About two thirds of the way through Saturday's Hotchkiss Cross Country Invitational, Paonia senior Caden Meilner trailed Hotchkiss senior Sam Rodriguez as they cruised across the high ridgeline of the adobe desert course. "He's just such a phenomenal runner and I kept him in my sights throughout the race," said Meilner. "I just know that if I can beat him, I'm being pretty solid."
Meilner overtook Rodriguez before heading off the ridge and went on to place third; Rodriguez placed fourth. Considering the competition, "Fourth place isn't too bad," said Rodriguez.
The top four finishers at Hotchkiss are among the best 2A, 3A and 4A cross country runners in the state, and the course is among the most challenging. Delta junior John Ames came in second, and Evan Graff of Montrose won the race in 18 minutes, 11.35 seconds.
Not only are they good runners and good competitors, they have competed with and against one another since middle school. Over the years, they've become friends.
"It's where I meet a lot of my friends," said Ames, a top runner for Delta since his freshman year. He considers Graff, Rodriguez and Meilner, as well as runners like Patrick Scoggins of Rangely, among his friends. "Running against them makes for a better race," he said.
"In the most humble way, I'm friends with everybody, really," said Ames. He and Rodriguez were competitive teammates at Delta before Rodriguez transferred to Hotchkiss in 2015. "We've always been good friends," he said.
"It's just a fun little community of runners," said Ames's mom, Traci Ames, who had set up camp along the course to cheer for all of the competitors. The athletes even train together during the summer.
"Runners, and all athletes, really, are very kind and generous people," said Meilner. "No matter what team you're on you're going through the same things and the same pain." It's one of the things he loves about running. "No matter what team you're on, we're all suffering together."
And they all support one another. After the races, "Everyone's congratulating one another, and pretty soon they're talking and getting to know one other," said Rodriguez. But come race time, he said, "There's not too much friendship on the course."