MELBA — It’s hard to miss Melba girls cross-country runner Cheylah Volkers.
With six top 10 finishes and the second fastest time in the state in the 2A classification, she’s the one up front leading the pack.
But it’s what the competitors and spectators don’t see as she zooms by them that matters the most to her.
Before every race, the junior writes “Tanner,” in the inside of her running shoes. “Tanner” represents Tanner Volkers, her late cousin, who, due to post-traumatic stress disorder, committed suicide nearly four years ago.
Since that day, Volkers has been keeping the memory of Tanner alive through her running and will continue to do so at 1:45 p.m. today when she competes in the 2A girls cross-country state championship at Portneuf Wellness Complex in Pocatello.
“Sometimes your greatest tragedy is your best weapon,” Volkers said. “I feel the thing that happened to my cousin is my weapon for when I’m running. It’s my motivation. It’s my motivation for everything. I take out all my frustration, anger and emotions from that and put it into this.”
Tanner, who served in the Air Force, was close to Volkers. The two were quite the outdoor adventurers, going on a bevy of hiking and fishing trips.
“He was my older brother figure,” Volkers said. “He would be at my house every day after school.”
So when Volkers, who had just started running cross-country in the eighth grade, found out the news of his death, she was devastated.
She contemplated quitting the sport altogether. But upon talking to her aunt, Volkers decided the best thing for her to do was run.
“I realized that the things that I could achieve could be for him and his family,” Volkers said. “I decided this was how I could honor him and bring joy to his family.”
As a freshman, Volkers wrote Tanner’s name on her arm to be reminded of him every time her arm swung up in the air during a race.
And with each passing race, not only did his memory get stronger for Volkers, but so did her results.
Volkers went from three top 10 finishes her freshman year to more than double that her sophomore year with seven, which included a district championship and a 10th-place finish at state.
She is well on her way to matching that number this season with much better times. After failing to get under 20 minutes all of last year, Volkers has posted three sub-20-minute times this season.
“Honestly, she just works really hard in practice and she’s very humble about it,” junior Mekenna Manzer said. “I think that helps her a lot when she goes into races. It’s just a lot of effort in practice.”
Volkers is going to state riding a big wave of momentum. She is fresh off of a second consecutive district championship in which she posted the second fastest time of her career at 19 minutes, 41 seconds. Her career best came Sept. 28 at the 2A WIC Championships with a time of 19:32.
“She’s definitely one of the best runners and one of the hardest workers I’ve had come through the program,” Melba coach Conrad Evanow said. “The crazy part is, she still has one more year left, so we’ll see what happens.”
Volkers also honors her cousin outside of running, in the form of a five-month-old English golden retriever named Sage.
Back in May, Volkers got involved with Genesis Service Dogs out of Meridian, a group that trains service dogs to help kids and adults alike with various needs. After being involved with the organization for a couple of months, Sage came to live with her.
And now as part of her senior project, Volkers is training Sage to help people with PTSD.
But she’s also trained Sage to love cross-country, too. Sage will be in Pocatello to cheer Volkers on.
“She’s been to almost all my races this year,” Volkers said. “I’ve made it a ritual that right before the race I go and pet her and say ‘goodbye’ before I go to the starting line. She is kind of my biggest fan.”
According to Volkers, Sage will be joined by a special someone at the finish line to help celebrate the potential team or individual title.
“Tanner will definitely be celebrating right along side of her and everybody else,” Volkers said.
OTHER MELBA RUNNERS IN ACTION: Volkers is far from the only Melba runner who could turn some heads today. Joining her on the 2016 2A District III champion girls team is Manzer, who owns the ninth-fastest time in the state at 20:03.
Manzer looks to carry on the great running tradition of her family. Her older sister Sierra claimed a state title in 2014, while older brother Rylan posted a fifth place showing last year. Sierra and Rylan, along with sister Anysja all run cross-country for Northwest Nazarene University.
“I’m just focused on setting my own trademark as Mekenna,” Manzer said.
Alongside Manzer and Volkers are the trio of Kylahn Heritage, Marissa Cole and Kortney Trappett, who all have top 25 times in the state.
“It’s one of the funnest years I’ve had because they work together and push each other to get better,” Evanow said. “Hopefully they can keep going with that.”
The 1-2 punch of juniors Cameron Williams and Tristen Stimpson, anchor the reinging 2A District III champion boys team. The two best friends have gone back and forth with one another all season long. Williams has the seventh fastest time in the state at 16:55, with Stimpson right on his heels in eighth place at 16:56
“We’re great friends, we always have been,” Williams said. “We push each other. Even at practice, we push each other so much. It just makes us better. I’m excited to have him with me.”
OTHER LOCAL GIRL RUNNERS TO WATCH
Senior Hannah Webster, Caldwell
Freshman Gemma LaVergne, Emmett
Freshman Rebecca Bodine, Bishop Kelly
Junior Katie Freeman, Skyview
Freshman Lyssa Kemble, Middleton
Freshman Aunna Austin, New Plymouth
Junior Sage Earnest, Victory Charter
Junior Tarah Rogers, Victory Charter
Tess Washburn, Liberty Charter
Junior Cory Hamblin Liberty Charter
Junior Katelyn Gardner, Liberty Charter