Chris Barton

Norte Dame's Chris Barton is one of the top 400-meter runners in California, having finished third in the state as a junior, and has accepted a track scholarship to Iowa (Stephen Osman / LAT)

Chris Barton stands 6 feet 5, has pale skin, blond hair, blue eyes and wears light blue sunglasses that make him look as if he just came out of a disco in Berlin.

Even more misleading is the event he competes in for the Sherman Oaks Notre Dame track and field team. If you guessed he's a distance runner because of his long legs, you'd be wrong. High jumper? Nope. Pole vaulter? No way.

He's one of the top 400-meter runners in California, having finished third in the state as a junior, and has accepted a track scholarship to Iowa, where he was treated like a celebrity on his recruiting visit last fall.

"I guess they like Californians … because we're like a foreign-made object, and we have a beach next to us, so we're special," he said. "They asked me how the ocean was and if I got out there every day."

Barton is already trying to come up with stories to strengthen his California reputation, such as, "I saw Britney Spears shave her head."

He chose Iowa because of sprint coach Joey Woody's experience in coaching the 400. And Barton, who has lived in the Southland all his life, isn't afraid of trying something new.

"It was beautiful," he said of his visit to Iowa City. "We saw one cow passing the road and a deer. There was no traffic, no homes spread out five feet from each other, no big apartment complexes."

To abandon California for Iowa shows Barton's commitment to track. He has run competitively most of his life, and the 400 seems to be an ideal fit.

"Guys on the track team can tell you I can keep going forever," he said. "I'm the Energizer Bunny. I hate long distance, but the 400 is long and grueling. I'm 6-5 and my legs aren't built for 100 meters."

Last season, Barton finished third in the 400 at the state championships behind winner Bryshon Nellum of Long Beach Poly, running it in 47.70 seconds. With Nellum returning, along with runner-up Nevin Gutierrez of Riverside North, the 400 could be the most talent-filled race for 2007.

Barton could co-star in a reality show titled, "Chasing Nellum."

"He has a great kick," Barton said. "I have the first 200 meters down, but the last 200, he gains strength, and in the last 100, he has another boost. He flies by."

Barton is aiming for the low 46s this year. Nellum won the state title in 46.38; Gutierrez ran 46.79. Barton has run a state-leading 48.29 this season going into the Pasadena Games on Saturday at Pasadena City College.

Listening to Barton describe what it takes to run a 400 makes one wonder if he's enduring a track version of torture.

"The 400 is not the best race to finish and feel good because I guarantee you will not feel good if you run it hard," he said.

That's the challenge and the pain involved for 400 runners. There's no time to enjoy the moment, and when exhaustion sinks in, something must compel the runner to keep going.

"You run it so many times you get used to it," he said. "But before the race, you're nervous and your legs get really tired for some reason, even though they aren't. Maybe it's the adrenaline pumping. During the race, you don't really think of anything. Your mind goes blank. After the race, your mind fills up with thoughts of exhaustion."

Joe McNab, Notre Dame's track coach, thought so highly of Barton that he made him the anchor for the Knights' 400-meter relay team that won the state championship last season.

Talk about pressure. Notre Dame's leadoff man was Rodney Glass, the state's 100-meter champion. So Barton was almost always given the lead, and if he lost it, guess who would have gotten the blame.

In the state final, Barton held off the anchor man from Stockton Lincoln, and Notre Dame won in 41.27, compared to the runner-up's 41.32.

"You have to hold it," he said. "It was close at the end. He was closing on me. You say, 'It's for the state title. I can't lose this lead.' It's a lot of pressure, but you get through it."

Barton is close to legally blind in his right eye and used that as a reason not to run the hurdles when McNab asked him as a freshman. "I ran hurdles when I was a little boy," he said. "I ran it once. I caught the hurdle with my foot and fell forward and hurt myself and promised never to do it again."

Barton is a good storyteller, which should make him popular in Iowa. "I will make lots of friends and tell my California stories, even though they aren't much different than theirs," he said.

Except for the one about meeting Angela Jolie. Or was that Lindsay Lohan?

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com