WARRENTON — A total of 2,247 runners from 93 different schools and running clubs, all celebrating the sport of cross-country. That’s how it was Saturday at Camp Rilea for the annual 3-Course Challenge.

And it was a special one this year.

For one, it was the 30th edition of the big meet, hosted every year by Seaside High School, which lends hundreds of volunteer hours for a weekend of fun, games and camaraderie between middle school and high school cross-country runners.

They all gather on a Saturday in late September at Camp Rilea, where they line up (as closely as possible) and run one of 11 races — two middle school races, eight high school races and one open race.

It takes the better part of Saturday and most of the available parking spots. This year, 1,993 runners finished their respective races, and the thousands of spectators went home happy, wherever that home happened to be — Oregon, Washington state, California, Canada …

They came up from up and down the West Coast to take part in what is likely the biggest cross-country meet in this part of the country.

Seaside’s Neil Branson is no longer the track or cross-country coach at Seaside High School, but he’s seen as the man in charge, and has been a part of the 3-Course Challenge since its beginning.

But Branson and the meet was missing a special partner this year. It’s the first 3-Course Challenge since the passing of Gene Gilbertson, a former coach who was one of the founders of the big meet.

For years, Gilbertson was the one who blew the horn to start each race. He passed away June 12, and his absence was certainly felt. But his presence was there.

“For me it is,” Branson said. “He and I started this thing 30 years ago. He was our starter, although he hadn’t started it for the last four or five years. But I would ask him to come out, and he would make his presence felt. So personally, I miss him greatly. He was a wonderful mentor and friend.”

One obvious presence was the number of schools, which is usually up around 100 (Branson always aims for 101, for U.S. Highway 101).

“There are 93 programs — that’s high schools, middle schools and some clubs,” he said. “And the last count was 2,247 entrants. We won’t get that many finishers. I’m guessing 2,087.”

He was close. The unofficial number of finishers was 1,993.

And the unofficial award winner for farthest distance traveled, Branson said, was Cerritos High School from Southern California.

“We have Cerritos, and we have Whitney High School, which is in the Cerritos area,” he said. “Then we have Sacred Heart Cathedral, out of San Francisco. And I think we have four British Columbia schools from Canada.”

The “bummer for the kids,” he added, “is that there’s no water in the mud pit this year. There’s mud, but without the water, that will make it worse, because the mud will cake onto their shoes. But it’s good for ‘em. It builds character.”

Another special part of the day came by way of several big performances from local runners.

On the boys’ hard course, Ilwaco sophomore Daniel Quintana was second out of 301 runners, running the 5,000 meters in 19 minutes, 1 seconds to finish in between athletes from Sandy and Sisters, both big Oregon schools.

In the race on the boys’ moderate course, Knappa senior Robert Piña-Morton took fifth out of 319 runners, finishing the 5,000-meter course in 18:35. Knappa was fourth out of 27 scoring teams, behind Eastlake (of Seattle), Bend and Sacred Heart Cathedral.

And on the girls’ moderate course (198 runners), Astoria junior Sophie Long placed sixth in 22:55.

In the boys’ middle school race, Astoria’s Andy Wintersteen finished fourth out of 190 runners, covering the 3,000 meters in 10:45. Astoria Middle School was third out 13 scoring teams, behind Bowerman Track and Whisper Running clubs.

Gary Henley is a sports reporter for The Astorian. Contact him at 503-861-8493 or ghenley@dailyastorian.com.

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