The 36th annual Paul Mariman Invitational on Saturday could bring up to 1,000 or more middle school and high school runners to Philomath. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The Philomath High School cross-country program enters Saturday’s Paul Mariman Invitational enjoying one of its most promising seasons. Both the boys and girls squads are ranked No. 1 in the latest coaches’ polls and the Warriors are in position to sweep the team titles on the home course.

The 36th annual Paul Mariman Invitational is scheduled to begin at noon with middle schoolers, followed by junior varsity races at 1 p.m. and the varsity runners at 2 p.m.

Stellar results so far this season obviously impacted those votes in the coaches’ poll but it’s also a sign of respect for a program that has done very well through the years. The PHS boys and girls have a combined 12 state titles and next month they’ll be trying to accomplish something that’s happened only once before in school history. It was 2003 when both the boys and girls cross-country teams swept the state championships.

Success on the cross-country course has carried over to the track as well. Philomath has won a combined seven state titles in track and field — beginning with the 1972 boys squad. A freshman named Gordy Byers won the Class AA two-mile run in 9:42.76 and he would go on to repeat as state champion in 1973 (9:41.2) and 1974 (9:38.2).

Byers, 66, will be back at Philomath High on Saturday to help head coach Joe Fulton hand out awards at the postmeet ceremony. The two had connected through a coincidence involving the former PHS standout’s brother-in-law, who just happened to work for a group out of Eugene that was hired to sell customized T-shirts.

Fulton got his contact information and reached out to invite him to the meet. Byers, who lives in Park City, Utah, said he’s excited about returning to Philomath.

“I thought, ‘man, that would be a great, once-in-a-lifetime deal’ and it’s my old stomping grounds,” Byers said. “I don’t think I’ve stepped on the track for 50 years. It’s going to be nuts going back on the track … the memories will flood.”

Philomath High’s athletes run in practice on Thursday afternoon. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Lot of runners will be in town

Based on registrations, this appears as though it will be the largest-ever Paul Mariman Invitational.

“I think we’ve got 906 runners entered right now,” Fulton said hours before the registration deadline on Wednesday. “I’ve noticed a few schools hadn’t entered their kids yet so we’re probably over 1,000 runners.”

Those numbers include runners at all levels — middle school and high school (varsity and junior varsity).

Fulton believes PHS has a shot at sweeping the team titles.

“We should get good competition actually from a couple of 3A schools that just moved down (from 4A) in Siuslaw and Valley Catholic,” Fulton said. “They’ll probably be the main competition — and Marist, too … they’re good on the boys’ side. The team I really wish would be here is the La Grande girls, because that’s the only team in the state that concerns me.”

Philomath has not seen La Grande at any meets this season.

Fulton anticipates a full squad on the course for the home appearance. Three varsity-level runners missed last weekend’s competition — one runner was ill, another had a sore ankle and the third needed to focus on a college entry exam.

Fulton said the Philomath course needed to be reconfigured based on a subdivision that’s gone in, but it appears to be in good shape.

“I had to get rid of a portion of it that was along the fence of that new housing development,” Fulton said. “They had cut down all the trees in that area and poison oak was spreading and it was just getting too difficult to maintain. Plus, it was like running in people’s backyards, so we eliminated that and put in a new section and I think it’s going to be good. I think people will like it.”

As far as the meet’s size, Fulton actually would prefer that the Philomath event stay smaller.

“There are much bigger meets, these huge invitationals that I avoid like the plague because I don’t like going to meets that have multiple varsity races — like Varsity Gold, Varsity Silver and all this stuff — so you literally have thousands of runners,” he said.

The larger meets are organized as such in part to raise money.

“I don’t use this meet as a money maker,” Fulton said. “We have one of the lowest entry fees and give out more awards than most meets.”

The Mariman Invite also gets local support from the Philomath Community Foundation and in addition, Garland Nursery donates trees that are given away as trophies.

“Most of the money that I get goes to paying for Athletic Timing Services that does all the registrations and results, the live results and all that good stuff — the hard, hard stuff that we used to have to do ourselves,” Fulton said.

Gordy Byers appears in a Class of 1975 photo hanging in the PHS hallway outside the gymnasium. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Byers was a top runner in 1970s

Byers said he’s been happy to see Philomath High’s success in running over the years.

“There was some good distance runners following me and I thought that was so cool,” Byers said. “I’ve always been so proud of Philomath and their track programs from Mariman to Joe — great coaches, solid teams.”

Reflecting on his own time in a Warriors uniform, Byers remembers his freshman season as his best.

“I won my freshman, sophomore and junior year and then I was so banged up, that I finished my senior year in sixth place,” Byers said. “Really, the only time I was healthy was when I was a freshman.”

Byers actually had the national record for a freshman in 1972 in the three-mile run and he attracted a lot of attention, including Oregon State track and field coach Berny Wagner.

Dreams of running at the next level were not possible, however, and Byers admitted that he was upset for many years with how his high school running career took a bad turn.

“I’d always had shin splits — I have bowed legs,” he said. “I was born in Thailand and they didn’t have any doctors that could correct it — that’s my understanding. And I just ran so many miles as a freshman, sometimes three times a day. And the shin splits just never really healed up.”

In fact, he said, they cracked during the state cross-country meet when he was a junior.

Said Byers, “I was about halfway through the race and just snapped my fibula.”

The meet’s awards ceremony is scheduled to start at 3 p.m.

Said Byers, “It’s so awesome that Joe even thought of me and I’m so humbled and just honored,” Byers said.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.