THOUSAND OAKS — Remember the cooties, those whatever-they-ares that little boys say little girls have--and vice versa?
Well, there were times last year when Kim Mortensen felt like she had a case.
Whenever she tried to run with members of the Thousand Oaks High boys' cross-country team, they made it clear they didn't appreciate her tagging along.
"It was a lot more competitive last year," Mortensen said. "Their attitude was like, 'You're a girl, we don't want to run with you.' But this year it seems like we work together more. It's not competitive at all."
The willingness of varsity runners such as Eric Stoutenburg and Jason Lu to train with her is one reason Mortensen is regarded as the second-best female high school runner in the nation entering today's Mt. San Antonio College Invitational.
Santa Rosa junior Julia Stamps, who will race Mortensen today, is the reigning queen of U.S. high school distance running. Stamps, the defending Foot Locker national and state Division I champion, handed Mortensen her only loss of the season, winning the Stanford Invitational three weeks ago. But Mortensen, a Thousand Oaks senior, has dominated her other five races, breaking four course records, tying another and winning each race by at least 53 seconds.
The records she has bettered were hardly soft. They were set by Agoura's Deena Drossin, Newbury Park's Melissa Sutton and Fillmore's Maribella Aparicio. And she tied another set by Fallbrook's Milena Glusac.
Drossin, Glusac and Aparicio combined for six state cross-country titles during their high school careers. Sutton won three consecutive Southern Section 4-A Division titles from 1984-86 before the State championships began in 1987.
The course records and large margins of victory have stunned the soft-spoken Mortensen.
"I'm really surprised," she said. "I feel like I've been running the same as last year, just more comfortably. I guess the extra mileage has made a big difference."
Mortensen's weekly training output has increased from 36 to 42 miles a week, but she is also setting a faster pace in workouts.
"She's training at a whole new level," Thousand Oaks Coach Jack Farrell said. "She seems to have a sense of purpose that wasn't there before."
Mortensen admits as much and says that the success of Agoura's Amy Skieresz during the spring track season motivated her.
Throughout her career, Mortensen had been overshadowed by Skieresz, a two-time state cross-country champion and a Marmonte League rival. But the gap between the two widened during track season. Skieresz, now a freshman at Arizona, ran 10 minutes 16.42 seconds in the 3,200 meters--the third-fastest time in the nation--compared to Mortensen's 10:42.85.
"I've always looked up to her," Mortensen said of Skieresz. "I wish I could have been further up in the state meet, so yeah, I think [her] success was definitely a motivation this year."
But it's not like Mortensen had been just another runner.
As a freshman, she placed 16th in the State Division I cross-country championships and in track ran 11:05.46 in the 3,200.
As a sophomore, she was ninth in the State cross-country finals and qualified for the State track championships, running fifth in the 3,200.
She placed fourth in last year's State cross-country meet and and was fourth in the 3,200 in the State track championships.
Still, she was frustrated by what she considered only moderate improvement and trained with a passion over the summer. Her average pace of 6:30-6:45 per mile was about 30 seconds faster than what she ran as a junior.
So when Farrell encouraged her to train with the boys this season, she was ready for the challenge.
"Last year, I don't think that I really thought I could run with them and every time I tried to, they'd always go ahead," Mortensen said. "So this year, I really kind of grabbed ahold of them and made myself stick. And then, I think they got used to it."
Mortensen's training relationship with Stoutenburg and Lu has been symbiotic. Stoutenburg and Lu, the No. 3 and 5 runners on the boys' team, pull Mortensen along in interval workouts, while she usually pushes the pace on long runs.
"Jason and I are amazed at how hard she trains," Stoutenburg said.
Farrell figured that Mortensen was capable of training harder, yet it was difficult to fault her work ethic because of her racing success.
"In the past, she was a very-talented runner who really rose above her training in races," Farrell said. "She raced beyond her training. The difference now is that she's racing at the level she's training at."
That change has led to a series of impressive performances. In the season-opening Seaside Invitational at San Buenaventura State Beach in Ventura, Mortensen trimmed 28 seconds off Aparicio's course record.
A week later, she sliced 32 seconds off her own course record in the Mt. Carmel Invitational.