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At a cross-country meet, a magic touch from one runner to another

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

Two months ago, on a cold Halloween morning, Jenna Huff chased Deb Guthmann for three straight miles at a high school regional cross country meet.

Jenna, a sophomore from North Stanly, had never met Deb - a senior from Waxhaw Cuthbertson. But Jenna badly wanted to beat her.

For the first 98 percent of the race, Jenna had been staring at Deb's back, trailing Deb by anywhere from 10 yards to 40 yards.

Both girls had a running secret that day. For Jenna, it was the finishing kick she liked to use to pass people in the last 100 yards.

For Deb, it was her right hip. Minutes after the race started, it had begun to throb, hurting in a way it had never hurt before. Deb was used to pain, though, and had determined she would deal with this ache only after she helped the team she captained qualify for the state meet.

As the two runners crossed the final bridge at Dan Nicholas Park in Salisbury, Jenna's mother screamed, "Catch her, Jen! Catch her!" Deb still had a 20-yard lead. But Jenna, her blond ponytail flying, had begun her kick. She started to close the gap.

Then something terrible happened.

Deb screamed in agony as her right hip tore apart.

Then something wonderful happened.

Jenna - taught by her coach that you must always pass a slower competitor - made a split-second decision that resonated at both schools because of its purity.

In the next few minutes, you could have made a bundle if you had a Kleenex concession stand at the finish line.

Deb was crying. Jenna was crying. Grown men were crying. The woman who took the pictures that documented it all was crying.

But before we get to the details of why all those tears fell, it will mean more if you learn a little about these two girls who didn't know each other.

'I just love the tiredness'

Deb Guthmann, 17, is the sixth of Howard and Alice Guthmann's nine children. Yes, nine children - a baseball team's worth of kids, ranging in age from 12 to 29.

Deb's father is a family doctor. Her mother home-schools the three youngest children. She home-schooled Deb, too, until halfway through Deb's sophomore year.

Deb has applied to three colleges - North Carolina, Clemson and the U.S. Naval Academy. Bubbly and tenacious, she ranks academically in the top 20 in her senior class at Cuthbertson. She is also disciplined enough that she got up at 4:30 a.m. for seven years to train as a competitive swimmer. When she got tired of that, in high school she switched her main sport to running and went at it with the same resolve.

Cuthbertson High, which is in Waxhaw, 30 miles south of Charlotte, opened in 2009. Deb ran cross country for the school as a junior and was the team's No. 1 runner that year.

"Deb is one of those kids who inspires everyone - she's been a great captain for us the past two years," said her cross country coach, David Malady. "She's also one of those kids who sometimes pushes herself too hard."

Deb loves to run. It's not easy on her body, but she embraces the difficulty.

"Part of why I love running is the speed," she said. "Part is just the fun of competing. A lot of it is I just love the tiredness. I love the effort I have to put into it."

Deb's cross country career would have been better had it not been dotted with injuries. As a junior, she had shin splints and some knee issues.

In her first meet this season as a senior, she felt "horrible," she said. She finished anyway, but her time disappointed her - a surprising nine minutes off her career best.

Then Deb vomited blood at the finish line, and that time of 29-plus minutes wasn't so surprising anymore. It turned out she had anemia and was bleeding internally.

Treating those issues knocked Deb out for a large portion of the season, but she fought back. She trained hard and got her times back within range of her career best - just over 20 minutes over the 3.1-mile cross country courses.

A five-sport athlete

Jenna Huff, 16, is the youngest of David and Kelley Huff's four children. A five-sport high school athlete, Jenna can't remember the last time she didn't have either a game, a practice, or both on any given day.

Jenna runs cross country mostly to stay in shape for some of her other sports. She likes basketball the best - she's a quick, 5-foot-3 point guard for North Stanly's JV team, averaging about 15 points per game. She also swims, plays soccer and runs track at North Stanly High in New London, about 45 miles northeast of Charlotte. Jenna also plays AAU basketball in Charlotte.

"If I stay in sports, I don't get in trouble," Jenna said. "I enjoy meeting other people, and I like striving to get better."

Said Drew Laucher, North Stanly's cross-country coach: "She leaves my workout and then goes and does another one that's just as hard. You don't ever have to worry about Jenna."

Jenna's mother was a stay-at-home mom for 12 years and now owns and operates a day care center. Her father is a train engineer. She has two older sisters and one older brother, and the whole family has been deeply involved in swimming.

"I was born with chlorine in my blood," Jenna said. "But basketball is my favorite sport."

Cross country was no lark for Jenna, however. An all-conference runner as a sophomore, she had been going out to the regional course in Salisbury on Sunday afternoons for several weeks, running it over and over, memorizing where the mile markers were. As one of the top two runners at her school, Jenna knew she would have to place high in the meet if her team had any chance to qualify for the state meet for the first time.

'Look Up': The race begins

The day of the 2A Midwest Regional dawned sunny and cold. The teams clumped together in small groups around their coaches' cars, making last-minute preparations before the race.

Laucher, the North Stanly coach, caught good-natured grief from his team for filling up an orange Gatorade cooler with hot water.

"Why is it hot? Who wants to drink hot water?" Jenna and her teammates kept teasing their coach.

Deb and her Cuthbertson teammates took out a black Sharpie pen and got creative. They wrote the words "Look Up" on their knees - one word on each knee - to remind them to face forward and try to chase down the runner in front of them. They drew small teardrops below each others' eyes - not for motivational reasons, but because they had time to kill while the boys' cross-country race finished.

The top four girls' teams would make it to the state meet, with the top five runners' times counting. If there was a tie between teams, it would be broken by the sixth-place finishers.

Cuthbertson knew it would probably be one of the top four teams but wanted to win the meet outright. North Stanly had never been to state meet before and would need career performances from most of its runners to make it.

The race began at 10 a.m. The 84 girls gradually separated as they ran through the woods and then ran two loops around the park's lake.

Deb and Jenna weren't in the lead pack. They were breathing hard, fighting for 21st place when they rounded the final curve and ran over the last bridge.

'C'mon. We're going to run'

"My hip started killing me about halfway through the race," Deb said. "I could still run through it, but I was in serious pain."

With about 50 yards to go to the finish, though, Deb's growth plate popped off her hip. The pain, her doctor would later say, would have been similar to breaking a bone.

Photographer Julia DuChateau, whose son ran earlier that day in the boys' race, snapped a series of pictures near the finish line that captured Deb's agony. Deb grabbed her hip and stopped. Real tears began to run over the fake tears she had drawn earlier.

Jenna then rounded into view as DuChateau kept taking pictures. She approached on Deb's left, suddenly realizing the girl she had been chasing the entire race would now be easy to pass.

"The first thing that went through my mind," Jenna said, "was good golly, she just ran 3 miles that fast and she's going to stop right there? Right at the finish line?

"I didn't think about passing her, though. It wouldn't have been right, because she was hurt. Instead, I grabbed her. I looked at her and I said, 'C'mon. We're going to run, and we're going to do it now.'"

DuChateau's photos showed Jenna grabbing Deb's left elbow and guiding her toward the finish line.

Deb took a few tentative steps, then started jogging again.

Said Deb: "She kept telling me, 'C'mon, look, it's right there.' And I was crying. I wasn't really saying anything."

As they neared the finish chute that determines placement order, Jenna stopped. She pushed Deb one step ahead of her, ensuring that Deb would finish before she did.

"She deserved to be in front of me," Jenna said. "That's why I did it. She would have beaten me if she hadn't gotten hurt. And then one of the race officials looked right at me after I helped her and said, 'You can't do that.' And I was like, 'I just did.'"

'A lovely thing to see'

As a crowd gathered around both exhausted runners after they finished, race officials conferred. Technically, no runner is supposed to aid another runner. For a few minutes, there were rumors that Deb or Jenna - or both - would be disqualified.

But after a brief discussion that included several coaches, Jenna's good sportsmanship was allowed to stand. Deb would finish 21st in the race with a time of 21 minutes, 33 seconds. Jenna was officially 22nd, with a time of 21 minutes, 34 seconds.

Jenna's mother, Kelley Huff, saw none of the finish-line drama. She had positioned herself with Jenna's grandmother out on the course but then couldn't get to the finish line. When she finally made her way to it, so many people were crying at once that Kelley Huff looked at her own mother fearfully and said, "Oh, Mom, somebody has died."

Meanwhile, the father of a runner on another team approached Jenna and told her tearfully that what she did was the best thing he had ever seen. Jenna started crying.

Deb, now being comforted by her father, was still crying. DuChateau, the photographer, started crying.

"Oddly, during all that at the end of the race, nobody else passed them," DuChateau said. "It was this little drama playing out with just with the two of them. It was a lovely thing to see."

A few minutes later, the team results were announced.

Cuthbertson and Salisbury had tied for the regional championship based on the finishes of each team's first five runners. The tie would be broken by which team's sixth-place finisher came across the line first.

With Jenna's help, Deb was Cuthbertson's sixth-place finisher.

Deb had scored the winning points in the race.

Overwhelming - and embarrassing

Jenna's gesture affected many people who witnessed it. Among the most deeply affected: Deb's coach.

Malady, who is also Cuthbertson's athletic director, said: "I've coached track and cross country for 10 years, and I've never seen anything like it. Kids are always falling apart at or near the finish line - sick, tired, whatever. And they just get passed. Over and over. You just don't stop and grab somebody and help them. It's like an unwritten rule. You just don't. But Jenna did."

It was a moment that has brought to mind several comparisons. The most frequent: The two college softball players in 2008 who carried an injured opponent around the field to touch each base after she hit a home run but tore up her knee while running the bases.

Malady invited Jenna to the Cuthbertson fall sports banquet. She came, along with her mother and her coach, Laucher, who had already written a story about Jenna's Good Samaritan deed for the Stanly County newspaper.

Jenna was somewhat self-conscious about the fuss - she made her mother put away the camcorder she had planned to use - but reluctantly went onstage after several of the photos had been shown and the story told.

The Cuthbertson crowd greeted her with a standing ovation. Deb gave Jenna a hug. She was presented with a Cuthbertson varsity letter.

"It was overwhelming," Jenna said. "And a little embarrassing."

It was a little embarrassing for Deb, too. A talented athlete and student, she is much more than a girl who needed help to finish a race. Some of DuChateau's pictures of the event were posted on Facebook, and Deb untagged herself on a few so she wouldn't be identified by name.

Deb's hip is slowly healing and she does not need crutches anymore, but she can't run yet. She couldn't run in the state cross country meet - Cuthbertson finished fifth - although she went anyway for moral support. Deb can swim, however, and has joined Cuthbertson's swim team. She and Jenna have actually seen each other at several high school swim meets, although they compete in different events.

"My friends tease me now whenever I'm going to swim," Deb says. "They say, 'Is Jenna Huff going to be there? Do you think she might have to save you from drowning?'"

Deb has been gracious about it all. She hopes that telling the story will prompt more athletes to exhibit better sportsmanship. She herself stopped once in a meet to check on a lapped runner who had cut in front of her, tripped and fell. The runner got up quickly and kept going, but Deb lost two places at the finish because of that pause.

Jenna and Deb now know each other, but they aren't great friends. They live more than an hour apart.

But they share a bond now, formed when Jenna said, "C'mon!" and her right hand closed over Deb's left elbow.

It was, literally, a touching gesture - and ultimately a celebration of all in life that is possible when you reach out to someone you have never met.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
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