By ELLIOTT DENMAN
North Dakota winters are often brutal-brutal-brutal.
Huge snowfalls. Bitter cold. Biting winds.
Then again, North Dakota summers are usually less than delightful, too.
Extreme heat. High humidity. Rare breezes.
Dave Zitteleman knows. He's a lifelong North Dakotan who's weathered it all.
Brandon Barnes knows. He's the star 800-meter runner on Coach Zittleman's Bismarck High School track and field team that is coming to Greensboro and the New Balance National Championships determined to show the rest of the country that it takes a lot more than some extreme weather to take away his will to win.
Lucas Degree, Josh Hintz and Jake Leingang know, too. They're Barnes' best buddies and teammates on the Demons' 4x800 relay team that - on paper, in the computer - ranks only 17th in the nation but will refuse to concede an inch or a foot or anything else to all those people who've run faster - almost surely in better weather - this spring of 2010.
"Sure we get a ton of snow," said Zittleman in a telephone interview. "Lots of it, all the time. I think we had over 100 inches of it this past winter.
"And the cold to go with it. For two weeks straight this winter, temperatures ran 30 below or more. Sometimes the winds gust to 80 miles an hour, or more. Most of the time, they're at least 60 to 75.
"April's usually pretty decent. May's not too bad. Then the summer comes, and we have the opposite kind of extremes."
To all this, Barnes, Degree, Hintz and Leingang say "so what?"
They know they've trained as hard as anyone else in America. They know they've gone all-out in every race they've entered in their part of the nation. They've built the confidence that they can handle any challenge that comes their way. So now it's time for these determined North Dakotans to get on with it.
And that's what the New Balance Nationals are all about - finally having it out, on a real track, in a real race, against the people they've really known only as names on some list.
"We know we can run really fast," said Zittleman, "and now's the time to show what we can do."
His 4x800 ran its best of 7:46.08 back on May 1 in the Howard Wood Relays in Sioux Falls, S.D. Unpressed, the Demons left the second-place team over 10 seconds behind.
Will nation-leading Warwick, N.Y. (7:36.43) and such others as Liverpool, N.Y. (7:38.78) and Wadsworth, Ohio (7:39.72) under-appreciate a 7:46.08? Better not, it would be a serious miscalculation.
"Our kids go out and train no matter what the weather," said Zittleman. "It may be below zero. It might be really gusting. They just dress for it, with lots of layers. You'd be surprised how the body retains its heat, how these guys continue to stay comfortable, no matter what.
"They look at it as kind of a survival of the fittest.
"They wear their winter training mileage as a badge of honor.
"And when you put them on a track in good conditions, I know they can run fast, really fast."
Running races from 400 meters to 1600, Barnes hasn't lost all year. A very big homestretch kick has become his trademark.
He ran a 49.88 400 at the Charlie Denton Relays on April 10. The 1:51.20 800 came at the North Dakota Relays May 8. He's also won his four races at 1,600 meters in remarkably consistent fashion, running 4:18.33, 4:18.44, 4:18.78 and 4:18.82. And he's improving dramatically - after a 1:57.60 800 meter best as a junior in 2009.
Barnes, Degree and Hintz are college-bound seniors.
Barnes is headed to Iowa State, where head coach Corey Ihmels (an all-time great of North Dakota high school track, as a 13-time state champion and the 1991 Foot Locker National cross country champion for Williston High) now directs one of the nation's top collegiate distance programs.
Degree and Hintz will attend North Dakota State. (Absent from the Greensboro lineup, though, will be senior teammate Jake Miller, another solid 800 man, but obligated to football drills as an incoming freshman at the University of North Dakota.)
So that will leave Leingang (who will run the freshman mile at Greensboro as well as the 4x800) as Bismarck's bright hope for the next three years.
"Jake has already shown some phenomenal improvement," said Zittleman. "As an eighth grader, he ran 2:17 for 800 and 4:58 for the 1,600. This year, he's already run 9:27 for the 3,200 meters.
"That young man, I believe, was born to run. He has some unblievable VO2 max uptake."
Zittleman is a graduate of Bismarck's University of Mary, where he had a productive but never record-beaking track career.
Nevertheless, he is a true student of the sport and (after a stint at Minot State University) returned to Bismarck High.
Along with co-varsity head coach Darrell Anderson, and 10 assistants, he's guided the Demons to the top of their realm. Track is big at Bismarck High, with over 120 of the school's 1,300-plus students out for the team.
Bismarck has won the last seven North Dakota state boys team championships, along with the last five cross country crowns.
"This last one was our 30th state title, all told," said Zittleman. "The school won eight track titles in a row in the 1940s and 50s, six in a row in the 1960s and 70s, and now the streak is seven. We tend to do it in blocks of time."
Over the years, a long list of Bismarck graduates have gone on to collegiate competition.
A most noted graduate was Weston Dressler, a sprint star in high school and at the University of North Dakota, who blossomed out as a collegiate wide receiver and was named to the Canadian Football League all-rookie team as a Saskatchewan Roughrider last fall.
Bismarck grads Eric Stroh (a North Dakota State 800 man), Joash Osoro (University of Portland cross country and distance star), and Devin Huizenga (Wake Forest distance runner) are others who've made their marks as collegians.
The state record book bears a lot of resemblance to Bismark's own.
Beyond Barnes' 1:51.21 800 on the state record list, Dressler still holds the all-time North Dakota record in the 100 (10.44 in 2004.) Howard Hausauer's 67-11 for Bismarck in 1987 remains the North Dakota shot put record, and Demon Charles Pokladnik's 7-0 clearance in 1990 shares the North Dakota high jump record.
In boys relays action, Bismarck now owns state record at 4x100 (42.65 in 2007) along with this spring's 7:46.08 4x800. Bismarck's girls are speedy, too, setting state marks of 48.76 in the 4x100 this spring, on top of their 1:43.50 for the 4x200 in 2004.
Sure it's over 1,500 miles from Bismarck to Greensboro, but running off to distant competitions should be no problem for these Demons. Trips to other meets in North Dakota are already long, and jaunts to meets in South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana even longer.
"We'd like to travel more but sometimes going to some of those meets is just economically unfeasible," said Zittleman. "But this one to Greensboro (helped along by the fund-raising efforts of Bismarck boosters) is very special to us.
"Our runners have a lot to show some other people around the country."