After three weeks of high-altitude training, Maricella Benavides returned to sea level to leave her mark on the minds of future opponents.
At the Woodbridge cross-country meet last week, Benavides, a senior at Santa Ana Valley High School, finished the girls' varsity three-mile race in 18 minutes 27 seconds for fourth place. She was the first Orange County finisher.
Her performance was viewed by several coaches as "very surprising," particularly because in last year's Woodbridge meet, Benavides, then a junior at Estancia, finished sixth in the small schools division in 19:06.
But Benavides, it seems, is prepared to provide additional surprises this season.
And one reason for the rapid improvement is her training at the summer running camps.
The first, Camp Idyllwild, which was run by Santa Ana Valley cross-country alumni, entailed running twice a day--at 7 a.m. and noon. Though the 6,500-foot elevation and the rocky, mountainous terrain were challenging, the campers were told to run, enjoy themselves, and use Idyllwild as a warm-up for the next week.
That was at Run to the Top, a camp in Barton Flats, Calif. (elevation 7,000 feet), near the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area. Training was rigid and regimented. Campers were expected to run at 6:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. and participate in drills on hill-running and different race techniques. One 16-mile run ended on a mountain peak, gaining 1,000 feet in altitude. Many runners took three hours to finish it.
Benavides' third and final camp, Camp Big Bear, was run by Corona del Mar Coach Bill Sumner. There were 63 boys and 2 girls--Benavides and her teammate Linda Villa.
Sumner, who knew of Benavides when she ran at Estancia, said she impressed the campers with her tenacity.
"For her size (4-feet 10-inches, 93 pounds), she's twice as powerful as she should be," Sumner said. "Playing volleyball or soccer at camp, she would dive on hard, rocky ground for the ball. She didn't care. If the only way to get a ball was to dive for it--she did it.
"She's a tough, aggressive lady that won't allow any mountain to stop her. She saves nothing (in competition). She attacks every inch of the course. (At Camp Big Bear), everyone set a goal for themselves every day, and I had guys that said, 'Well, today I'm just going to try to stay with Maricella.' "
One morning, Benavides was the 14th runner back from a 10-mile run that climbed to 8,000 feet. For that, she was awarded the coveted Athlete of the Day T-shirt.
"These (camps) really helped me a lot," Benavides said. "I had never been to any before. I learned so many things, like how to run, but not to kill yourself all the time; how to run hills the right way, and how to race better."
That final bit of learning may prove unsettling for many of Benavides' opponents. George Payan, Santa Ana Valley coach, believes Benavides will contend for the Southern Section 4-A individual title.
"There's no doubt in my mind," he said. "My goal for her is either winning 4-A or state, or both. She's had a great summer, she understands and accepts our program.
"At first, she wanted to run hard all the time, every day. But now she understands that you run hard only when it's time. She's totally committed."
Would Benavides agree?
"Yes," she said. "I feel more prepared this season. I don't know why. Maybe because I've been following the rules. Or maybe because I like (cross-country) so much more. But that's because of the camps, mostly. I miss them. I wish I could be back there right now."