Ryan Gil knows what it is like to race against people he doesn't know.
This past summer he competed in the USA Track & Field Junior Olympics in the 2,000-meter steeplechase at North Carolina A&T State in Greensboro, N.C. Not knowing whom he was running against didn't seem to bother him. He won the race.
Gil, a junior at North Allegheny High School, finds himself in a similar situation this weekend. He has qualified for the Foot Locker Cross Country national final in San Diego. The race is Saturday and except for Mt. Lebanon's Rad Gunzenhauser, whom he raced against a lot this fall, and North Penn's Bradley Miles, whom he ran against at the PIAA championships in Hershey last month, Gil doesn't know anybody in the field.
"It's a little bit tough not knowing [the other runners], but I've done that before," Gil said. "But you're going to pretty much run your own race anyway."
Gil qualified for the national championship, which will be run at Morley Field in Balboa Park in San Diego, by finishing eighth in the Foot Locker Northeast Regional Nov. 28 at Sunken Meadow Park in Kings Park, N.Y. He finished the 5-kilometer (3.1 mile) course in 16 minutes, 10 seconds.
Miles, who won the PIAA Class AAA title last month, won the race in 15:52. Gunzenhauser, who was second to Gil at the WPIAL championships the end of October, finished fifth in 16:05.
Gunzenhauser and Gil had gone head-to-head six times this season before the Foot Locker regional. Gil has finished ahead of Gunzenhauser, a senior, just twice.
"I saw Rad and wished him luck before the race," Gil said. "Once the race started I didn't see him until he passed me toward the end."
That's because Gil and Gunzenhauser have different race strategies. Gil likes to get out to a fast start and hang with the leaders. Gunzenhauser is more of a slow starter who gets stronger as the race progresses. That's why they didn't work to help each other at the Foot Locker regionals.
The top 10 finishers in the boys' and girls' races at each of the regionals -- Northeast, Midwest, South and West -- advanced to Saturday's finals. No Western Pennsylvania girls qualified for the championships. Sara Sargent of Pennsbury High School was the only Pennsylvania runner in the girls' race to finish in the top 10.
Gil said the course at Sunken Meadow Park was tough and had a rugged hill. He approached the race a little differently because he wasn't worried about winning.
"I thought I had a pretty good chance of finishing in the top 10," he said. "I started training again the Tuesday after the state [PIAA] championships because I was going to run in this."
Last year, Gil was a member of the North Allegheny team that participated in the Nike Team Challenge and earned a trip to Oregon for those national finals.
"After last year I'm sort of used to this," said Gil, who was scheduled to leave today for San Diego and will be joined there by his parents. "I'm just excited about going out there and running."
It should be pointed out that the top 15 finishers in each of the national races will be considered All-Americans. That's what Gil is shooting for and knows reaching that goal won't be easy.
"There will be a lot of the best runners in the country there, so it will be really cool to see where I kind of stack up against everybody else," he said. "I'd like to go out there and race well."
He said the course at Balboa Park is a 2,500-kilometer loop and has a hill that is supposed to be tough. That's fine with him. He does a good job running up hills but, with his long stride, is even better at running down hills. It was that ability that helped him win the WPIAL Class AAA title this past season and place third behind Miles and Gunzenhauser at the PIAA finals.