SANTA ANA — Lucio Brito, a senior cross-country runner at Santa Ana Valley High School, likes his late-night runs best. Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 10 and 11 p.m., Brito runs for about 30 minutes along Bristol Street. His pace is comfortable, the air is cool and the streets are uncrowded.
Though his evening runs are meant to be peaceful, they also are purposeful. These solitary runs have become the cornerstone of Brito's workouts, and the main reason behind his move from the Falcons' No. 4 runner last year to No. 1 this season.
George Payan, Santa Ana Valley coach, gives his best runners optional workouts--usually long, slow distance runs--if they feel the need for more mileage. Most of Payan's runners prefer to tackle their extra miles before school, but not Brito. The lure of the street lights is too powerful.
"You feel like you're going so fast, even though you aren't," Brito said. "There's no heat. There's nobody on the streets."
Still, he keeps to the main drag to avoid trouble in unfamiliar or unfriendly neighborhoods. "I can see people saying, 'You're running at 10 or 11 at night in Santa Ana?' " Brito said.
So far, so good. Brito said he's had no problems on his runs. Aside from dodging the few cars on the streets, he said he spends most of his 30 minutes getting psyched for upcoming races.
"I always say to myself, 'I'm gonna win, I'm gonna win,' " Brito said.
It's helped. Brito has won two of the three invitational races Santa Ana Valley has entered, and two of three Century League dual meets. His only loss to an Orange County runner came Thursday when he was beaten by one second by teammate Peter Reyes in a dual meet victory over Foothill at Centennial Park in Santa Ana.
Moreover, his season-best of 15 minutes 11 seconds, set Sept. 28 while winning the Dana Hills Invitational, is already faster than his 1990 best of 15:23.
"He's surprising me," Payan said. "He's consistent, which is the reason why he's there (No. 1). We have three others who should be able to blast him."
After a disappointing junior season in which Santa Ana Valley missed qualifying for the state cross-country championships by four points, Brito went to Payan and asked what he could do to improve. Payan told him that in order to be a consistent runner, Brito needed to get in an extra run three times a week.
"What really got me going was missing state by four points," Brito said. "I want the 'banana' this year."
The 'banana' would be a trip to the state meet. Santa Ana Valley is top-ranked in the Orange County Coaches' Assn. poll and No. 3 in the Southern Section Division I poll, so it's hardly a far-fetched notion that the Falcons will be at the starting line Nov. 30 in Fresno's Woodward Park.
"I got to thinking, 'It's my senior year, I want the team and myself to do good.' " Brito said.
The first step in his improvement plan was to spend some time camping and running in the local mountains. He spent two weeks at Idyllwild, then a week at Barton Flats, where the air was cleaner and the traffic less troublesome than in Santa Ana.
He came to Santa Ana Valley's first workout in the best shape of his life, and hasn't let up since.
Under Payan's training plan, Brito has already peaked once--for the Dana Hills meet. Now, Brito has started an intense training phase, which will lead to a second peak later this month. By season's end, Brito will have peaked a third time for the Southern Section and state meets.
Through it all, he plans to stick with his night runs, which remind him of the reason he started running in the first place.
"You can be free, go anywhere you want and run with the people you want to run with," Brito said.
And thanks to that extra running, Brito also is running away from people this season.
Lucio Brito's Senior Season
Date Meet Time Place Sept. 14 Laguna Hills Invitational 15:35 First Sept. 19 vs. Orange 15:27 First Sept. 21 Woodbridge Invitational 15:36 Second Sept. 28 Dana Hills Invitational 15:11 First Oct. 1 vs. Villa Park 16:12 First Oct. 3 vs. Foothill 15:24 Second