Baxter Raises Bar to Unprecedented Heights at Lightning Speed (16:00 course record!)

Simi Valley junior Sarah Baxter races home to a course record 16:00 performance at Mt. SAC. (Photo by Rich Gonzalez)

By Rich Gonzalez
(WALNUT, Calif.) – Simi Valley High School cross-country coach Roger Evans said Sarah Baxter hates to hear footsteps late during her races.

For the remainder of her high school career, she may never hear them again.

Baxter, already owning the distinction of beating the strongest prep field in U.S. history at last year’s Nike Cross Nationals, applied an even grander exclamation point on Saturday. Actually, among female cross-country runners, it was the grandest:

“Greatest High School Performance Ever.”

With a perfectly calm and cool setting to provide the ideal opportunity, Baxter completely embarrassed the  history books to record the most amazing female individual performance in U.S. prep annals, let alone at the illustrious 65-year history of the tradition-rich Mt. SAC Invitational.

The Pioneers junior, who merely wanted to improve on her personal best (16:41) at the revered course, surprised even herself when crossing the mile mark at 5:06, a stunning harbinger of things to immediately come.

With a mesmerized crowd split between those chasing to cheer her along at various points on the course, to others too shellshocked in disbelief to voice their support, Baxter annihilated the already unfathomable course record by screaming to an unheard time of 16  minutes flat on the three-hills, 2.94-mile challenge.

For the record, no pun intended, Baxter’s splits at various historical checkpoints were as follows:

  • Quarter mile: 1:11
  • Half mile: 2:31
  • Mile: 5:06
  • Top of Switchback Hill: 5:49
  • The Crossover Point: 8:42
  • 2-Mile: 10:45
  • Base of Reservoir Hill: 12:33
  • Half mile to go: 13:23
  • Final eastward wooden post on airstrip: 14:46
  • Finish line: 16:00

About the only item in question governing her effort was the official time. It was first announced as being estimated at ’15:59 or 16 flat’, with the finish line crew relaying word by walkie talkie minutes later in confirming the performance at 16 minutes even.

“Who were those timers? We may need to review that,” kidded high school meet director Tim O’Rourke afterward.

Regardless, her performance still ranked beyond compare.

It was in 1990 that Colorado prep Melody Fairchild threw down what was then regarded as the premier single prep performance in U.S. cross-country history, crushing the competition to win the 1990 FootLocker Championships meet at San Diego’s Balboa Park in 16:39 under immensely sweltering heat, winning the national title by an unheard of margin of 59 seconds.

It was then in 2001 that Californian Amber Trotter (Ukiah HS) re-upped the prep standard with a dominant fall season that saw her crush multiple course records by alarming margin while posting marks comparable with several varsity boys performers that season. She also set the FootLocker Championships record on the Florida-based course when the  meet used to be held there, winning by 40 seconds.

Trotter, whose gaunt appearance that year prompted suspicions — later confirmed — of suffering from an eating disorder, also set the Mt. SAC course record that year. That mark, however, occurred on a slightly ‘renovated version’ of the venerable layout, a change that historically has resulted in roughly a 20-second comparative time improvement for girls against the original version. Baxter’s showing here was clearly superior to Trotter’s previous record (16:16) on the renovated course – or any performance on any course, for that matter.

Golden Valley’s Chelsey Totten who recorded an unofficial yet spectacular time of 17:21, finished a very distance second to Baxter and put the whole experience in perspective.

“My mind doesn’t even understand how fast (Baxter) ran,” said Totten in an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News’ Erik Boal. “It’s exciting to say when my career is over, I can look back and say I was second in that race.”

As a 4-foot, 8-inch freshman two years ago, Baxter put up performances that season on courses with very good history to legitimately warrant comparison with New York’s Aisling Cuffe as the top prep in the nation that year (Editor’s Note: We had the two rated as even by season’s end). But Baxter, citing a desire to end a long season at the state meet, bypassed the Nike Cross Nationals event, ending the debate.

Last year, Baxter experienced a four-inch growth spurt and she continued to win — capturing state cross-country and 3,200-meter track titles — while adjusting to the ganglier frame. Her truly signature achievement, however, came last December at the Nike Cross Nationals event when she started conservative, but eventually executed her strategy in seizing the lead and pulling away from the strongest prep field ever assembled in winning the national title.

Since then, another six inches of growth and an accompanying dose of muscular tone has made her an powerfully lithe athletic specimen.

There was no question she was going to be better this season. The question was: How much better?

The answer started coming into focus earlier this month. After three cross country seasons of occasionally working out with the Simi Valley HS boys team in practices, Baxter would progress into competing with faster and faster groups of males.

This fall, she finally was matched up with the top group – and was holding her own. During a recent hill interval workout, Pioneers boys coach Kurt Mjoen reported to Evans the good news: She was starting to match the top boys, not only reaching the crest of the hill first, but also recovering faster.

Then, during a day when temperatures baked at 102 degrees, the 1,000-meter segments on the hill interval session turned into ones where Baxter was routinely beating her male counterparts by three to four seconds. Considering the boys program has been on the cusp of the CIF-Southern Section Division I rankings in recent weeks, she was clearly reaching new levels.

“And she didn’t look fatigued,” Evans recalled. “She’s just in remarkable condition.”

The preseason goal of breaking 16:25 at Mt. SAC and the pie-in-the-sky goal of breaking 16:20 there now seemed attainable.

Still, she was the typical, unassuming Sarah Baxter  on Saturday.

“I was nervous,” she said “My goal was just to (set a personal record) and hopefully win. … I was dreading (having to do) Reservoir (Hill).”

Was the course record in discussion, and a meticulous strategy put in place to do so? Hardly. She played it by ear, letting fate and fitness dictate the outcome.

“I wasn’t thinking about splits, I just wanted a PR,” she added, noting that a course record was never the target this weekend.

When crossing the finish, the lone immediate thought she could process was: “Wow!”

Baxter credited her health to better fitness and a better sense of pace in her races this fall, noting the injuries which delayed the start to her prior two high school cross-country seasons.

The boys in the program say the secret lies in her energy fuel, but she’s hardly a health nut.

“She has a real sweet tooth… and grandma feeds it,” Evans said, recalling an instance at a team dinner on the eve of last year’s state meet. Baxter’s grandmother shoveled a bag of goodies to Evans, to get to her star runner.

“I open it… It had Snickers bars, M&Ms,” Evans said. “(It was) a bag about ten pounds heavy with all candy.”

(Editor’s note: After her record run on Saturday, the always polite and upbeat Baxter was spotted after her race enjoying a Robek’s smoothie and a serving of kettle corn!)

For any remaining skeptics across the land, Baxter again answered the call in impressive fashion in also leading Simi Valley’s powerful program, which  placed second to Great Oak in the featured Team Sweepstakes competition and harbors goals of returning to Nike Cross Nationals for a second consecutive year.

On this day, the only question that remained was one that repeatedly was asked around the course among male competitors: “Hey, did you beat the chick(‘s time)?”

“The chick” would be Sarah Baxter.

And no, not many did beat her time. Get used to it.

Editor’s Note: Problems with the results system has caused a delay in results. No online results are available as of 3:30 p.m. PST. There is no immediate timeline for solving the problem. We are told the results might need to be manually fixed for posting.

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