The Petersburg Mitkof Middle School’s cross-country program started as a small club about a decade ago. It’s now enormously popular, with kids joining for all different reasons. But they seem to agree on one thing: Joe Viecknicki is a great coach.
On the afternoon of Sept. 23, the covered area by Petersburg’s Rae C. Stedman Elementary School was packed with middle schoolers. It was 20 minutes before their second and final cross-country meet of the year, and there was movement everywhere, bodies seemed to bounce off each other. A group of girls with matching double French braids huddled, shaping their feet into a heart. The boys were competing first and formed a lumpy circle, counting off stretches together.
Joe Viecknicki is the long-time middle school cross-country coach. This year there’s a big team for the Vikings – more than 40 kids. That’s more than one-third of the entire middle school. Viecknicki said he’s not sure why there are so many kids on the team.
But, he says, “It’s pretty cool. I’m very excited about it and the kids are fired up.”
His advice to runners joining the team? Run if you can; walk in between. He said he tells the kids to just keep their bodies moving as long as they can. And focus on the mental aspect of running.
“There’s lots of different tricks…so, thinking about things other than how bad it feels,” he said.
That trick works for 8th grader Eleanor Denning-Barnes. She said that when she’s running she thinks about “really just literally anything” to distract her from the fact that she’s doing physical activity.
“I don’t like sports very much in general,” she said. “But this, I like.”
8th grader Julianna Allison said that Viecknicki has taught them that endurance is more important than speed.
“Because if you can run really fast for like a mile and like, can’t run for two miles then like, it’s not even worth it,” she said.
The boys finished their warm-ups, and jogged slowly to the starting line in front of the elementary school. There were only two teams competing –. Petersburg Vikings filled one lane, the Wrangell Wolves filled the other.
A standard high school cross-country race is 3.2 miles. Middle schoolers run two miles. The course takes the runners up Excel Street, past the ballfield and down Hungry Point Trail, then heading back toward town on North Nordic Drive, with the finish line on First Street.
Acting Activity Director Jim Engell called out, “Runners take your mark!” He blew his whistle and the boys were off, the onlookers cheering.
The fastest runners usually finish the course in 14 to 15 minutes. The crowd made its way the three blocks down to the finish line. It didn’t take long for a few bouncing black specks to appear way down Nordic Drive.
8th grade Viking Tucker Gibson was in the lead, with Wrangell Wolf Lucas Stearns about half a block behind him. The final stretch is uphill, and Stearns slowly closed the gap.
The finish looked too close to immediately call, but after Gibson caught his breath he explained that he didn’t know Stearns was right behind him until he heard the crowd screaming. And then they were neck and neck. He was pretty sure Stearns finished first.
“He just caught me a little bit at the end there,” Gibson said.
It turns out Gibson was right – Stearns beat him by less than one-quarter of a second.
The girl’s race was next, and the crowd trekked back to the starting line, waited for the starting whistle, and turned back around to head down to the finish line a second time.
A Viking was in the lead again, but this time there were no Wolves close behind. Cadence Flint took an easy first place, with a time of 15:03.64. She was beaming and seemed unsurprised by her victory. She says she runs all the time, even when it’s not cross-country season.
“I really like how calming it is when I’m stressed or angry and I really like the feeling I get after I win,” she said. “Or after I run, not even if I win.” .
It’s her final cross-country race of middle school but she said she absolutely plans to join high school cross-country next year. She’s also in dance and plans to play volleyball but she’s not going to let that get in the way of her running.
“Running is definitely my priority,” she said.
Tucker Gibson is less sure.
“I like running, it makes me feel good,” he said. “But in high school, I probably can’t do it because of basketball and wrestling.”
Even if he doesn’t keep running in high school, he said he appreciates the coaching he’s gotten from Viecknicki.
“He pushes you really hard, and he understands and he lets you walk if you need the walk, but if you don’t, he pushes you,” he said. “He knows your potential.”
And Viecknicki knows it can be hard to compete with other sports when time gets tight in high school. But he’s happy to coach the large group while he can and plant the seed that running is a great sport, even if you have to think about other things while you’re doing it.