Connor Malinger tried running for his school team back in seventh grade.
It was 2016. Five years and an eternity ago.
“In seventh grade, I thought the season would never end. I had never gone to so many practices for so long. Cross country was definitely the most draining sport I had ever played,” said Malinger, now a member of two of Hawaii Baptist’s boys cross country championship teams.
The senior ran the treacherous, cold, muddy course at the Honolulu Marathon/HHSAA State Championships on Saturday in 19 minutes, 37 seconds to lead the Eagles to their third Division II state title in four years.
Behind Malinger, who was seventh individually, was joined by teammates Dylan Djou (20:25), Xan Waialeale (21:20), Shane Kimura (21:29), Dylan Terayama (21:47) for the top five HBA times. Chris Wu (22:31) and Jared Crestetto (23:11) also endured the coldest temperature — 55 degrees not counting wind chill — in recent memory for a state cross country meet. Djou, Waialeale and Crestetto are freshmen. Kimura and Terayama are sophomores, and Wu is a junior.
With snow resting on the summit of nearby Mauna Kea, the Eagles were in a total change from their usual surroundings in Nuuanu. Cloudy, wet, mud everywhere, plus trade winds that drove the temp down to 50 or lower.
“I don’t think there is anything that I could compare this course to,” Malinger said. “It just seemed like a mashup of all the worst courses and races that you might see on Instagram.”
To be fair, the course at Hawaii Preparatory Academy is normally beautiful. Aesthetically pleasing. For a purist, possibly one of the best cross country courses on earth — when there is no cold front, no rain and a sloshy put of mud slides throughout.
“I’d give this course at least a 10 (out of 10) for difficulty for a cross country course. It looked more like something out of the spartan race,” Malinger noted. “Our strategy was to push the downhills, which really didn’t work because it was so wet, so I think our main strategy that really paid off was our grit,” said Malinger, a senior. “We don’t look it, but we’re tough and won’t give up. So when other teams were feeling disheartened, we just fell, got up, fell again and kept running.”
HBA boys cross country coach Aaron Kondo gave his harriers ample forewarning about the degree of difficulty. The coaching staff and runners knew about the weather report.
“Still, we didn’t expect the course to be anything close to what it was on Saturday. There are no training conditions or workout plans that could have been made to simulate that,” Kondo said. “Despite all of that, I think the boys would say that they’ll have more fun remembering this course over anything else they’ve raced.”
Kondo and the team emerged as the best in D-II after the longest cross country season in Hawaii high school history. The ILH began its season relatively early while the rest of the state delayed due to COVID concerns during the late summer and early fall. There was a long break between the end of the ILH season and the state meet.
“Maybe that makes this the most difficult of the titles to plan for because of all the unknowns. In terms of the actual race day, the weather and race conditions for sure make this the most memorable race I’ve gotten to coach in,” he said. “I’m happy and pleasantly surprised that the boys were able to take the win, but mostly I’m grateful to have had such a fun season with our students and coaching staff. Regardless of the outcome, our group was one that would have enjoyed the experience of racing such a crazy course together. Working with such great people every day has really been a blessing.”
Malinger is just starting to grasp time and space in this strange period of the pandemic.
“As a senior, I honestly feel like this is just another season. It hasn’t hit me yet that this was my last one. I’m so grateful for all of the opportunities and all the hard work my coaches and teammates have put in together to make a win possible, and that God has given me a gift and a great environment to grow it,” he said.
The culture of HBA cross country has involved hundreds of high school and middle school students who grew to love running, running together. Malinger remembers the long workouts of his seventh-grade season and doesn’t regret a thing.
“I think because of that I liked it better. I know I have grown in every way possible through cross country. I’m glad I stuck with it,” he said. “I will miss the people. Granted, I still have track season with them all left, but even looking forward to that, I will miss the time I am able to spend with the team and the coaches, and the way we can support each other.
“It really is crazy how we get so close so quickly. And, of course, I can’t forget coach Brent (Wakuzawa)’s pep talks.”