August 24, 2005 - If there's a road in Oro Valley, chances are Michael Anderson and Nick Belock have run on it.

It's not an uncommon sight to see both Anderson and Belock tearing up the pavement and trails of the Northwest, huffing and puffing their way toward the fall cross country season which begins with the Marana Invitational Sept. 2 at Marana High School.

When it comes to cross country running in Arizona, most schools count their blessings when they have one solid runner contend for best in the state. Doubly blessed is Ironwood Ridge High School this year with senior Belock and Anderson, a junior.

Off the cross country course the two are close; on the 3.1 mile course they're even closer.

"Our strategy this year is to stay together," said Belock at a team practice during the second week of school, "and push each other through because we're very equal running."

Despite both of their competitive natures it never gets in the way of their focus and, more importantly their friendship.

"There's competition but we like to push each other," said Anderson, a former Junior Olympian whose running routes usually take him through the back roads of Rancho Vistoso. "I've been running with Nick, this will be our third year."

Where many schools struggle with numbers and to fill its rosters, Ironwood Ridge has had 30 runners come out to run cross country this year.

Head coach Gary Forrest attributes the high turnout to the achievement of the cross country and track team last season.

"Success breeds success," said Forrest, who enters his fourth year heading up the squad. Last year the Nighthawks finished third in the Class 4A Sonoran Region, thanks largely in part to the legs of Anderson and Belock, while the girls squad finished first in the region. Anderson, who hardly lost a race all season, won the individual Sonoran region meet with a time of 17:04.8 minutes and finished 11th in the state meet with a time of 16:12.

This season, barring injury, is the Nighthawks' to lose, considering the team's depth. With one of the state's all-time premier runners in Kenny Cormier of Douglas off to college at Arkansas, Anderson and Belock believe the state is up for grabs.

"Our team goals are: No. 1, we are going to win our region," said Belock, who before he can finish has Anderson complete his sentence.

"And shoot for top three in state," said the junior.

The other goal is to qualify and place at the Doug Conley Invitational, Oct. 1 in Tempe, which pits the top 20 cross country programs in the state, regardless of class, against one another - a meet both Anderson and Belock place higher in priority and importance than the state invitational. In 2004, Ironwood Ridge did not qualify for the Conley Invitational, instead headed to a meet in Bisbee which Anderson and the Nighthawks won.

Before last season, a top three finish at state may have seemed like a legitimate goal for Anderson, who would have finished the track and field season strong had it not been for a slight fracture in his left foot that sidelined him for four weeks in the spring.

Who did finish the track and field season strong, however, was Belock who won the Sonoran crown in the 1600-meters with a time 4:44.12 and took second in the 800-meter race as Ironwood Ridge won the school's first regional team title.

Said Forrest, Belock is the team's most improved runner.

"I slacked off intensely the first two, three years I was running," admits Belock. "I never did the summer mileage."

As his high school career nears the finish line, the senior has found his motivation.

"I think it was the realization that high school is almost over and I wanted to make a name for myself and do something big before I left," said Belock, "because I'm not sure how much running I'm going to be doing outside of high school if I don't make it to any college teams."

If Anderson has his way, a spot on the Stanford track team has his name on it after he graduates in 2007.

No matter where they both end up - Belock is looking into the University of Arizona, where, if he doesn't make the track squad he'll run triathlons for the Tri-Cats - the dynamic duo of Northwest running will be doing what they do best: running.

"That's what we do," said Belock.

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