Before Corona del Mar High senior Spencer Keith ever was a runner, he was a rock climber.
Before he worried about his mile time, he worried about making it up the rock wall in a gym in monthly competitions.
When Keith came into high school as a freshman, that changed. Rock climbing is not a CIF sport.
"I needed to play a sport in high school, so I started running," Keith said. "You play a sport or do P.E., and I didn't really want to do P.E."
Throughout his career with the Sea Kings, he hasn't always been the fastest. But he always has been one of the strongest. Where others might not look forward to the hills on any given course, Keith loves them.
The course at Mt. San Antonio College has three of them. Keith didn't really listen to music or do anything else to get ready for the challenging three-mile race last weekend at the CIF Southern Section Division 3 preliminaries.
"I just kind of show up and run," Keith said.
The run was impressive. Coach Bill Sumner said Keith led for about half the race, and he tied a CdM boys' course record. Keith finished second in his Division 3 heat in 15 minutes, 24 seconds, which equaled Brian Slingsby's time from 1994.
After the race, Sumner told Keith that he had tied the record. Sumner couldn't really be sure how Keith would respond.
"He doesn't talk a lot," Sumner said. "He chooses his words pretty wisely. He's kind of an old soul."
Keith told Sumner that Slingsby could keep the record, since he ran the time first. Keith aims to break the record Saturday, when he races back at Mt. SAC in the Division 3 race at 10:05 a.m. He needs to be one of the top five individuals not on a team that qualifies for state, as well as in the top 20 overall, to make his first CIF State Meet on Nov. 30 at Fresno's Woodward Park.
"[Slingsby] broke the record," Keith said. "I just tied it. We'll have to break it this weekend. I think I'll need to get the record, too, to move on to state."
He's definitely willing to go all out. For much of the season Keith has been doing two-a-days, running with Sumner at 5:40 a.m. a couple of times a week in addition to his usual afternoon runs.
On one of those morning workouts, though, Keith sprained his ankle.
"He stepped off a curb wrong," Sumner said. "I was with him and I saw the curb, but he didn't see it. I thought, 'Oh this is all going to work against us now,' but he recovered from that pretty good. It could have been disastrous."
Keith, who wants to run in college, has gotten past that injury now. He's ready to take on Mt. SAC again, ready for those hills that might trouble other runners. There's "Switchbacks," "Poop-Out Hill" and "Reservoir Hill."
Those other runners are quicker than Keith on a flat course, but the hills make up for that and then some. Sumner called Keith, who was second individually at Pacific Coast League finals, "a mountain goat."
"He went from league finals, which is a super-fast course, and ran only 20 seconds slower," Sumner said. "Most kids ran 45 to 60 seconds slower. He's built for the hills. He doesn't have a lot of speed, but he's strong as a bull. If you ask him to run a quarter [mile], I'd be surprised if he could break 56 seconds. Most guys that run as fast as he's running would run like 50 seconds, 51 seconds. But he's staying with those guys ... the hills work to his favor."
Keith is a tough kid.
Ending his senior year with a bang is just one more rock to climb.
"I'm excited," Keith said. "I think I'm ready for it. I've been waiting for it … This year's my last chance."
Born: April 6, 1995
Hometown: Newport Beach
Weight: 140 pounds
Sport: Cross Country
Coach: Bill Sumner
Favorite food: Mexican food
Favorite movie: "Anchorman"
Favorite athletic moment: Tying the CdM boys' course record at Mt. San Antonio College last weekend.
Week in review: Keith finished second in his Division 3 heat at the CIF Southern Section Cross Country Preliminaries, running a 15:24 at Mt. San Antonio College and tying the CdM boys' course record.