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The sub-plot thickens

There is an interesting plot thickening as the final weeks of the cross country running season fall off the calendar.

And, as each meet comes and goes, the friendly competition between the key players -- Nicole Westpahl and Larissa Lurken -- increases.

The juxtaposition of the two runners is as obvious as their difference in height. (Westphal is 5'10" and Lurken is 5'0".)

Westphal, a senior at Park, is one of the best distance runners in the school's history. She is a four-time state meet participant who finished eighth in the state last year, a five-year All-Conference runner and has the third-best time on Park's all-time list.

Lurken, an eighth-grader, has never been to a state meet and just earned All-Conference honors for her first time last week.

However, this year, the youthful Lurken has been nipping at her elder's heels all season.

In the first official race of the year, the Dewey Minnert Invitational at St. Croix Bluffs, Westphal finished a comfortable 17 seconds ahead of Lurken.

But, three weeks later, Lurken closed the gap to just under two seconds at the Milaca Mega Meet.

Now, at last week's Suburban East Conference championships, Westphal finished only one second ahead of her junior counterpart, even though she was only two seconds from her own personal-best time.

However, the two runners are hardly combative. Far from it.

"Larissa is awesome," Westphal said. "More this year I'm trying to help her improve too. I expect her to be better than I am, because obviously she is running with me now and is right behind me. I hope that she'll improve. She's a great girl."

Park head coach Mike Moran said Westphal has helped Lurken become a better runner.

"Nikki knows how to race," Moran said. "She's been there before -- a lot. Larissa kind of got into her head and learned some things. Encouraged by me, and by coach (James) Kyes, and by Nikki, she's running with Nikki. It's certainly doing her very well."

Lurken feels she has learned a lot from Westphal, who is looking at possibly attending the University of California--Berkley or Wellesley College in Massachusetts next fall.

"She pushes me a lot," Lurken said. "We're really good friends and I'm glad to be running with her."

But, it's not all rainbows and ice cream between the two. Lurken wants to beat Westpahl and Westphal doesn't want Lurken to pass her.

"She definitely makes me run faster," Westphal said. "I obviously don't want my little eighth-grade teammate to show me up if I can help it. But, if she would pass me, good for her."

Said Lurken on trying to finish ahead of Westpahl: "That's what I've been trying to do and I hope to do that one time," she said. "I don't think I will, but I'll try my best."

The Park cross country team has only one more regular-season race -- today at St. Croix Bluffs.

Then, the Section 3AA meet is on Oct. 23. At that race both runners will hope the other qualifies for the state meet.

"I think I'll be able to make state this year," Westphal said. "Hopefully Larissa will be right up there with me."