Leah Holmgren

Ellensburg High School’s Leah Holmgren is about 50 meters from the finish as she placed second in the Senior Girls race at the Sehome Invitational in Bellingham earlier this season.

Commitment to excellence. Trust your training. Put in the miles, then put it on the line every time you race.

Senior Leah Holmgren learned all those things as a kid coming up through the ranks from the first-ever Morgan Middle School cross country program to the Ellensburg varsity, from her good friend and mentor Uhuru Hashimoto.

But there’s one thing she learned that has become one of her most effective weapons on the course.

“She taught me how to smile when I race. You relax when you smile and running relaxed is important,” said Holmgren, who recently committed to the University of Idaho. “I used to stay as close to her as possible, for as long as possible. I learned so much from her, but I think remembering to smile is the best lesson.”

Holmgren learned well. She and Hashimoto became one of the strongest running tandems in the Pacific Northwest, despite the age difference. Holmgren blew onto the scene as a freshman in 2016, finishing fifth in the 2A state cross country race. Hashimoto was third, leading the Bulldogs to a fifth-place team showing.

Holmgren had some injuries her sophomore season, but gutting out a top-30 finish in a state meet that saw the top four teams separated by just 28 points. Ellensburg was fourth with a pack time of 2 minutes, 3 seconds and Hashimoto wrapped up her high school career with a fourth-place individual performance in the state’s most elite showdown.

“We had not had a girl reach the podium since the ‘80s, so those two were pretty special,” Ellensburg coach Jeff Hashimoto said. “We knew Leah was going to be pretty special because of her training as a freshman and now she’s committed to Idaho, which I think is a great fit.”

Holmgren learned what it takes to train hard and race with a belief in that training. Now she’s trying to be that teammate she learned from, showing some compassion and support along the road less traveled. The thing about cross country, she said, whether you’re the No. 1 runner or the 10th, they all know the pain of putting in the miles.

“I like to run out front, with the lead pack anyway,” said Holmgren, who regained her top 5 form last year, finishing third in the 2A state race. “‘Ru just sort of drug me along. But I understand that pack time is important. What I try to do is to encourage people to go with me if they’re feeling good because that helps the whole team in scoring.

“That’s a really cool thing to look around and to see Ellensburg running together as a team. It’s definitely special because we’re all helping each improve.”

On a personal note, where non-runners might understand the mentality of a distance runner, she definitely is one. She loves to run the hills. Loves to bust out hard, then settle in with the lead pack. Kind of likes sitting the leader’s shoulder, then blowing by with authority, that leaves a “what just happened?” impression on her opponent’s psyche.

“I love running the hills,” she said with a little gleam in her eye that says just thinking about it is fun. “I like the big ones better than the rollers. I like running our course, through the water.

“Track is fun, but it’s just running in a circle. I like the challenges of elevation change, jumping over stuff, running the hills and seeing what you can do when you challenge yourself.”

The Bulldog girls went into the season ranked No. 4 in the Washington State Cross Country Coaches Association poll. With that comes the responsibility of running tough and representing the team and community with dignity and grace for those who put in the miles with you,

Teammates like seniors Maddie Thompson, Tess Preppernau and Elisa Wallace. For teammates like junior Olivia Berthon-Koch and sophomore Kate Lauren or serving as the guiding light for Generation Next — freshmen Holly Fromherz and Rylee Leishman — like Uhuru Hashimoto did for her.

Maybe the biggest example Hashimoto and Holmgren did for Bulldog cross country is in paving the way to a higher education. Hashimoto is now at Dartmouth College and Holmgren is on her way to a NCAA Division I career at the University of Idaho.

See the Bulldogs in action on Thursday at Rotary Park in West Ellensburg, beginning with the middle school races at 3:30 p.m.

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