An Oral History Of The Fastest Coach In The State Race

On Saturday December 8, Terry Witkowski, the longtime beloved assistant from Jefferson Academy pointed himself northbound off of the final corner of the cross country course behind Lyons High School, saw daylight and kept charging hard past the finish line beneath the north goal post to claim the title of the fastest coach in the state for 2018.

Witkowski, an import from Wisconsin opened up the scoring for Team Transplant who ended up perfect scoring the meet. Simultaneously, he also kicked off the scoring for the 2A/3A team of coaches who scored 18 points. Scoring the meet twice (once as Team Transplant vs Team Colorado, and again as 2A/3A vs 4A/5A) is one of the many quirks of maybe the quirkiest race of the entire year.

Since January 2012, the Fastest Coach in the State Race has been the final cross country race of the season on Colorado soil. Once a year, more than a month after the CHSAA sanctioned season, a whole lot of men and women wake up early, drive to Lyons and run a 5K.

How did we get here though? How did Colorado become the only (someone email me at if I am wrong) state in the union with a coaches state championship?

Terry Witkowski ran away with the 2018 title.

An Iconic Race Is Born

In the summer of 2011, I was teaching eight hours a day worth of driving lessons for teenagers. Some of the kids were chatty, many were not. It left me with a lot of time to contemplate life. In between slamming my foot down on the passenger side brake pedal to prevent disaster, and trying not to fall asleep during highway lessons I often found myself thinking about running.

One day in July, I found myself pondering what I had seen go down one afternoon the previous cross country season at Addenbrooke Park in Lakewood. I had just finished reading Running With the Buffaloes and one of the protagonists, Oscar Ponce, then coaching at Lincoln dominated the citizens race winning in 17:35. That is a fairly pedestrian time in the inner circles of elite running, but Ponce had to run that fast with four water crossings.

That afternoon, I went home and opened up my favorite website (Colorado MileSplit) and went to the discussion forum to start this thread. If you read through the thread, you can see that people were posting on it for several months before the idea to actually contest the race came out. Once I put the idea out there that we should contest the race, Mark Roberts from Lyons quickly responded that they would be happy to host the race.

When Mark said that Lyons would host the race, I was over the moon. From the fall of 2009 when I first set foot at the Lyons course it had been by far my favorite cross country course in Colorado. As a type-A personality on most things, I also knew that we would be in good hands working with Mark. If you have never been to a meet hosted by Mark, you are always in for a well scheduled, well executed treat. The Lyons course is neither a screamer, nor a grinder. It is a perfect place to test fitness and contest a team battle.

If memory serves me correctly, the first thing I did was email Mark and Alan Versaw from Colorado MileSplit. Alan agreed to come up and both run the race and cover it on Milesplit. Mark invited Ben Anderson, the assistant at JA at the time (now the Girls Head Coach at Conifer) and I up to his home to have dessert and discuss planning the first race, which ended up taking place in January of 2012. We put together the details over hot tea and dessert and it ended up being a really fun event, even though only 12 people showed up.

Kelly Christensen and Josh Glaab highlighted the inaugural race. 

I will never forget that first race, watching Kelly Christensen (then of Thompson Valley) battle Josh Glaab from Fairview and take the win 16:07 to 16:08. I remember running the back stretch and seeing them go down into the stadium and looking at my watch, which still had not struck 16:00 and just being floored. Of course, at that point I did not realize the running pedigree being played out in front of me. At that point, the highlights of my running career were still mostly winning local elementary school 5ks, often out kicking the pace bike to win a Cold Stone gift card. Sure, Josh and Kelly had All-American trophies, but I had a $10 gift card good for some mix-ins.

That kicked off Kelly winning the next three races handily. James Vance took the mantle in 2014 and did not give it up until 2017 when Alex Diltz from Boulder took the title. Vance's most memorable win from a spectators point of view might have been the 2016 "Snow Race" in which Vance had to plow over a couple of inches of snow to take the title. To date, of the seven races, there have been four mens winners. Oh, what a sight it would be to get all four men's winners in to the same race. 

Male Winners

2012: Kelly Christensen (University)

2012: Kelly Christensen (Thompson Valley)

2013: Kelly Christensen (Palmer Ridge)

2014: James Vance (Thompson Valley

2015: No Race

2016: James Vance (Thompson Valley)

2017: Alex Diltz (Boulder)

2018: Terry Witkowski (Jefferson Academy)

Emily Hanenburg was the 2014 women's race winner.

If there has been one thing that has been inconsistent over the years it has been heavy participation from the female coaches out there. Save for a three year run by The Classical Academy, no school or person has shown any domination over the race.

Female Winners

2012: Roby Bode (Estes Park)

2012: Emily Hanenburg (The Classical Academy)

2013: Allison Toppen (The Classical Academy)

2014: Emily Hanenburg (The Classical Academy)

2015: No race

2016: Lisa Gibbs (Kipp Collegiate)

2017: Jen Byrne (Golden)

2018: Amy DeSean (Denver South)

One of the things that I have long adored about cross country (even more so than track) is the number of coaches who are also still competing as athletes in their own right. To my knowledge, which I will always acknowledge is incomplete, Colorado is the only state in the nation who gives its coaches the opportunity to face off against each other. I used to joke that the coaches race was the jaunt from the starting line to the first mile marker. It is pretty funny to watch a bunch of adults running with clip boards and iPads to see who can get to the orange cone with the one on it.

A second thing that I love about the cross country community is the camaraderie between coaches. At cross country meets we do not often get the opportunity to really hang out. You get a cursory hello, maybe a head nod over a clip board, but it is definitely not a great opportunity to get to know each other. At the coaches race, there are not usually any kids around, so we get the chance to say hi and visit. After the race we always watch the Foot Locker live feed and eat donuts. That also makes the trip to Lyons worth it.

Mark Roberts gave the race a venue known by many as one of the best cross country courses in Colorado.

One thing that I think it is really important for everyone to understand is that this race would absolutely not happen if it were not for Mark Roberts and his crew at Lyons High School. I am the email and peer pressure guy associated with the race. Mark is the person who actually makes sure that it happens. Mark is a person I am eternally glad that I have in my life to work on this race with and coach in the same arena as. He is infinitely integral, a great colleague, and I know I won't see any dogs at any of his events. Mark is a huge blessing to the Colorado coaching community.

In the future, I would love to see the race continue to grow. Over the years we have had between 12 and 44 people. I know that there are a lot more coaches out there that are training regularly in our state than show up every year. At some point it would be nice to have enough people coming out that we need professional timing.

I would also like to use this venue to make some predictions for 2019...

In 2019, Terry Witkowski will come back in shape ready to crush souls, but he will face a stiff challenge from someone from Boulder County.

I also predict that at least one of the former men's winners will come back for 2019. My early pick for 2019 women's winner is Jen Byrne from Golden returning from 2018 sickness to throw down against a stiff competition from the ladies of TCA.

I will also predict that donuts will be eaten, coffee will be drank, and friends will be made. Or enemies. Sure, yeah, because we are gonna race each other.