BELFAST — Yarmouth senior Luke Laverdiere considered the question, started to answer, then excused himself as he turned and took a knee.

After a few moments, he stood again for another attempt at a conversation, but the bile in his stomach won out over words.

“The last mile,” he said 15 minutes later, after changing from a racing singlet to a faded T-shirt, “was the hardest I’ve ever run.”

Without any serious competition, save the knowledge of a four-year-old course record, Laverdiere pushed himself to victory by more than half a minute Saturday afternoon at the 16th annual Maine XC Festival of Champions.

He defended his title at Troy Howard Middle School – the site of this fall’s New England championship meet – in a time of 15 minutes, 10.86 seconds. It was seven seconds faster than Laverdiere had ever completed a 5-kilometer course, but it fell four seconds shy of the course record (15:06.92) set by Josef Holt-Andrews of Telstar in 2013.

“I knew it was close,” Laverdiere said. “With a half mile to go, I was hurting a lot, but I knew I had a shot.”

No other Maine runner – not Ben True, Will Geoghegan, Levi Miller nor Ayalew Taye – had broken 15:30 at Belfast until Holt-Andrews blazed to the record. On Saturday, under partly cloudy skies with temperatures just below 60, Laverdiere came closest.

“I didn’t quite get (the record) but it was a great PR,” he said, “so I’m not going to complain.”

The Festival includes four races (seeded, freshman and two unseeded) for boys and three (only one unseeded) for girls. Saturday’s festival was the largest yet, with nearly 1,900 runners from 86 high schools – 15 of them from out of state, including two from Canadian provinces.

Sofie Matson, a freshman from Falmouth, won the girls’ seeded race by nearly 20 seconds in 18:17.33. Placing second was Yarmouth senior Sophia Laukli, a newcomer to cross country who played soccer as a sophomore and spent last year at a boarding school in Switzerland focused on her true passion, Nordic skiing.

The overall team winners came from New Hampshire (Concord’s boys) and Connecticut (Glastonbury’s girls). The Camden Hills girls (second overall) and Falmouth boys (fourth) placed highest among 71 schools from Maine.

Matson’s teammate, Karley Piers, won the girls’ freshman race (in 18:58) and was one of only nine girls all day to break 19 minutes. Each was seeded first in her race.

“They were definitely nervous,” Falmouth Coach Danny Paul said. “They both get real quiet when they get worried.”

For much of the day, the challenge for Paul and co-coach Jorma Kurry was to distract their young runners.

“There was a lot of talking about other topics to keep them from focusing too much on the race,” Kurry said. “They both know how to race. They both know how to perform at a big meet. So it was more a matter of taking the tension down.”

They advised both Piers and Matson to run a conservative first mile before shifting gears. Piers followed the plan. Matson did not.

“I knew I wanted to be out, at least, in the front of the pack, so I just went for it,” Matson said. “I did get boxed in in like the first 100 meters, so I had to push my way through.”

Laukli edged Greely junior Carolyn Todd by less than a second. Camden Hills sophomore Grace Iltis won a sprint for fourth over York senior Kathryn Miller and Bonny Eagle junior Ami Beaumier.

Camden Hills, aided by an 11th from junior Augusta Stockman, finished more than 100 points behind first-place Glastonbury but was 56 ahead of the next Maine school, Yarmouth, which finished fifth overall.

“That is absolutely amazing,” Iltis said. “I really had no idea. I was hoping we’d get runner-up, but I was not expecting it, so I’m really excited.”

Junior John Auer (seventh) and senior Conner Piers (ninth) led Falmouth’s boys, the 2016 Festival champs. Concord squeezed seven runners among the top 32 to easily outdistance runner-up East Greenwich (Rhode Island) and Nashua North (New Hampshire).

Greely High of Cumberland placed fifth overall, 87 points behind Falmouth.

Falmouth’s fifth scoring runner, junior Douglas Cooke, rebounded after being one of the handful of runners in nearly every race who fell in early congestion and had to avoid being trampled.

“I was lucky,” said Cooke, whose shorts appeared as if a housecat had used them as a scratching post. “Someone just stepped on my back and I kind of got kicked in the head. But I rolled right out of it and I was pretty much good from there.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or

[email protected]

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH

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