Photograph by George Sakkestad The crowd watches in awe as Alicia Follmar of Saratoga runs away from the field in the Firebird Invitational. Follmar finished more than 40 seconds ahead of her nearest rival in the 20-school cross country meet.
On the Run: Alicia Follmar
By Mike Barnhart
Debbie Follmar fondly remembers her daughter's first race like most mothers recall their children's first steps. "It was a turkey trot near Vasona when she was 4 years old," chuckles Mrs. Follmar, a running enthusiast and Saratoga resident for many years. "I could tell she was kind of a natural."

Alicia Follmar has been picking them up and putting them down ever since. And, if race results provide the measuring stick, Mom's first perception was right—she is a natural.

Now 17 and a senior at Saratoga High School, Alicia already has put together quite a running résumé. She is the reigning California State Division III cross country champion and a two-time 1,600-meter winner at the state track and field meet.

Universities from all regions of the country have noticed Alicia's efforts and prowess, and many athletic scholarships have been offered. But before a recruiting war could break out, Alicia recently made a commitment.

"I have a lot of respect for all these great schools, but I just couldn't imagine saying no to Stanford," she says, noting that she first shared her interest in Stanford by writing a letter after her sophomore year.

Track and cross country athletes who will enter college in the fall of 2005 cannot sign an official NCAA Letter of Intent until the middle of November. Also, neither Stanford women's cross country coach Dena Evans nor women's track coach Edrick Floreal is permitted to comment on specific athletes until Letter of Intents have been received.

"There were too many positives to turn it down," Alicia explains. "I will be away from home, but it's close enough in case there's an emergency. The weather is great, and the type of athlete that goes to Stanford is different—more serious about school."

Alicia has taken school seriously during her first three years at Saratoga High, racking up a grade point average of 4.2, including Advanced Placement courses. And she has no plans of slacking this year.

"I don't want senioritis to get the better of me," she says. "I need to concentrate to keep up my grades."

A high school course that she enjoyed and may study at Stanford is biology.

"I am not the greatest math or chemistry student, but I do like biology," Alicia shares. "I might work toward becoming a doctor."

That would give her something in common with her father, who is an oral surgeon, and the oldest of her three elder brothers, Kenny, who is at Duke University's medical school.

For now, though, Alicia is a doctor of girls cross country, skillfully operating on area courses and easily solving the opposition.

Already this young season Alicia has won each meet she has entered: a local center meet at Lynbrook High, the Earlybird Invitational in Castroville and Fremont High's Firebird Invitational, for the third year in a row. Despite the stifling heat she finished 12 seconds better than the closest rival at Lynbrook on Sept. 9. Two days later in Castroville, she again won by 12 seconds. Her margin of victory at Fremont was 41 seconds.

Alicia was looking to add to her early successes last week. On Sept. 23, she was trying to defend her title in the two-mile Saratoga Invitational, a race involving Santa Clara Valley Athletic League schools. Two days later, she was trying to improve upon her second-place finish of 2003 at the prestigious Stanford Invitational.

"I think she has a good chance to defend her Division III title," observes Peter Jordan, the Saratoga cross country and track coach since Marshall Clark died during the fall of 2002.

If she does successfully defend her state championship, only the West Regional will stand between Alicia and her goal of "qualifying for the national championship meet" in early December. Last season Alicia placed 13th at the West Regional; only the top eight in each of four U.S. regions are invited to the national meet.

The Saratoga standout gained her first national experience last June in Raleigh, N.C. In an invitational 1,600-meter race at the Adidas Outdoor meet, Alicia was one of seven runners to break 4:50. Her time of 4:46.77 earned her third place—and she enjoyed her first run outside of the state.

"In North Carolina, I was still kind of the underdog," Alicia explains, "just like my sophomore year. I was more comfortable running then—just like my sophomore year.

"But before the state meet [last spring] I had been so nervous, because I had to defend my title—I was expected to win."

Jordan, who remembers Follmar as a "skinny, little freshman," says her physical and personal growth during the last three years have keyed her rise to national-caliber status among high school girls.

Not only has Alicia "grown taller and stronger," Jordan says, "she personally has made a lot of changes.

"She was shy, reserved and not very articulate, but she has really made some strides, especially in the last year. She has taken a leadership role, which I admire her for."

Follmar, who was elected captain by her teammates, helped organize off-season practices and team social events and has spent some time mentoring some new runners, according to the coach.

Some off-season workouts with members of the Saratoga boys team—both running on the roads and in the hills of Saratoga and conditioning in the weight room with strength coach Greg O'Hagan—helped Follmar "maintain motivation and focus."

"It's really been fun to run with Hari [Iyer] and the other guys," she explains. "Just trying to stay up with them is a challenge."

Each year has provided Follmar with various types of challenges.

"My freshman year was the first time I ran more than just a few miles," she recalls, "and in my sophomore year Coach Clark collapsed in the middle of practice and died."

Marshall Clark, for many years an icon among high school and college track coaches, was "a one-of-a-kind coach who could give you little pointers at times that nobody else could," Follmar remembers. Dealing with his death was a team challenge.

"The whole team gathered in the quad after he collapsed," she recalls. "We were sitting around for an hour or more, when we were told he had had a heart attack. At that point, we dedicated the whole season to him."

As a junior, Alicia began coping with challenges that success breeds, such as higher expectations from herself and others and media attention. At the beginning of the cross country season in 2003, she also had a hamstring problem. "They bothered me all season," Alicia says.

Athletic trainer Heidi Peterson and O'Hagan worked together, creating a training regimen for Follmar to follow.

"My hams got really strong and the workouts totally helped me," she says. "I feel like my hams are so strong now that I don't worry about them."

Follmar credits Jordan for her continued improvement as a runner.

"He is doing a great job," she says. "He pushes us really hard, but knows when to give us a rest. After winning the state as a sophomore, Peter helped me get more serious."

Jordan doesn't quite remember it that way, instead crediting the runner.

"Between her sophomore and junior year, she realized that she belonged up front," Jordan says. "The ultimate characteristic of Alicia is her competitiveness. Deep down, she wants to win."

Last track season Follmar began winning events that were new to her. In addition to the 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter races, she added the high jump and the 800.

The high jump was a way to get more points for her team in dual meets, but the 800 was a serious venture. In fact, she placed second at the Central Coast Section meet, narrowly losing to Christine Whalen of Archbishop Mitty High.

"It was a really fun race," Follmar says. "Someone was crazy and went out front too fast. Christine and I were able to catch up, but she beat me."

No matter the distance, each race Alicia runs is geared to improve her "favorite," the mile. "Running the 800 helps me work on my 1,600 speed and the two mile helps me stay in the race longer," she explains.

No matter how much fun or success she has running, no race compares to the fun she has playing on the soccer team, which she will do for the fourth time this winter.

"I am really looking forward to my senior season," says Follmar, who will be one of the senior co-captains. "I'm looking forward to having a good team. Many of my friends and people I like to hang around with are in soccer."

Jordan says that soccer between running seasons provides a fine diversion for Alicia.

"For her it has been good; it gets her mind on something else other than running," Jordan explains. "Playing soccer in the winter is a formula that has worked for her."

Normally a midfielder, her biggest thrill as a junior was filling in one game at goalie when teammates Catherine Bertelsen and Suzanne Lessack were unable to play.

"It was a lot of fun," Alicia laughs. "I had no idea what I was doing."

Before high school, soccer was Alicia's main sport. "I always played club soccer," she says, "until I quit in the spring of my sophomore year."

That was about the time that her running career kicked into high gear.

Instead of playing club soccer this summer, Alicia says she "relaxed, ran a little bit and went up to Washington."

Thirteen summers after Alicia's first turkey trot, mother and daughter Follmar still run together. In August they ran the annual Dammit Run in Los Gatos. Two weeks later they did the Marshall Clark four-miler in Saratoga. Well, they start together, anyway.

"I can remember finishing races and walking back up the course to make sure Alicia was OK and watch her finish," Debbie Follmar remembers, laughing. "Now, it's the other way around."

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