SAN DIEGO -- The pain on German Fernandez's face had little to do with the tough five kilometers he'd just run at Balboa Park in San Diego.
The Riverbank High senior took on all comers for his entire cross country season, and had never lost a race.
Until Saturday, when, racing in the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships, Fernandez couldn't hold off a strong move by Michael Fout of LaPorte High in Indiana.
Fernandez, who was in second place for the first two miles of the 5K (3.1 miles) race, fell back to sixth place in the final mile before passing three runners to finish third in 15 minutes, 9 seconds. Fout won in 14:50. The third-place finish earned Fernandez All-America honors.
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"I can't really explain how I feel right now," said Fernandez, whose last cross country loss had come in last year's CIF State Championships. "I knew we went out a little too fast. I didn't know the time but I knew how my legs felt.
"The bottom line is, I just had a bad day."
Utah's Luke Puskedra, considered another favorite, tried to steal the race by running away from the field early. He ran the first mile in a scorching 4:28 with two runners -- one of them Fernandez -- right behind him.
"My plan was to stay with them, but it was too fast," Fernandez said. "I was thinking a 4:32-4:33 first mile."
The second mile included the course's big hill, which every runner struggled on. And a storm the night before turned the entire course into a muddy quagmire.
"In the Midwest, we're used to running in the mud," Fout said. "I just tried to stay patient because I knew they would come back to me."
Fout made his move just after the second mile, pulling away from the field and extending a huge lead. Runner-up Chris Derrick (Naperville, Ill.) made a late run at Fout, but couldn't catch him. Fernandez caught three runners in the final 400 meters to place third.
When Fernandez fell back, the same words ran through his head.
"I kept telling myself, 'That's not me,' " Fernandez said. "I didn't have a lot left, but I gave everything I had."
His coach, Bruce Edwards, said Fernandez had a couple of factors working against him.
"He battled a cold, he battled a calf strain and he wasn't used to these kinds of conditions," Edwards said. "But give him a couple of days, and he's going to realize he just placed third in the entire country. That's an awesome feat.
"This is going to be a steppingstone for his future."
Fernandez, however, said the illness and injury weren't big factors.
"The calf was there, but that's no excuse," he said. "It just wasn't my day.
"Plus, (Fout) ran a great race. When he made his move, he just took off."
Fernandez roared into the nationals on three consecutive impressive wins, and was considered the prerace favorite.
Last week, he cruised to victory in the Foot Locker Western Regionals at Walnut's Mt. San Antonio College, winning in 15:53, 15 seconds faster than Puskedra of Ogden, Utah. For much of the year, Fernandez and Puskedra were considered the nation's top two cross country runners.
On Nov. 24, Fernandez won the CIF State Division IV title at Fresno's Woodward Park in a course-record 14:24. He was 49 seconds faster than any other runner in any of the five divisions.
At the Sac-Joaquin Section meet at Folsom on Nov. 10, Fernandez set a course record, winning the Division IV race at Folsom's Willow Hills course in 15:03.
He's the only Stanislaus District runner to win a Foot Locker Western Regional title.
But, as Fernandez learned Saturday, you can't win them all.
"I needed to run a little smarter, with a little more patience," Fernandez said. "I'm going to learn from this. I'm going to learn a lot."
A group of about 20 made the trip from Riverbank to watch him run. Some fans drove all night to make the race. They cheered for him every time Fernandez ran close to the finish line on the figure-eight course. And they cheered him and thanked Edwards after the race.
"I was really hoping to bring a national championship back to Riverbank," Fernandez said. "Instead, I'm bringing third-place back. I feel I still had a great year.
"But you always want to finish with a win."
Staff writer Will DeBoard can be reached email@example.com or call 578-2300.