There’s a certain poetic justice in the fact that Glendale Community College sophomore runner Lizzy Nelson will conclude her cross-country days, at least locally, at Woodward Park in Fresno this Saturday morning.
Nelson, a Burbank resident, is hoping to lead the GCC women’s team to a ninth straight top-three finish at the 50th annual California Community College Athletic Association Cross-Country Championships.
Glendale will run at 10 a.m.
As Nelson reflected on her season Wednesday afternoon, she couldn’t help but smile, then ultimately giggle.
“When I started running, I hated it. I did not want to do it,” she said. “That was for my dad, my mom, my brother, but not me. There was one thing I knew when I was little and that was that I would never be a runner.”
Then came a pause.
“But here I am,” Nelson added.
Nelson, the daughter of famed Burbank High and GCC runner Jeff Nelson and current GCC assistant coach Kathryn Nelson, is making her ninth visit to Woodward Park.
Yet, Saturday marks only the fourth time Elizabeth Nelson will compete in an official capacity as her first trip came when Nelson, then an eighth-grader, accompanied her mother, who at the time was an assistant coach at powerhouse Saugus High.
“She kind of dragged me. I used to go watch the meets with her,” Lizzy Nelson said. “I remember watching the different Saugus teams and still thinking that wasn’t for me.”
In high school at Saugus, Lizzy Nelson traveled with the Centurions’ squad on their annual runs to state glory, never getting a chance to compete in the state championship race.
“Those were some really amazing teams. I just remember people from all over the state and even some from outside talking about Saugus High,” Nelson said. “It was fun being a part of the program.”
The first time Nelson ever officially ran at Woodward Park was as a member of the GCC women’s team at last year’s state preview meet. She later set her personal record at Woodward Park at last year’s state finals, when she finished 11th in 18:51:21, while Glendale ultimately took second with 100 points to Orange Coast College (79 points).
“Last year was so much fun because we had a trio of sophomore leaders in Grace [Zamudio], Liz [Gonzalez] and Charlene [Quintanilla],” Nelson said. “I could just do my own thing and they would lead. The best part was knowing that I always had another year.”
However, when those three sophomores concluded their GCC running careers, Nelson’s role and responsibilities changed.
“We needed a leader and we got one in Lizzy. She’s not going to scream at people, but she’s going to lead by example,” Glendale Coach Eddie Lopez said. “She’s been great. Let me put it to you this way. She’s been more than I could have ever hoped for.”
In Lopez’ office hangs a photo of the 1980 GCC men’s cross-country state championship team, one that included Jeff Nelson (an individual state champion) and Lopez’ brother, Joe.
“The program we have today is really a family,” Eddie Lopez said. “You don’t find many teams that have generations of runners coming back and competing. That could have been a pressure thing for Lizzy, but it really wasn’t.”
Jeff Nelson, perhaps most renowned for setting the national high school record in the two-mile run (8:36.3) during a televised broadcast at UCLA in 1979, may have also boasted the greatest high school season in history in 1979 when he set 14 course records in all 14 events in which he ran for Burbank.
When asked about being the latest cog in a family of runners or more directly, being the daughter of a cross-country icon, Lizzy Nelson didn’t flinch.
“I love my dad and I’ve always been proud of him and of what he did,” Nelson said. “Maybe because I’m not a boy, but I never really felt the pressure to live up to any legacy. In fact, when I first started running, I was pretty slow. When people first saw me, I think they quickly learned not to expect much.”
Nelson began running with the Santa Clarita Storm, a youth-based running club, at 10 years of age and informed her mother of her initial intent.
“I told her I wanted to be a sprinter,” Lizzy Nelson said. “She laughed and said one day I would enjoy running distances. I thought she was nuts.”
Kathryn Nelson’s prediction has proven correct as Lizzy has led the Vaqueros in every race this season, including when she finished runner-up in 18:54.97 at the Western State Conference finals on Oct. 24 at Oxnard College, while leading the Vaqueros to a ninth straight conference crown.
However, Nelson still shows flashes of her sprinting prowess now and again, including two weeks ago when she rallied from a 10th-place position midway through the Southern California Championships on Nov. 8 at Santa Clarita’s Central Park in ultimately finishing fourth in 18:59.96.
Her effort helped deliver Glendale second place.
“I definitely had to pick up my pace in the second part of the race,” Nelson said. “It was a dash at the end.”
With Nelson’s two-year Vaqueros’ career winding down Saturday, there is some uncertainty.
The 19 year old has yet to pick a major or commit to attending either Vanguard University, California Lutheran or Humboldt State, the schools she is considering.
What is clear, however, is that Nelson has transformed into the distance runner she didn’t think she would or could become.
“It’s always great to go back to Woodward Park and see the changing leaves, the creek and the beautiful scenery,” Nelson said. “It’s the same course since high school, but every year is different. What I love about cross-country is the places it takes you and the people you meet.
“I never thought when I first came here in eighth grade that I would keep coming back. I guess what you don’t realize every year you go to Woodward is that you’ve also changed little by little.”