It was a scene sophomore Paige Rice had witnessed since elementary school: Hundreds of the nation's top high school runners stampeding through Portland Meadows' muddy grounds in a race for the national title.

This time, instead of traveling from her Portland home to watch from the sidelines, Rice ran in the thick of the herd Saturday at the 8th annual Nike Cross  Nationals.

Rice was the OSAA Class 6A cross country state champion from St. Mary's Academy and Portland's sole representative in the national meet of nearly 400 harriers. The meet brings together the top teams and individuals from eight regional meets around the country, held after each state's championships.

For Rice, coming to the course after a pre-meet hotel stay was a bit like coming home. She lives just four miles away.

"I'm probably one of the closest ever that's raced here," she said. "That's pretty special."

Still, the 5000-meter course featuring hay bales, man-made hills known as "whoop-de-doos," and stretches of mud challenges even the most experienced runners. Some lose shoes in the muck and continue barefoot, others expend their energy in the near-sprint start.

Rice, a sophomore, placed 55th.

"I didn't have the race I was hoping for," Rice said. "But the experience made up for it in every way." With a national meet under her belt and two more years in her high school career, she looks to the future.  

Futsum Zeinasellassie of Indiana ran away with the victory in the boys race, winning by 24 seconds and setting a new course record of 15:03. Christian Brothers Academy from Lincroft, New Jersey, beat Southlake Carroll from Texas 91-95 for the team win.

On the girls side, California runner Sarah Baxter took the individual title. Katie Knight, of Washington, was the top Northwest finisher in third. Fayetteville-Manlius of New York earned its 6th team national championship.

The Summit girls cross country team from Bend, the only Oregon team to compete, finished 15th.

"I've never had so much fun in a race," Summit freshman Piper McDonald said.

"It was like a real cross country race, with the weather and the mud," senior Megan Fristoe added. Fristoe was Oregon's class 5A state champion this year. She finished in 83rd.

Saturday marked the first time Summit competed in nationals. It served as an eye-opening experience for the undefeated team.

"Megan is a three-time state champion in Oregon and now she's mixed in with lots of people in front of her," Summit coach Dave Clark said. "And I think that's healthy."

South Eugene's Sara Tsai, a freshman and 6A state runner-up behind Rice, overcame nerves to place 15th. Her teammate, junior Erin Clark, placed 60th.

"Everywhere you look you see these seniors you've heard about on a national level," Tsai said.

As she spoke, her Eugene teammates chanted in the background: "She's a freshman."

Fellow Northwest native Austen Frostad of North Spokane expressed pride in representing an area so steeped in running history.

"We're living the legend of our coaches who paved the way," he said. North Spokane, a returning team, finished 7th.  

"It's really cool to continue the legacy."