Cross-country running, a sport that evokes images of a solitary figure stoically covering ground, curiously is a favorite of identical twins.
Twin runners say misery loves company, that training is more tolerable with a partner, particularly one exactly the same age and roughly the same speed.
"There is a tradition of twins in cross-country," said Mike Smith, coach at Camarillo High. "Running is a sport where you have to put the shoes on and run when you don't feel like it. Maybe with twins there is a greater chance it's going to happen."
Smith, who coaches identicals Wade and Neil Malesich, points out that several sets of twins have been record-setting runners, including identicals Tim and Theo Martin of Page, Ariz., who finished first and second at last year's Kinney West Regionals.
It stands to reason that the times of twins would be as similar as their features. Studies of identical twin runners show that physical characteristics such as lung capacity, heart rate, bone length and body fat are genetically influenced.
"Similar stress applied to the same genetic constitution produces similar results," said twins expert Nancy L. Segal, who added that another researcher reported a case of 20-year-old identical twin men who experienced fatal heart attacks associated with exercise at the same time. They suffered from the same narrowing of coronary arteries.
The matching genetic codes of identical twins have long intrigued researchers, who use twins in exploring hereditary versus environmental influences on human development.
A fundamental conclusion of the research is that motor-skill abilities are built into people's genetic code. This was determined when one twin was restrained from walking while the other was allowed to walk on schedule. When freed, the restrained twin soon caught up.
"Twins have similar physical and physiological characteristics, therefore they have similar performances," Segal said. "It is quite predictable and reasonable."
Those similarities give twin runners an open invitation to a competitive relationship. Yet they can have a good time posting similar times.
"It feels good to do better than him, you want to beat your brother," Neil Malesich said. "But it's a friendly competition, full of love and stuff."
Establishing clearly defined roles is a way of keeping rivalries at a distance. In the case of identicals Jessica and Jamie Thomas of Saugus High, Jamie beats Jessica, and that's the way it is.
"I've only beat her once," said Jessica, who admits to being less motivated than her sister. "I felt good, but she felt bad because she's supposed to beat me."
The Thomases are one of three sets of identicals on the girls' team at Saugus. Freshmen Christin and Danelle Bagaus and Liz and Hannah de'Caussin will be pushing to join the Thomases on the varsity next season, creating a potentially awkward situation for Coach John Beattie.
"I may be faced with promoting one twin but not the other," he said.
Tuck Mason, the Ventura College cross-country coach, must fit triplets Isabel, Belinda and Veronica Saucedo into the same races next season, but he has only himself to blame: He recruited all three from Channel Islands High.
"It was a package deal," he said. "Veronica is faster over short distances, Isabel has the most stamina and Belinda is best at middle distances.
"They always know where the other two are. It is a sixth sense they have. They keep track of each other. They always know who is going to come in first, second and third. I won't say it's prearranged, but they know who is best at each distance and conform to that."