(Steve Dipaola / For The Columbian)
Kelsey Klettke is coming home again -- and she is on the run one last time.
A 2010 NAIA All-American as a junior at Lewis-Clark State College of Idaho, the Prairie High School graduate took a medical redshirt year last season while battling leg and hip injuries.
NAIA cross country
WHAT: 57th Annual NAIA Men’s and 33rd Annual NAIA Women’s Cross Country National Championships, Saturday in Vancouver.
WHO: Men’s race features 32 teams and 105 individual qualifiers. Women’s race features 32 teams and 109 individual qualifiers.
WHEN: Women’s 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) race at 10:30 a.m.; Men’s 8-kilometer (5-mile) race at 11:45 a.m. Championship awards ceremony, 2:30 p.m. at Hudson’s Bay High School.
WHERE: Fort Vancouver National Site.
Start/finish line on parade grounds.
COST: Admission is free.
DEFENDING TEAM CHAMPIONS: Southern Oregon men, Cal State San Marcos women.
TOP RETURNERS: Men — John Gilbertson, The Master’s College, senior; third place in 2011, 12th in 2010. Kennedy Kithuka, who won individual titles in 2010 and 2011 for Wayland Baptist, has transferred to Texas Tech. Women — Karlee Coffee, Eastern Oregon, senior; third place in 2011, second in 2010, 12th in 2009.
A year later than it was supposed to be, Klettke is one of 662 runners -- 333 women, 329 men -- who will be competing Saturday in the NAIA national championships at Fort Vancouver National Site. Klettke's LCSC team, the Frontier Conference runner-up, is a team qualifier.
"It affected me in numerous, numerous ways," Klettke said of her time away from competing in cross country and track. "Taking a year-and-a-half off racing was torture for me, but it taught me to be patient and fight through injury.
"That's part of a running career and competing career -- having injuries and getting through them and breaking through that barrier. For somebody who is as competitive as I am, it's so hard to sit on the sidelines and watch your team run when you just want to be out there running with them and competing with other people.
"It also taught me the joy of the sport that I have and to enjoy it when I am healthy and able to run. It was tough, but I learned a lot from it."
This marks the fourth consecutive year that the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics has held its cross country national championships at Fort Vancouver. The races start and finish on the parade grounds between the East Barracks and Officer's Row. The NAIA announced Tuesday that the event will move to Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence, Kan., for 2013 and 2014.
At Fort Vancouver, Klettke placed 53rd at nationals as a sophomore in 2009, then 11th as a junior in 2010.
She said she is healthy now. While her times this fall are not as fast as her times during the 2010 season, the courses in the team's five meets this season were "brutal."
For example, Klettke said she "felt great" going into the Frontier Conference Championship meet Nov. 3, but a challenging course, windy conditions and the altitude in Helena, Mont., took its toll.
The conference champion in 2010, she finished second, but was taken aback by her time over the challenging 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).
"I was like, '18:50? Really? That was 18:50 I just ran?' " she said. "Everybody was like that. I'm excited for nationals. Hopefully the course is going to run somewhat fast because we haven't had a chance this year to run fast times. All of us are feeling really good.
"I'm feeling really good, and I'm excited."
The course at Fort Vancouver is primarily on two flat levels with transitional hills between, with "no major hills," as Klettke put it. The men run four laps of the 2-kilometer (1.25-mile) loop for an 8K (5-mile) race, while women run a modified version of the course -- with one lap of the full loop to finish the race -- for 5K (3.1 mi.). The full loop features 10 turns, from gradual to hairpin -- plus the "short loop" run by the women.
The loop closes with a 215-meter straightaway from the lower level of the course straight up the hill to essentially a 90-degree turn to a closing 135-meter straightaway in front of the East Barracks.
"It's really not a hilly course at all," Klettke said. "You're constantly turning. It's more lots of turns than anything. With more turns, you're constantly thinking about the next move. You're thinking about what's going to be the best route to take to get up that hill or to go around somebody. It's more of a race than a course that has long, long hills or straightaways that last forever."
Because the race has been at Fort Vancouver for each of the past three years, the course is familiar to nearly all of the top runners.
"They know the turns. They know where it's muddy. They know where the hills are," Klettke said. "I think that's an advantage for people who have been on the course multiple times."
Running at home makes nationals even more special for Klettke, particularly because it's only a bus ride away. The LCSC teams were expected to hit the road at 7:45 a.m. today.
"Oh, my gosh, yes," she said. "I love that it's in Vancouver. I've never had a chance to go anywhere else or take a plane, like for track nationals. I think I've been pretty spoiled having it right there in my back yard. I'm excited. It's always good to have a little cheering section. You can't really hear anybody when you're out there, because it's crazy with people on every corner yelling at you. You try to pick out the voices that matter to you."
Typical Pacific Northwest weather could be an advantage, too.
"If it's rainy and muddy, all the better for me," Klettke said.
Saturday also will mark Klettke's return to the national championships after that year away.
"If people don't remember me, I'll try to make a statement so they'll remember me," she said. "Individually, my goal is for sure All-American. I want to shoot for that position. Two years ago when I was hoping for All-American and shooting for that goal, I felt like it just kind of came to me.
"It's my last year. It's my last time and it's at home, so I just want to go all-out and see what I can do. I'm just going to go out there and have fun and enjoy it and make sure that I'm running my heart out so I know that my last cross country collegiate race is something that I'm going to be proud of at the end."