Kaimei Gescuk entered her junior season of 2018 as something of an unknown on the local cross-country circuit.

Sure, last season — her first year ever running competitively — she finished eighth in the Central Coast Section Division I championship race. In returning this season by missing the first two meets with an ankle injury, no one knew what to expect from the girl who arrived at Carlmont as a transfer sophomore that loathed running.

“I don’t think either of us knew where she would end up or how far she could go,” Carlmont head coach John Lilygren said.

Gescuk proved a bolt from the blue. For starters, she captured the Peninsula Athletic League varsity girls’ championship, leading the Lady Scots to a team title Nov. 3 at Crystal Springs with a time of 18 minutes, 41 seconds. Two weeks later, on Nov. 18 at Toro Park in Salinas, she flew to a CCS Division I championship with a time of 18:19.6.

Now, the junior sensation has been named Daily Journal Cross-Country Runner of the Year.

And not even Gescuk saw any of this coming entering into her junior campaign.

“Not at all,” Gescuk said, “cause last year I wasn’t really a serious competitor. [Last year] was also my first year, so I was really new to everything. So this year I was coming in fresh.”

As a freshman at Central High School in Independence, Oregon, Gescuk fancied a future on the lacrosse pitch. She had dabbled in other sports growing up, including swimming and soccer. Running, however, wasn’t something she ever figured volunteering for.

“Running is always a punishment sport,” Gescuk said. “You mess up you run a lap; you mess up and you run a lap. … But I eventually fell in love with it.”

Gescuk credits her younger sister, Kaiya, as the one who inspired her to don the running shoes. Kaiya, currently in the eighth-grade, had always been the competitive runner in the family, and has even competed at the national level, according to Gescuk.

Instead of going the lacrosse route at Carlmont — where the sport isn’t affiliated with the CCS — Gescuk took up running cross-country. It didn’t take her long to makes strides toward the top.

Her breakout performance was during the spring at the PAL Track and Field Championships, where she topped the podium in the girls’ 3,200 meters. But an ankle after the season cost her most of her summer training months, and kept her off the course through Carlmont’s first two meets of the cross-country season.

“I wasn’t sure what she could do,” Lilygren said. “I had high hopes going into the season. Then when she came in injured, and I was like ‘uh-oh.’”

Lilygren was breathing much easier after Gescuk’s season debut at the Stanford Invitational Sept. 29. Despite limited training, and still not running at full strength, the junior enjoyed a smashing showing, taking third place in the girls’ Division I race at 18:47.6.

What impressed Lilygren wasn’t the time, or the third-place finish. It was Gescuk’s tenacity after misreading the course. On the closing loop, she thought she has one more pass around it when she actually had to run two times around. Because of this, she kicked way too early. When she realized her mistake, she just held steady and kept kicking all the way to a strong finish.

“She was able to maintain and moved up and finished strong,” Lilygren said. “So, I was like, ‘OK, that tells you something.’”

Gescuk’s best finish came at the CCS finals, though. It wasn’t nearly as dramatic, as she topped the second-place finisher in her race by over 26 seconds. In fact, she was so far out in front, she marveled at the silence of the crowd as she approached the finish line, and how the applause only started as she came into view. It was a sensation, never having had that much of a lead in a race, she’d never witnessed.

“I had never experienced anything like that,” Gescuk said.

There was, however, one other person converging on the finish line at the same time Gescuk was. No, it wasn’t another competitor. It wasn’t anyone on the course. It was her little sister Kaiya, in the crowd, who Gescuk saw moving toward the tape to greet her as closed out the race.

“She was running toward me and I was running toward her,” Gescuk said. “It was kind of cheesy, but it worked.”

With track and field season on the horizon, and another year of high school to go, Gescuk has plenty more time to delight in sport she used to view as punishment. Now, it’s her passion.

“I’m definitely going to devote myself to running now,” Gescuk said. “It’s just one of those sports, it really is different. You have to find something you can’t get enough of. … That’s what running is like for me. So, I don’t think I could give it up.”

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