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2008 Foot Locker - Finals
the history
12/13/08 at Balboa Park, San Diego CA

 The First Boys Champ | Brent Steiner
The First Girls Champ - Ellen Lyons
By Laura Magee

Kansas native Brent Steiner earned the very first Kinney Boys Cross Country National Championship in 1979.  He gave up on his early high school football career when he came to terms with the fact that his 145 lb. frame might be better suited for running. This decision set Brent on a path with running as a constant in his life. He views his Kinney win as the catalyst for the opening of many doors along the way. Perhaps the path winding from high school national champion to frustrated collegiate runner to professional duathlete, and then to Pearl Izumi sales representative, was not exactly predictable thirty years ago, but one thing is clear: without running Brent's life could have been very different.

Thirty years down the road, Brent Steiner found time in his busy travel schedule to explain how winning the Kinney National Championship still holds great meaning for him, and to share some advice for young athletes getting started in the sport.

1) Have you followed the Kinney/ Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships over the last 30 years? You, along with 1979 female champ Ellen Lyons, were invited back for the event's twentieth anniversary, how was the experience as a spectator and former champion?

I followed results for about the ten years afterwards, but I really haven’t kept up lately…and I should, because I am still in the industry a little bit. It seemed like they still did a really good job of putting the athletes up in a nice place, and having lots of activities planned for them. I definitely enjoyed the experience; they treated us great, just like the kids. Twenty years later, it still felt like a high profile event for elite athletes. It was nice to see that lasting.

2) As a high school athlete, was making the trip from Kansas to San Diego for Kinney a big trip for you?

I grew up in Kansas and had never really competed outside of the state. I did go to the Junior Olympics in Nebraska the summer before, but I had never done much traveling or been to a national event until that came around. It was a big deal for me to go out to California, see the ocean for the first time, and stay at the Hyatt hotel. I think it was the Hyatt.

3) The appeal of Foot Locker goes beyond the national caliber competition to the hospitality extended to the athletes. As a young athlete, how were you treated? What types of activities were planned for your visit?

We went to the Wildlife Zoo and I think Sea World as well. They definitely had stuff for us to do. The first year they had-- I’m not sure if they still do--hired a film crew to film the event. Somehow they selected certain athletes who actually acted out certain scenes. We would act like we were arriving to the hotel, and we had already done that, but they told us to act like it was the first time getting here and unload your bags. It was kind of fun to do that , but at the same time I remember it was around 10:30 the night before the race and we were like ‘You know what, we’ve got to race tomorrow, so we’ve got to get back to focusing on the race.’

4) You went on to compete at the collegiate level for University of Kansas, then moved on to compete nationally as a duathlete (above). Your career with sporting companies Cannondale, and now Pearl Izumi, has allowed you to stay active and in touch with both cycling and running. How have your early years of running shaped your adult life? How different would things be if you had continued to play football?

I had a lot of injuries in college. That was one of the frustrating things; here I had won the national high school race and had all these expectations for college of how I could be a top runner. I had that pressure and was definitely running more miles than my body could handle. It was mostly the mileage that kept getting me injured. When I graduated I felt like I could train the way I wanted, and didn’t have to follow a program. When I got out on my own I figured that was my chance to do something. I got injured and started riding a bike, that’s how I got into duathlons. I did the Coors Series (duathlon), and won in 1990.  Finally back to winning a national championship, I felt really good about that, then Coors pulled their sponsorship in 1992. After that, there was no way to make a living of the sport.

A couple of my sponsors asked what I would do. I said I would either go back to PT school, but that I had thought about being a sales rep. One of my sponsors called me a month or two later, and said if you were serious about being a rep, we need one in Arizona. I said, 'Yeah, I’ll give it a try.' That is kind of how I got started. Football was my favorite sport as a kid growing up, and even my first year in high school I played football instead of cross country because I loved it so much. I knew my football career was limited.  I weighed 145 pounds, and even when I tried to gain weight, I kept about 150. I was just not going to be a big guy. In the back of my mind I knew there was no real future, but I played as long as I could.

Runners at the initial Kinney National Cross Country Championships in San Diego in 1979 
5) In 2003, you returned to your high school alma mater, Shawnee Mission South, to speak with the current team and watch the state meet. What advice did you share with that group of athletes, and what would you share with the athletes competing in the 30th Foot Locker Championship?

I did, how did you know about that? [Editor's note: Google is a wonderful thing] I had a nephew that ran for one of the Blue Valley schools back in Kansas, and he called.  I went to the state meet and Rim Rock Farm, a really nice cross country venue. I did a talk that was mostly about that specific race. When I visit running shops and hear kids talk about the Foot Locker race, I’ll say 'I won that the first year they did it.' The kids are always like, Wow.  I just say, for me, the event opened doors. It got me a college scholarship, my education paid for, obviously education is very important, and it made sure I maintained a focus. When I look at what I am doing now, running has really been a part of my lifestyle and continues to be. I have some family history of heart attacks and high blodd pressure, in fact all of my grandparents have died of heart attacks, my father has high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and I’m healthy.  Make running a long term lifestyle, and look what it can do for you. It can help keep you healthy and keep happy. For me, it also turned out to be a career.

6) With today’s technology and the growth of the sport's popularity, high school elites have become minor celebrities. Fans and competitors know what these stars eat before a race, can track their weekly mileage, what kind of workouts they do, and often real-time race results. What did you know about the competition you would face in San Diego? How did you learn about them and their performances? How do you think the level of coverage affected your Championship?

We didn’t have any of that when I was growing up. There was a magazine back then called the Harrier Magazine, my coach would get that. That was about the only way we knew who the other top runners were in the country. Occasionally Runner’s World would do some articles on certain people, and we would think 'Oh wow, look at that guy.' We didn’t know the other athletes at the level they do today with the Internet and everything else. I don’t know how that would change things. My approach would still be, I can only do what I can do to get ready for an event. Even to this day, when I go to an event I still get that natural anxiety. I always welcome that; I always have my best performances when I have some of that nervous energy inside of me.

7) A simple Internet search for top Kansas cross country runners and programs still generates your name. How do you feel about that attention/ honor?

I definitely feel honored by that. I still have the 2-mile record, I’m pretty sure. That is probably the reason I ran cross country, the high school I went to had such a strong tradition. At that time we had the strongest program. I know since then some other schools have had pretty good teams, but at that time we were definitely one of the top. It is still nice, to see that no one has broken my 8:46 2-mile record.

8) You led a pretty quick race back in '79, coming through the mile in 4:30. Second place finisher Barasa Thomas stayed very close until right around the two-mile mark. Do you remember what you were thinking? When did you know that you would be able to maintain your lead, and how did you feel about your performance that day?

The way I raced back then was go out hard, then settle down into a pace. That was easier for me than going out conservative, and all of the sudden somebody surges. That was always a shock to my system. My plan was always to go out hard, that is why I went out so hard that day, plus all of the anxiety I had. I felt pretty under control. On that course there was one nice switchback hill at around 2.5 miles. Believe it or not, that was always my strength. People would say this kid is from Kansas and Kansas is flat, so this kid is going to stink on hills. That is the opposite, where we ran was quite hilly and we focused on hitting the hills really hard. So, that was my goal to really attack that hill, that ‘s how I kind of broke away from Barasa Thomas, and I knew when I came over the top of that hill I had a gap.  Not a big gap, maybe 5 seconds or so. After that it wasn’t too far to the finish. I remember thinking if I can maintain this gap I can win this thing, and that’s how it happened. At that time it was my best performance. Everything went as planned.

9) Foot Locker has built a strong tradition over the last thirty years, what does being a part of that tradition mean to you? As a high school athlete, were you aware of how big your victory was?

It feels nice, I am honored to be a part of that. It is really nice that it has continued to be the premier event. Thirty years is a long time for something like that to continue, especially with corporate sponsors that tend to be in and out. The fact that Foot Locker has been in a long time for a program like that is impressive. Part of me, because it was the first year, didn’t really know what it meant.  After the fact, with all of the publicity I got from it, I realized. Maybe not right at that day or time, but definitely soon afterwards I realized, 'That was a cool event.'

Photos: top, 2005 Desert Classsic Duathlon, bottom, footlockercc.com