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MISAWA, Japan — The weather Saturday was unseasonably warm; the sun, framed by a crystal-blue sky, bathed Robert D. Edgren sophomore Daniel Sanchez as he turned out of the wooded area near the start of the Misawa Citizens’ Forestry Park course.

Running across the bridge near Misawa Air Base’s eastern fence line, he took his customary early lead in a Japan League cross country race. He kept it, finishing in 17 minutes, 53 seconds — 34 seconds better than Zama American’s Chris Cerrillo.

But to Sanchez, the race was close. Whenever he runs, he likes to imagine someone is running beside him.

Sanchez’s imaginary runner has been about the only threat to him this year. He’s won all five races he’s entered this Japan League season. But he said without thinking someone might be gaining on him, he might succumb to the voice in his head suggesting, “Slow down, this is too hard, you’ll be out of breath soon.”

Sanchez’s favorite imaginary rival is Jon Michael Kwak of St. Mary’s International in Tokyo, who is unbeaten in Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools races this season.

“He’s my inspiration,” Sanchez says of the runner he’ll likely face in the Kanto meet Oct. 25 at Tama Hills Recreation Center.

“I always pretend the St. Mary’s guy is right behind me and I tell myself if I don’t run hard now, what will happen when we really race?”

That thirst for competition, and an unrelenting desire to succeed, have turned Sanchez into the Japan League’s premier runner, according to his and other coaches.

“Competition brings out the best in him,” first-year Edgren coach Andre Thibert said. “No matter where he is, he’ll run to the level of his competition.”

Sanchez’s accomplishments are rare for a Department of Defense Dependents Schools runner. Cross country long has been the international schools’ province. American School In Japan and Christian Academy In Japan have won all but two biennial Far East meets since they began in 1978.

Sanchez has gained the respect of Yokota coach John Thek, who says he’s seen “dozens” of runners who don’t reach their potential “because they don’t have the desire.”

“This guy has the heart of a lion,” Thek said. “He works hard, takes it seriously and he’s a leader out there. He’s going to be a real fine runner. He has some native ability and he’s not afraid to push himself.”

Sanchez’s best time still is well short of the top 3.1-mile time this season, 16 minutes, 36 seconds, by 2002 Far East individual champion Will Carter of Seoul American. Kwak’s 16:06, on Sept. 27 at Tama’s 2.9-mile course, is 34 seconds better than Sanchez’s best, which he ran Sept. 20.

But in the DODDS-Japan League, Sanchez has run to the head of the line.

The Las Vegas native, who also plays soccer for the Eagles in the spring, calls running “one of those weird sports. You get a payout but it hurts every race.

“You have to tune out the hurt,” Sanchez said. “It seems like all these forces are working against you. The first mile, I’m not hurting or breathing heavily but then you get lactic acid buildup, your muscles get tight. You just have to push through it.”

Succeeding in cross country, he said, is part hard training — the rest is heart. “That’s what gets you through that voice,” he said. He also keeps an eye on the newspaper, checking rivals’ times.

“There’s some good competition out there,” Sanchez said.

Thek agreed, predicting that up to four runners will break the 16-minute mark on Tama’s 2.9-mile course in the Kanto meet.

“He’ll [Sanchez] be one of them,” Thek said. “If you break 16 minutes, you’re moving. One year, we had six or seven. It’s been a while. This year, they’re going to push each other.”

Sanchez says he looks forward to it. DODDS-Pacific hosts its biennial Far East meets in odd-numbered years, and Sanchez’s father, Joel, a master sergeant assigned to Misawa’s 35th Civil Engineering Squadron, is transferring after this school year.

Thus, Sanchez plans to consider Kanto “my Far East. ... Finally, I’ll be running with the pack, people pushing each other, instead of me being out in front alone.”

He also hopes once he lands on his feet in the States — Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas is the family’s likely destination. Sanchez can run for his school’s varsity until he graduates.

“That’s another inspiration,” he said. “The competition in the States is more stiff. I want to be able to make the varsity and compete with everybody there.”

Thibert indicated he believes Sanchez will succeed.

“There are two types of runners, ones who rise to the highest level and others who only get so good,” he said. “He rises to the level.”

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