La Jolla cross country teams looking to go the distance, with eyes on state tournament

La Jolla High School senior Isaac Chu (in black) runs in a recent meet.
(Jackie Fisk)

To really go the distance mentally and physically, the runners of the La Jolla High School cross country program must find their own motivation.

For 16-year-old junior Daphne Mayer, it’s improving her individual performance.

“I am motivated to keep training and running because I enjoy watching myself improve and reach goals I never thought I could,” she said. “My goals for cross country this year at LJHS are to run a 5K in less than 19 minutes and continue my amazing relationship with the sport.”

For senior Isaac Chu, also 16, it is the prospect of having the whole team improve.

“Cross country is definitely a team sport, and having teammates to both encourage me and keep me accountable gives me a lot of motivation to keep going when it gets hard,” he said.

For some, it is the combination of individual goals, camaraderie and team improvement, according to cross country coach Mandy Benham, who works with both boys and girls.

“We train in the summer a few times a week doing group runs, so they get in shape and can chat with their friends for 45 minutes,” Benham said. “The summer training helps a lot because they can see their improvement, and success builds success. Once they get fit enough, the challenge of running feels less challenging. From there on, it’s about keeping their minds on who they are racing against and who they have to beat.”

Boys from La Jolla High School run with runners from other schools during the "Battle of La Jolla" meet in February.
Boys from La Jolla High School run with runners from other schools during the “Battle of La Jolla” track and field meet in February.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

This year, the school has 60 runners (29 girls and 31 boys). Benham says it’s the most balanced the program has ever been.

“For the last two years, we haven’t gotten very many boys but a lot of girls,” she said. “The girls program has been coming along steadily, but the boys program has been up and down.”

One of the constants on the boys team has been Isaac, who started with Benham in the summer after eighth grade.

“Before high school, I didn’t run much outside of P.E. or other sports like soccer, basketball, baseball, etc.,” Isaac said. “One race I would run, however, was the Triton 5K at UC [San Diego]. I’d run pretty well there on essentially zero training, so I thought I’d give cross country a try. Ever since then, I’ve really enjoyed running competitively for LJHS.”

While on a long run, Isaac gets into a Zen-like state, he said. “When I’m alone, I tend to try to let my mind wander, just ticking the miles off one by one. Getting in that type of rhythm is something I really enjoy about running.”

Daphne takes a similar approach. “When I run by myself, I bring my headphones and listen to music, which I enjoy because it brings time to myself,” she said. “I sometimes get in a zone and blank out, which makes time pass by much quicker.”

She said she enjoys running because it “allows me to see myself progress and push myself to the limits. I also enjoy the community and friendships it has brought me. I have gotten closer with my teammates as well as connected with runners from other schools. It’s so nice when I get to talk to other runners about running and bond over it.”

In meets and competitions, schools may enter individual runners and rotating “teams” of the top seven boys runners and top seven girls runners.

La Jolla High cross country has more tournaments on the schedule this year than in the past.

“Some of the girls are getting really fast, and as they develop, we need to put them in bigger races,” Benham said.

So far, so good.

During the Ravens Fleet Feet Cross Country Invitational at Canyon Crest Academy this month, Viking Chiara Dailey won first place in the individual race and teammate Kirra Fisk took second.

Kirra, a 16-year-old junior, has been running since eighth grade.

“I used to play water polo and do swim team in middle [and] elementary school, but when COVID hit, all the pools were closed,” she said. So she began running with her father daily.

“Not being able to swim gave me an opportunity to start running earlier and stay in shape for swim,” Kirra said. “I definitely found a passion for running. I had always known I wanted to do cross country in high school because my parents are runners and I had always liked run day in P.E.”

Now that she’s a competitive runner, she enjoys the “chance to push myself in my training and see the hard work pay off as my times improve,” she said. “The feeling right after crossing the finish line is such an unbeatable feeling. The world goes silent and you are just so happy and relieved that you are done.”

Kirra said her goal is to earn a medal in individual races.

Individual runners often qualify for state tournaments, but Benham said her mission is to bring a team of seven this year. “Our goal is to have the team be happy and healthy first, then get them to state.”

Isaac said his goal also is to help the boys qualify for state as a team.

“I think we have a lot of guys who have a lot of potential and that if we put the work in, we will most certainly earn a spot in that meet,” he said. “Going to state is such a great experience for everyone, and I feel like building a culture of going to state every year is something that’s important for the program. … I am excited to work hard this season and accomplish [that].”


La Jolla High School cross country boys and girls runners have their sights set on competing in the following tournaments:

Friday, Sept. 16: Woodbridge Cross Country Classic at SilverLakes Sports Complex in Norco

Saturday, Sept. 24: Carlsbad Grit & Grind Cross Country at Rancho Carlsbad Golf Course

Saturday, Oct. 8: Clovis Invitational at Woodward Park in Fresno

Friday, Oct. 21: Mount SAC Invitational at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut

Saturday, Oct. 29: UC Postal 2-Mile at University City High School

Wednesday, Nov. 2: Eastern League Finals at Morley Field in San Diego

Saturday, Nov. 12: CIF San Diego Section Championships at Morley Field

Saturday, Nov. 26: State Championships at Woodward Park in Fresno ◆