All Winners at Foot Locker Nationals

It's a good thing that the athletes have so much to distract them on beautiful Coronado Island or else their nerves would surely eat them to bits. Although they will have many great races yet in their potential-packed running careers, to them this seems like the most important race of their lives.

And in many ways it is. But it's not so much the final place that matters—although attaching “All-American” or “Top Five” or especially “Foot Locker Champ” to your resume would certainly be a nice plus--it is the unique and elite fraternity that these teenagers get initiated into over this long weekend that is the most important take-away.

First or last, friendships are made here that will carry them for years. They get to know compatriots who understand what they go through to be elite-level runners. They build a network of future NCAA competitors and teammates. And they also learn from their team captains, who become sort of mentors. These former and current pros and Olympians, who have been here before in their place, can help them put it all into perspective and give them advice on the race, their careers, and just life in general. It's no easy thing to find a way to balance all of life's pressures in addition to their running aspirations.

Making the trip for past five years now, I have a pretty good idea of what the experience is like from a journalist's angle, but only these kids really can explain what it means to them and why it forever changes them.

The setting here in San Diego is so pristine, especially when the weather is so perfect like this year: sixty-something degrees, partly cloudy, slight sea breeze... beautiful. For those of you who have never had the pleasure to attend, the race is over on the mainland at Morely Field in Balboa Park, a small area with a 1.5 mile loop overlooking a stunning canyon.

The athletes, parents, coaches, media, and fans though spend most of their time over on Coronado Island. Coming from San Diego proper guests cross an awe-inspiring long, curved bridge that soars over the bay. The Hotel del Coronado—for those who can afford it (not me)--is the host hotel and served as the model for the Grand Floridian at Disney World. It is a historic and stunning resort campus that spans dozens of acres along the Pacific Ocean. It features beautiful gardens, an outdoor ice staking rink (overlooking the beach), marvelous ballrooms, expensive shops, and this time of year a magnificent Christmas tree in the lobby. At night there are carolers singing traditional holiday tunes and a late evening stop hot chocolate bar or ice cream shop (whichever sweet temperature your palate desires) tops the day off so nicely. Amazing!

The island itself is a quaint yet bustling community. It's the kind of real estate that you'd die to own, set in paradise. The Christmas decorations line the main street, where you're greeted by nice little family-owned shops and a seemingly endless supply of absolutely delicious restaurants from authentic Mexican, to new Asian, to Irish, Mediterranean and seafood. There's even a Starbucks, Panera or bagel shop if you prefer something more traditional. All of this within a few short blocks from the “Hotel Del” or just "The Del," as the insiders call it. The other direction is a rocky land bridge leading out to the military base that is perfect for a nice scenic run.

(I guess you can see now why I make sure I'm added to the coverage roster each year! I highly recommend it for any fans of the sport... great excuse for an annual pilgrimage)

The point is, whether they meet their goals or not in tomorrow's race, these athletes all go home with a gift so special and sticks with them forever. There are really no winners or losers... they're all winners and this trip and experience are just a reward for a year full of the miles, trials, sacrifices, pain, and ice baths.

Congratulations and good luck to all of the Foot Locker National finalists! We are all very proud of what you have accomplished and what you will do in your bright futures. You have earned it... enjoy!

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