(I'm not sure if I will ever get the font right...)
There's no better way to feel slow and out of shape quite than trying to sprint around rolling fields on a windy day chasing a massive pack of the nation's fastest runners a few hours after eating a foot-long sub.
That's how I spent Monday in Terre Haute, chasing down eight Spiders.
I spent most of Sunday traveling, and didn't run. I took the metro to Greenbelt, a bus to the airport, a flight to Charlotte and another to Indianapolis. When Watson arrived, we drove to Terre Haute and met up with Hunter, Molz, Dan, Fatty Z and another Richmond alumnus I can't name because he'd be fired. But he looks like the guy to the right.
We bowled and headed back to bed.
In the morning, we caught up with Andrew Benford's family and found our way to the course. It's a great plot of land, probably the best compromise for a national cross country race I can think of. I would surely prefer a hillier course on par with Frick Park or more eastern-biased like Furman, but the Laverne Gibson course is pretty cool.
After seeing Tim Quinn and Matt Llano's parents, we bumped into Garrett and his girlfriend
Juliette, who drove up from Brevard, N.C. the night before. Watson wryly noted that Garrett still had the look of a focused driver when we came across him in the bleachers.
Rad Guzenhauser and Dave Adley passed by on their way to find T.J. Hobart, but none of the three were running, so as far as I know, Penn State's Chris Cipro, from Seneca Valley, was the only WPIAL athlete racing for the men.
Watson and Z and I found a good routine for watching the opening of the women's race. It was hard to find Amy Van Alstine because she ran the right kind of race-- ensconced in a pack. The wind was prohibitive, and she put herself in a situation where she could rely on her fitness to race, rather than having to worry as much about the elements. It was deceptively warm- in the upper 60s, but with nothing of substance for miles, the wind was going "buck wild," to paraphrase Sarah V. Taylor (Westhampton College '03).
George Washington's Megan Hogan was running a gutsy race in the front, taking the lead at one point and staying in contention. Now that it's been about 10 years since they replaced that dick of a coach I spoke to during my college visit in 1999, it's about time I let that grudge go and could cheer openly for Hogan. Her quick
ascendancy to the sport's upper echelon is pretty remarkable. She finished eighth, tucked behind two Stony Brook girls. It was again hard to see Amy, but I caught a glimpse through the crowd a
long the fence. She wound up 67th in 21:06.
I broke from the older alumni in a successful attempt to see Amy before the finish, then caught up with Mello, Ellis, Adam and Patrick for the beginning of the men's race. I had never seen such a tightly-bunched pack before. They were gone in five seconds! I did see Levi and Skipper toward the back, though, and thought perhaps their time was up this season.
It's hard to describe exactly what I saw because it all happened to fast, disjointedly and on limited amounts of oxygen. I dashed from point to point on the course trying to see and yell as much as I could. I went long stretches without seeing Benford, and of course I jumped to conclusions that he had dropped out rather than considering the possibility I missed him. Then, all of a sudden, he was ahead of Llano. Then, right with him. Later, about 20 seconds behind. Trying to keep track of five runners was maddening.
The least in command of a race I had ever seen Benford and Llano was when I first time I met them, as a freshmen at the A-10 meet, when they were 8th and 10th, respectively. To see them lost in this crowd was disorienting, though it was also my first time watching a national championship race in person.
Throughout the race, Tim Quinn seemed the most in command. Jonny Wilson started out slow and moved his way up confidently. Chris York was also pretty far back, but looked within himself. Levi was hurting, but not too far back, Skipper was walking dead, way off the back, at the mercy of the wind pummeling his tall frame.
It's useless to try to untangle my memories into a readable narrative. So here are the numbers and what I thought:
44 Matt Llano 30:36
75 Andrew Benford 30:55
116 Tim Quinn 31:20
204 Jon Wilson 32:13
219 Chris York 32:35
225 Levi Grandt 32:53
246 Jason Skipper 36:46
Llano ran close to his regionals time, so did Quinn. Wilson and York actually ran faster, despite fighting the wind for most of the race on their own. Skipper just faced compounding odds on his own against the wind plus whatever illness he had that took him out of the race early. I'd say Quinn probably ran the best race relative to how he consistently performs. His improvement over the last three years has been the most remarkable of the guys on the team. Wilson also ran pretty well, and moved up throughout the race.
Nobody was going to run fast, with that wind in their faces three times and nine days after another cross country 10k. They beat their 28th place ranking by finishing 24th, and beat Notre Dame, Texas, Minnesota, Louisville, Georgetown, Penn State and California (of California).
As the athletes, alumni, and recruit visiting from Chicago stood locked in arms with Steve, I could see the gamut of emotions. From regret that some couldn't run faster, to nascent melancholy that the races were over for them, to the admiration that I know I was expressing. A few have said, this was a once-in-a-lifetime race for us. Some take offense to that, interpreting it as a slight to the future of the program that the Spiders couldn't make it back. I think they can, and they will- their appearance certainly raised the program's visibility to recruits that will want to get better, not just be part of an all-star team. But the moments that this team created, breaking through after years of improvement, will never happen the same way. The first conference championship, the first at-large bid for the national meet, the first time the runners could improve on the team's pre-race ranking and demonstrate that they deserved to be there. From there the program continues to build, and I hope it builds the right way. Steve is a fantastic coach who not only knows how to train your body, but manage your mental approach to the sport, and life. That's only part of the equation, the runners that populate the program will need to continue to be right.
I hope that the caliber of our recruits in the future is defined not by their high school times, but by their attitudes about running and the strength of their determination. I have seen too many great high school runners come to the program and flame out, sooner or later, for a variety of reasons (see T. Santifort, R. Chapman, P.J.) because they don't want to put in the work. Watson and I put in the work, we might not have been supremely talented, but I don't think we could have done much more. I don't want to speak for Jeff, but I don't think I want top-notch runners coming to Richmond,I want the middle-tier runners who get better and appreciate the value of hard work and succeed. John Cicarelli, who famously showed up in Steve's office the first week of school, wanting to run, and two years later was our first individual conference champion.
Teams made of guys like that and Dan Petty, who didn't have the same physical ability to compete at the highest levels, but shoehorned himself into the decathlon for the sake of the team.
If anyone is Googling "University of Richmond cross country" and gets this, that's the kind of athlete this alumnus wants to see join us.
As for the results, no Miami of Ohio, I am pleased to say, they couldn't make it to the meet. That might be the most satisfying for me, though beating Penn State was pretty sweet. When my high school teammate Charlie VanGombos went there as a freshman in 2000, he relayed that the upperclassmen were trying to make nationals, and a few of them were major-league assholes. Even though they were long-graduated (though the biggest of such was there as a coach of another school) it was nice to beat them, though doing so came at the expense of a number of my friends' program.
- Mustaches are getting out of control. They don't look cool, they look awful. Especially on the Penn State team. Florida State finished second in both races, and that was pretty darned cool, but they also had mustaches, so that tempers their accomplishment. Especially the ladies'.
- I miss our old uniforms. As nice as I am sure the Nike uniforms are, it is so hard to pick out our runners. See the top photo for a comparison with our old B.O.A. uniforms. They were distinctive. So were the red shorts-white top combo they wore for the 2008 A-10 meet.
- Jeff Watson's analysis of the way crowds move across the field as the runners pass:
- Imagine if every time the ball changed possession in a football game fans for each team had to run across the field and switch bleachers -- that is what it's like at a big XC meet. Human Stampede.
- The Duke coach is pretty cool. His gracious praise for our team's performance was appreciated.
- We were five points from beating Villanova. Llano was four spots from a cross country All-American award to go with his outdoor track 10k distinction.
- I passed the Alabama tent and yelled in "Texas Paul sends his love," but I didn't stick around for the follow-up questions.
- The trip was totally worth it.
Photo of the pack by James Galen and Letsrun.com, others by me or as credited to PrettySporty.com