By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Conquering challenges has made Luis Luna a stronger student-athlete.
He survived an early major pileup in the California Community College Athletic Association cross country state title race, recouping and racing past 200 runners to win in the final mile in his latest triumph.
Running for perennial power American River College is part of the former Piner greats plan to make a major college team, with the Olympics an ultimate goal. But first, Luna must complete a third year of junior college as he continues catching up in the classroom. Luna didn’t speak English when he was 11 and his family moved from Mexico to Santa Rosa.
Focusing on college prep academics too late to qualify for a four-year college out of Piner, he is now on track.
“I’m not the kind of guy that says I’m done. For me, I always have something to overcome,” Luna said.
Not even nagging injuries can stop Luna. A strong mental approach combined with great ability has Luna improving on an already outstanding running resume.
“Luis is a phenomenal athlete. He has a great mix of endurance and all-out raw speed, which he used this year at the state meet to close from 10th to first in the last mile,” American River coach Rick Anderson said. “He now believes he can win the big race.”
The two-time All-Empire cross country runner of the year enrolled at American River to be challenged by a program that has captured three straight CCCAA team titles.
A great start to the 2012 season had Luna running with the state’s best. Shin splints were bothersome, but Luna trained smart and managed the pain with morning ice baths and ice pack treatments after workouts.
“Definitely, it makes you mentally strong,” he said. “I know how to fight through injury.”
What he could not control was an unusual chest injury. Luna suffered a diaphragm cramp at the Santa Clara Bronco Invitational and developed a severe strain. His training was hampered and Luna never fully recovered that freshman cross country season. Still, he was good enough to run seventh on the team and help American River to the state championship.
Injury free during track season, Luna qualified for the state junior college meet at four distances. He ran two events, reaching the finals in both the 5,000 meters and the steeplechase. In the latter, he captured third in a challenging 3,000-meter race featuring barriers and a water jump.
This past summer, Luna was determined to get stronger in addition to training to prevent injuries. While he kept to running 75 miles a week with teammates, Luna added more weight training to his routine. Luna has gained 20 pounds since high school.
“As the year went on, I felt really good. I could control my upper body and stride more,” he said.
Shin splints again hit Luna early in the season. But reduced mileage in workouts and treatments helped him manage the injury.
“Once I started taking care of business, I got everything set up to run my best toward the end of season,” Luna said.
Running second behind teammate and state favorite Will Reyes on the team throughout the season, Luna helped lead American River to an eighth consecutive Big 8 Conference title and fourth straight NorCal title.
American River’s one goal, though, is the team state championship. Defending that title appeared in jeopardy when Luna and teammates went down in an early pileup of more than 40 runners in the 2013 state title race.
No problem for Luna. A survivor of past falls, Luna also benefited from American River training, which features staggered starts to help runners develop an ability and mindset to move up in races.
“We do that a lot in practice and say don’t get it back all at once and chip away,” Anderson said.
Behind more than 200 runners, Luna steadily gained ground on the leaders.
“I’ve fallen during races. I knew how to handle the situation and not freak out. I just got up and dusted off and started going at my regular pace and started working my way up,” Luna said.
Kicking into a faster gear the last mile, Luna took the lead with 100 meters to go and flew to the finish.
“I just took off. I knew I had the strength and the speed to take the win,” Luna said.
Luna’s winning time was the second best in school history for storied American River on the famed Woodward Park course in Fresno.
“That’s a pretty big deal. It was so awesome to see him run his best race and to end on that note,” Piner coach Luis Rosales said.
Witnessing a Luna comeback is nothing new for Rosales and Empire prep runners.
“He always ran from behind,” Rosales said. “He was always afraid of dying. I kept telling him he’s in great shape.”
Not that he lacked confidence, but Luna is more assured in his ability.
“I think his biggest improvements have come on the mental side,” Anderson said.
Always popular with teammates and rival runners, Luna has become more of a leader at American River.
“As a freshman, he only led by leading the workouts. This year, he has grown up immensely and has led workouts, along with Will Reyes, and has been much more vocal,” Anderson said. “But winning the state from so far behind may be the turning point in his running career.”
Becoming a more aggressive runner and staying with lead runners is Luna’s goal.
“I love going out front and taking the race from the beginning and winning,” he said. “If I can stay injury free, I know I can do it.”
The next year of racing will not be with the American River team. Luna will take a redshirt year in track this spring and run in 2015. Luna has completed his eligibility at the junior college level, though he will train and run other college races in the fall as an individual. Luna and several teammates do it to complete their academic degrees and then transfer to a four-year college.
“Luis will be a very hot commodity once he is transfer-eligible,” Anderson said.
Indeed, running NCAA cross country meets across Northern California should help Luna get more attention from major college programs.
Completing his junior college degree is an equal focus. Luna has settled into student life in Sacramento and appreciates what is needed to move on to a four-year college and continue running. “That’s what pushes you,” he said.
The ultimate goal: The Olympics.
“You train so hard and run so fast that you want to make it one day. Why not give it a shot,” he said. “When you’re a good runner, you think anything can happen.”
American River College sophomore
–California junior college cross country title 2013
–California junior college steeplechase, third place, 2013
Piner High School
–All Nor-Cal cross country 2011, 2010
–All-Empire cross country runner of the year 2011, 2010
–All-Empire cross country 2009, 2008
–All-Empire track athlete of the year 2012, 2011
–All-Empire track 2010.