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

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

Ellen Lyons of Boise ID was the first female champion of Kinney Cross Country Nationals in 1979. Ellen’s unlikely beginnings in the sport of running came when she joined her sister for some off-season training in order to condition for tennis. Longtime Boise area coach Tim Severa, who coached Lyons in the off-season, shared, “Ellen was tough,” and noted her intensity and determination. Severa witnessed her conversion from not-so-fit tennis player to unbeatable national champion. Undefeated the last two years of high school, Ellen went on to run for Stanford, starting a chain of Kinney/ Foot Locker champs who, after making the trip to California, opted to attend Stanford University. Ellen values the lessons competitive running has taught her, as much, if not more, than her athletic accomplishments.

Thirty years later, Ellen Lyons (now Ellen Santiago) allows us to flashback with her to that 1979 victory, providing a glimpse at the experience and those lessons learned.

1) Have you followed the Kinney/ Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships over the last 30 years? Do you notice any major changes? Have you been back as a spectator?

Yes, I have followed the championships and I have been a spectator too. I’ve noticed that there are more competitors, there are more races [at the Foot Locker West regional], there is an elite race, and there is more media attention. The athletes seem to have better training and nutrition programs, better coaching, and the race attracts more media spectators. The event seems to get better each year, although it was very nice when I ran in 1979.

2) How far did you travel for most regular season competition? Was making the trip from Boise to San Diego for a race a special trip for you?

In high school, most of the races were local (3-5 miles away), and the state meet was in Boise. I think the farthest I traveled in the regular season was 30 miles. The trip was very special and Kinney did a wonderful job with the race and with the activities for the athletes.

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? Where did you stay? What types of activities were planned for your visit?

I was treated very well. I stayed at the Hyatt and was treated like royalty. I cannot remember all of the activities, but I remember we went to the San Diego Zoo as well as Sea World. We also had an evening barbeque that was awesome.

4) You competed for Bishop Kelly HS in Boise ID, and were coached by Tim Severa in the off-seasons. Severa continues to coach high school elites, including Nicole Nielsen. How influential was Tim in your success as a high school runner? Have you ever thought about coaching?

Father Rodenspiel and Mr. Fritz were my high school coaches, but Tim coached me in the off season. Tim gave me terrific advice and encouragement. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with and be coached by Tim.

I have thought about coaching, but I enjoy what I am doing and do not feel I could dedicate the time and effort necessary to help athletes be successful.

5) With today’s technology and the growing popularity of the sport, high school elites have become minor celebrities. Fans and competitors know what these stars eat before a race, their weekly mileage, what sort 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? Do you follow the sport much on the Internet?

I did not know very much about my competitors, which I believed helped me. I was not intimidated by the other competitors, nor did I believe they had better workouts, coaches, genes, etc.  Not knowing much about my competitors allowed me to believe that everyone had an equal chance at winning and it would come down to who wanted it more. I follow some races and events on the Internet, and I like watching track and cross-country on TV.

6) Going into Kinney, you had run for two years undefeated?  Did you feel like you were favored to win the title?

No. I had only been running for a couple of years and I started running to lose weight, so I could move better on the tennis court. I think my confidence and hard work ethic helped, but I knew that anyone of the other 34 competitors could win. Even though I worked hard and was determined to win I always felt lucky when I won. The film crew did not take many pre-race pictures of me because they did not think I would win. I was only in group photos prior to the race. I think I surprised a lot of people when I won.

7) Can you share what was going on between you and the lead vehicle during the race? Also, did you hear about the TV producer asking the race director if you and your competition could stay close for the first 1-2 miles so they'd have an easier time filming? What was (or would your reaction have been) to such a request?

I was not focusing on the lead vehicle other than to avoid the dust. I am in a zone when I compete (the dancer becomes the dance) and I do not remember much of any of my races. My sister came to my race in Belmont (regionals) and was upset that I did not acknowledge her during the race. I told her that I was sorry, but I did not even see her.

I would not have wanted to stay close for two miles because it would not have been a race, but an event. I am a front runner and feel that staying close would have hurt my chances and it would have seemed like a workout rather than a race. Lynn Strauss passed me on the hill, which the film crew probably liked. I think the randomness of competition makes for more exciting races. Competitors should be allowed to run the race that will help them do their best. This helps the athletes feel better about their performances and usually makes for a better race/competition for the spectators.

8) You took an early lead, coming through the mile in 5:12. Can you recall the thoughts and emotions you experienced throughout the race? You smashed the 17:48 Balboa Park course record set by a collegiate woman in a finishing time of 17:28 to become the first Kinney National Cross Country Champion. How did you feel about your performance that day? What significance does that win have for you today?

I wanted to take the race out, since I am a front runner. I almost gave up when Lynn passed me on the hill, but I decided to keep pushing hard. When I got to the top of the hill I realized I had more left than I thought I did and I picked up the pace. As I picked up the pace I noticed that I was catching up to Lynn. That gave me a boost of energy and before I knew it I passed her and won the race.

The lessons of not giving up, finding a way to win, always giving your best, learning to work well with others, encouraging your teammates, and eating humble pie have been very helpful in life. Many times when I am tired at work I remember how I pushed myself in competition and I get a second wind. I realize I am not as tired as I think I am and I can do so much more. I realize others are depending on me as I am on them and if we want to be successful then everyone has to give his/her best.

The win is more important today than it was in 1979. The win gave me a lot of confidence and it is something I look back on and am proud of today. I got to travel nationally and internationally and I met many people because of my success in running. The win at Kinney helped me realize that I could compete with the best. If Kinney did not sponsor the national championships, then I would have been a good runner in Idaho. Winning the national championships helped me, as well as others, realize that I could compete at a top level and win. Winning the national championships allowed me to receive a full athletic scholarship to Stanford University. After running at Stanford I had the opportunity to run for Joe Douglas and the Santa Monica Track Club. I traveled nationally and internationally and ran in the 1984 Olympic exhibition 10K, and at the World University Games in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. I had many experiences that I would not have had if I had not won the national championships.

I believe that my success has helped my nieces and nephews realize they can achieve their dreams too. My success has taken the mystique out of winning a national championship and/or competing at a top level. That goal is attainable to them if they are willing to work hard and believe. I hope they take their athletic and academic career much further than I took mine, but at least they know they achieve anything if they are willing to work hard. They know they are no better or no worse than anyone else, and they can achieve great things if they are willing to put in the effort.

9) You have a few nieces who have taken to the sport of running, performing well at state and regional levels (Katie O’Neil even attending Stanford to run). How much influence would you say you have had on their choice of extracurricular? Niece Michelle Hickerson (Centennial ID) finished 5th at this year’s state meet in 18:51, and will compete at Foot Locker West on December 6th. What advice have you given your niece, and what advice would you share with the athletes competing in the 30th Foot Locker Championship?

My success running in high school has influenced my nieces and nephews and I think my sisters have used me as an example to motivate their children to compete. I have encouraged my nieces and nephews to play sports and I have given them advice for training and competing. I always tell my nieces and nephews to work hard and never give up. They should always do their best for themselves, their teammates, and for everyone watching. They should always set a good example on and off the field.

Sports are a good teacher and they can learn from their successes and their failures. It is better to try and fail than fail to try. Failure is no more fatal than success is permanent. How they do does not define them, but how they handle their successes and failures does. As Rudyard Kipling said in his poem "IF," the ability to treat those two impostors just the same is key to successfully living a good life.

The advice I would give to athletes is contained in the following poem by Edgar A. Guest


Figure it out for yourself, my lad,
You've all that the greatest of men have had,
Two arms, two hands, two legs, two eyes
And a brain to use if you would be wise.

With this equipment they all began,
So start for the top and say, "I can."

Look them over, the wise and great
They take their food from a common plate,

And similar knives and forks they use,
With similar laces they tie their shoes.
The world considers them brave and smart,
But you've all they had when they made their start.

You can triumph and come to skill;
You can be great if you only will.
You're well equipped for what fight you choose,
You have legs and arms and a brain to use,

And the man who has risen great deeds to do
Began his life with no more than you.

You are the handicap you must face,
You are the one who must choose your place,

You must say where you want to go,
How much you will study the truth to know.
God has equipped you for life, but He
Lets you decide what you want to be.

Courage must come from the soul within,
The man must furnish the will to win.

So figure it out for yourself, my lad.
You were born with all that the great have had,

With your equipment they all began,
Get hold of yourself and say: "I can."

Photos: DyeStatCal archives