15 seconds, which would beat all of Bethel’s previous cross country records for this event.
When the gun went off, Hunter started off quick and was neck and neck with Eugene Alexie, a particularly fast runner from the Kuskokwim Learning Academy who’s originally from Toksook Bay. The two ran up the steep slope and out of sight behind the brush. A crowd of spectators jogged across the pit to meet them at the race’s next viewing point.
They finished a lap and disappeared behind the brush again. Doug Boyer and several other coaches waited for them by the finish line. As the runners hit the final stretch, Hunter broke away.
"Wow," said Boyer. "That's highly impressive."
Hunter was about 27 seconds ahead of the competition. Looking tired, but fiercely determined, he checked his watch, pumped his arms, and started to sprint.
The crowd's cheer was deafening when he crossed the finish line. Hunter's time? Nineteen minutes and 57 seconds, which was slower than he'd hoped for.
"I still wanted that other time," he said. "But some goals might not be meant to be broken."
He might not have met his personal goal, but Hunter’s time is one of the fastest in the history of the Pit Race. And nine out of the top 10 runners in the high school boys race were athletes from Bethel Regional High School. The hours of practice, training with a Ninja Warrior, and access to the sandpit appear to have paid off.