On a bright, sunny October in 2002, approximately 410 runners - myself included - took a 3.1-mile tour of the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast as the Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions was born.
To say this meet has grown on a yearly basis is a gross understatement.
Saturday, on that very same course along Maine's picturesque midcoast, as nearly 1,700 high school runners - 1,692 to be exact - and 75 teams from four states and two Canadian provinces will tackle one of Maine's fastest cross country courses.
The first of 6 races will get under way at 11 a.m. The unseeded girls will tackle the course first, followed by the unseeded boys. That will be followed by the freshmen girls and boys, and the day will be capped with the girls' and boys' seeded races.
The meet, one of the largest regular-season meets in New England and the entire Northeast, typically serves as a benchmark for teams, individuals and coaches as the season reaches the halfway point and winds towards the postseason.
Unlike most states, Maine does not have an all-class state meet, so the Festival of Champions gives teams a chance to see how they measure up against teams from other classes, conferences and regions. It also provides individual confrontations which aren't seen until New England competition and beyond.
The individual boys' race is shaping up to be a showdown between Ellsworth senior Dan Curts and Telstar senior Josef Holt-Andrews.
These two raced together last weekend in Manchester, N.H., with Curts, the reigning Class B state champion, outdueling Holt-Andrews, covering the 5K course in 15 minutes, 23 seconds.
Holt-Andrews was just behind in 15:27.
The duo won't be without challengers, including Mt. Blue's Aaron Willingham, Caleb Lord of Hampden Academy, Mt. Blue's Josh Horne, Jonathan Stanhope of Bangor and Liam Simpson of Cape Elizabeth.
The meet and course record is 15:27, set by 2012 champ Mike Tate of Dr. J.H. Gillis High of Nova Scotia, and with the way Curts and Holt-Andrews have been running and the dry conditions the state has seen over the last week, Tate's standard could be in danger.
Curts' Eagles will be a factor in the team competition as well, along with Cape Elizabeth, Harwood Union of Vermont, meet mainstay Cumberland, R.I., Falmouth, Bangor, Scarborough, Lewiston and Brewer. The Clippers from Rhode Island claimed the team championship last fall.
Kents Hill sophomore Anne McKee leads a wide-open girls field, and she's one of 15 girls who could emerge with the title.
Bethanie Brown of Waterville, the 2012 champ, is now at Iowa State University, and the door is open for a new victor to emerge.
That throng includes McKee, Kiera Murray of Cheverus, South Portland's Shannon Conley, Kialeigh Marston of Bonny Eagle, Anne Guadalupi of Cony, Aleta Looker of Ellsworth, South Portland's Casey Loring, Hana Marmura of J.H. Gillis, Oceanside's Abby Hersom, Teresa Murphy of Brunswick, Hannah Austin of North Yarmouth Academy, Amy Laverty of Cumberland, R.I., Hampden's Elizabeth Labun and Betsy Dumais of Burrillville, R.I.
In the team competition, defending champion Mount Desert Island is returning to defend its crown. Challengers include J.H. Gillis, Harwood Union, Burrillville, Cumberland, Falmouth, Yarmouth, Massabesic, Kents Hill and Hampden Academy.