The hardest part of running for Taylor Johnson isn't speeding up -- it's slowing down.
The San Lorenzo Valley junior loves nothing more than to run fast. And those who have seen how fast she jogs, let alone run, would understand what she means.
``We have to tell her to back off,'' Coach Rob Collins said. ``That's the hard part. Because there are times you have to run slow.''
Running slowly is a foreign concept to Johnson, the state cross-country Division IV runner-up last season, who will compete in a tougher Division III field this season. But it's also necessary, to re-energize the body, prevent injury and prepare for big races.
But for Johnson, ``Speed is fun. Speed is definitely fun.''
While successful in cross-country, it's track where her true potential lies. With her graceful, long stride best suited for the middle distances, Johnson has the potential, Collins believes, of becoming not just good, but great.
Johnson seemed primed for a big track season last spring, but performed poorly in races and workouts, finding herself sluggish, slow, tired, and barely able to breathe. She couldn't understand why.
``Sometimes she'd ask me how she was doing, and I had to lie to her, just to get her through the workouts,'' Collins said.
Johnson began to question her effort. But her father Greg, a 1:48 half-miler and Division III All-American, didn't believe that was the problem. She talked about quitting.
``I was asking myself, `What's going on?' '' she said. `` `Do I just not want it anymore?' After a while, I was making excuses.''
After an acupuncturist suggested she be checked for allergies, Johnson discovered she was allergic to 80 percent of the food in her diet, including wheat, dairy and eggs. The swelling had affected her breathing, and she was anemic.
``It took about 30 days to adjust after changing her diet,'' Greg said. ``But all of a sudden, she could breathe.''
Johnson bounced back to miss the state 1,600-meter finals by one spot, running a section-best 4:57.01 to become the third Cougar girl since 2000 to break five minutes.
In fact, Johnson is creating a legacy for a cross-country program that has won six Central Coast Section titles and four state crowns in 10 years. Johnson was the team's No. 1 runner on two state-title teams.
``I don't feel pressure to live up to other runners here,'' she said. ``But sometimes I feel pressure to live up to my own expectations. I like that pressure. It pushes me.''
Collins said Johnson is aiming for a state championship, a daunting goal considering defending state champion Annie St. Geme of Corona del Mar should be in the race.
``It's a matter of running the right race at the right time,'' he said.
• Two-time Olympian Patti Sue Plumer, a former Stanford great, is in her first season as coach at Los Altos. The Eagles are led by senior Caitlin Russell, whose performance at the Stanford Invitational on Sept. 30 was 50 seconds faster than at that race last year.
• Last year's CCS championships saw a talented influx of freshmen, who ran four of the five fastest times in the meet and captured three of the five individual titles. They are still at it.
Now sophomores, Carlmont's Justine Fedronic won the Iolani Invitational in Hawaii; Mountain View's Mary Reynolds won the Central Park Invitational at Santa Clara High; St. Ignatius' Katy Daly won the Ram Invitational at Westmoor; and Leland's Stephanie Barnett was the fastest CCS competitor at the Stanford Invitational.
• This year's top freshmen include Aptos' Marissa Ferrante, Half Moon Bay's Samantha Hamilton and Sobrato's Kendra Higgins.