Over the months, some of the cars pulling into the drive-through deteriorated. They’d look dingier. Dirtier. Mia Barnett would try to put on a smile behind her mask.
After sitting through Zoom classes last spring, Barnett would head to the Los Angeles Dream Center, strap on a pair of gloves and a surgical mask, and pass out free meals to a steady line of families in the center’s parking lot. She and other workers tried to create a cheerful atmosphere amid chaos. Once, she remembers, a woman cried after Barnett handed her food.
Barnett had plenty of reasons not to be happy in those months. Track season had been canceled, with cross country axed in the fall. Everyday runs at Rose Bowl Stadium were the only connection the runner had to her sport. But the time at the center did something important, father and LA Dream Center founder Matthew Barnett said: It showed her there were people with problems larger than hers.
“She was emptying herself into serving, and that was a very valuable part of her life,” Barnett’s father said. “I look back on those days, and I feel like those were the days that might’ve really saved her to some degree.”
Barnett, a senior at Crescenta Valley High committed to run at Virginia next season, has hit a different level on the track this spring. She’s now the owner of the fourth-fastest time at 3,200 meters in California girls’ high school history, while setting numerous other personal records. The key is Barnett’s attacking each race with reckless abandon — after a year of witnessing how quickly things could be taken away.
“I just think I have more of a killer instinct now than I did before, of willing to take risks, willing to be the one to lead the race and taking charge in order to run my own race,” Barnett said. “If nobody’s going to [run] the pace at the time goal I’m going to hit, I’m going to take charge and do it myself.”
She’s always had a natural motor for competition. At 5, Barnett would turn into Abby Wambach in youth soccer leagues, potting goal after goal into tiny nets as opponents found more interest in picking dandelions.
She cried after her first cross-country race as an eighth-grader at Village Christian School. Matthew laughed as he recalled his daughter sprinting the entire way, jumping out to a massive early lead before growing tired and finishing third.
“She’s like, ‘I can’t believe I got third. I’m so bad. I should’ve won!’ ” her father said. “I’m like, ‘You got third, and you had no skill or knowledge of how to pace yourself.”
Barnett’s never lost that desire to improve. She quickly came to love running — both track and cross country — for the competitive thrill of one-upping herself. After a freshman year at Village Christian in which she broke a five-minute mile, her confidence grew. Barnett would get so nervous before races that she’d feel like she’d want to puke.
But she also ran races not to lose. Her father and coaches said she’d generally keep pace with other runners and then make a late push to outkick them.
She transferred to Crescenta Valley midway through her junior year, wanting a more consistent training program. She found it under the father-son duo of coaches Mark Evans and Robert Evans, who knew from her first workout that she was special. Barnett was champing at the bit to hit the track in her junior season, training with the boys’ team and hoping to improve her times to entice college recruiters.
Then COVID-19 washed away that hope.
“I was like, ‘Ugh, I was ready to hit these time goals,’ ” Barnett said. “It just felt like, ‘Are we ever going to have a season again?’ There was a lot of hopelessness in it.”
Barnett’s motivation at times, she said, drifted from season to season. It was challenged during the pandemic. In the back of her mind rang the thought, “I’m not going to have a cross-country season — why am I training?”
Barnett learned to take pride in her training if she could get a run in each day, clearing her mind with every step, visualizing plans for the fall in an uncertain time.
As her mileage increased, so did her time in the community of the Dream Center. Due to her family ties, she’d been involved in church events there since she was young. The pandemic gave her the opportunity to reconnect with the center, pouring her time into working the drive-through and participating in outreach projects to deliver food to nursing homes and low-income areas of Los Angeles.
“She has a big heart,” said Christine Kim, the marketing director of the LA Dream Center.
The first time Robert Evans met Barnett, she talked to him about Crescenta Valley’s goals as a team. That stuck with him. She wasn’t focused on her own achievements.
During the pandemic, she stopped by Robert Evans’ house for a drive-by birthday party for his daughter, carrying a custom-made “Happy Birthday” sign. Barnett’s considerateness of others has never wavered, he said.
“The fact she’s going down there and handing out food and supporting the efforts of the Dream Center, I think it just speaks to this dimension of her that’s very much a part of something bigger than herself,” Robert said. “Track can sometimes be a lonely and isolating sport, but only if you see it that way. And she doesn’t see it that way. She sees herself as part of a team and part of a bigger group, and that’s how she sees life.”
Barnett traveled to Lubbock Christian University in December 2020 to run in a national cross-country invitational, where she placed third. As track was cleared for competition and meets piled up, it was clear Crescenta Valley had an entirely new runner on their hands.
Barnett competed on March 27 against other high-profile runners in a mile event in the Sundown Track Series in Arizona. Coach Mark Evans recalled she led the race from start to finish — but not without competition.
With 300 meters to go, another runner was breathing down Barnett’s shoulder, needing “three more steps” to catch her, her caoch said. But Barnett shifted into another gear, never yielding a step. She finished with a winning time of 4:43.
“With the pandemic and the shutdown and not being able to race last year, and not knowing when our next big race is going to come, she just wants to take advantage of any race that she has to go out and do this,” Evans said.
There’s an inherent risk involved in leading the pack of a race from start to finish. If a runner loses wind, that’s it. She falls flat on her face and watches fresher legs fly by, the phenomenon Barnett experienced in her first cross-country race.
But that younger version of Barnett as a racer is in the past. Gone is the girl that once felt like vomiting before races. In her place is one that still gets nervous but only because she feels too confident. She pushes the pace like it’s a “badge of honor,” coach Robert Evans said.
Nowadays, Barnett can’t tell you what flashes through her mind during a race. When the bang of the gun erupts, everything is clear. Her instincts take over. If she feels someone approaching, she pushes harder. The only person she’s truly competing against is herself.
Barnett has one final chance to make history in her high school career: the Arcadia Invitational on May 7-8.
The girls’ high school record for the 3,200 meters is 9:48:59, set by Kim Mortensen of Thousand Oaks High in 1996. Barnett wants it. She wants to become the greatest runner in Southern California history. Those in attendance at the invitational won’t be watching her race against anyone but Mortensen.
Races could get canceled at the blink of an eye. Life could change with a sudden gust of wind. What does she have to lose?
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.