Every cross-country season becomes a kind of race against time and winter, at least in our part of the world.
Rocky Mountain College and the rest of the NAIA Frontier conference won that race by a hair’s breadth in Saturday’s Conference meet at the Par 3 Exchange City Golf Course, just a day before winter’s abrupt, three-inch arrival – like a base runner sliding in just under a tag.
Or like one harrier just outpacing another. An appropriately close finish to a season of running.
But winter was knocking at the door.
The race had to be delayed a full hour to let the silver glaze of frost melt off the hills and greens so that no footfall could damage the grass. By 11, however, the chilly breath had subsided, the grass was dry, and it felt like fall again.
Winter had reluctantly withdrawn for one more race.
“We knew it was going to be a good race,” said Alan King, head coach of host team Rocky Mountain College and the race organizer. “The whole conference is much more competitive than it has ever been. With both the men and women, three out of the six conference teams have been ranked as a top 25 NAIA team in the nation at one point or other in the season.”
Rocky’s own men’s and women’s teams were among those ranked in the top 25 during the regular season, and five of his runners qualified on Saturday for the NAIA National Cross Country Meet on Nov. 19 in Vancouver, Wash.
Mr. King did a good job preparing the course. Every mile had its own digital clock to inform the increasingly fatigued harriers exactly (even cruelly) just how long they had been straining over the hilly course, a periodic reproach for their inability to outrun time. Before the race, I was positioned dutifully at one of these clocks, ready to hit the start button.
Crack went the cannon and (after recovering an instant from the shock of such an enormous noise, a din that could be heard from Laurel) click went the start button of the digital clock I was assigned to.
I immediately began running a shortcut across the looping course towards a spot on the other side where it was possible for runners to take a wrong turn. But once the runners passed, I could run again to the other side to see them go by again.
Aside from desiring (as a runner) to be in the race itself, I instinctively felt that a runner is fundamentally running against time (as in life) and so there was something odd in being on the other side and in colluding so shamelessly with the clock. Running around helped shake this off.
The Lewis and Clark men, who had won four straight Frontier Conference titles, predictably congregated in the front. Two Rocky runners, Cesar Mireles and Noah Kiprono, tucked in just behind them. After a lap, Jimmy Oribo of Uganda (the race favorite) and Sam Atkin of Great Britain began distancing the field, but an elite group coalesced not far behind.
The course was generally rolling but each lap required the ascent of a prominent hill which seemed to grow longer each time. On the last lap, the hill had to be ascended yet again before the course rounded a bend and straightened out for a 100-yard dash to the finish.
“The plan for the guys and girls,” said Coach King, “was to be smart the first lap and then pick it up after that.”
Before finishing the third lap, however, Oribo had begun distancing his teammate, Sam Atkin, as well and was running alone.
Cesar Mireles, who ran the race of his life Saturday, said afterwards, “I took off relatively conservative and made my move when I had to make it. In the last mile I was with a group of four or five guys and decided to chase second place who was out in no man’s land.”
This he did, leaving behind several former all-American runners in the process, and (with 1,200 meters remaining) surged past Atkin of LCSC into second position.
“My best races are when I am in the zone and zone out,” said Mireles. “I try not to think about anything for the first two thirds of the race and then I look up and tell myself there’s nothing impossible right now and I concentrate on pulling away from whoever I’m with. In this race I was mostly thinking about pulling Oribo back.”
With a lap to go, Mireles had clawed up to around 30 seconds behind first place. Oribo, at the start of this final lap, was still striding with composure, his face giving away about as much indication of suffering as a Sphinx. Like so many of the elite African runners, he is a kind of monument to bearing suffering with grace.
When they passed my clock for the last time I ran straight for the finish and to the bend just before the finishing straight.
Oribo crested the top, finally betraying some discomfort on his face, and sprinted around the bend and into the home stretch. Mireles appeared soon after with Sam Atkin following too close for comfort. Lewis and Clark fans shouted out encouragement and Mireles knew he had to put everything into the sprint.
Mireles didn’t catch Oribo, but he put four seconds between himself and Atkin for second. He had pulled himself within 17 seconds of the conference title, running a 25:33 to Oribo’s 25:16.
Noah Kiprono of RMC finished eighth in 25:54, also qualifying for the National Cross Country Meet, reserved to the top tier of conference runners. The selection is complicated, but basically the top 15 or so finishers qualify. Qualifiers move on to the National Meet in Vancouver, Wash., later this month.
Drew Keller (26:50), Ryan Rojeski (27:21), and Jason Schuerman (28:13, who lost a shoe in the first lap) rounded out RMC’s top five. The men placed third in the meet as a team, behind LCSC and the University of Great Falls.
Lewis and Clark State College placed five runners in the top nine, taking the team title for the fifth year in a row.
The women’s race followed up the men’s with equal excitement. After a breather, I was soon manning the clock and crisscrossing the golf course again.
Carroll College Sophomore Rhianna Grossman took command from the start and spent the entire race out front with Prefontaine-like panache.
Rocky Mountain College sophomore Meagan Beam (19:16) and freshman Mackenzie O’Dore (19:21) worked together for much of the race and (along with freshman Rachael Hart, some 25 seconds back) and all qualified for the National Meet.
Teri Lea McCormick and Ana Richter completed RMC’s top five and the women also placed third as a team to Carroll and LCSC.
“It has been good having the other girls to push each other,” said Megan Beam, who finished first for Rocky and sixth in the race. “When one of us had a bad race this year, another would have a good one. Our top five are really close. Mackenzie and I take turns pushing each other. It feels more like we’re doing it together than competing against each other.”
Six of the top 13 female finishers were Carroll College runners who handily took the team title by 11 points.
“The course was really tough,” Beam added.
Hilly and entirely grass, the course had some of the adventure of traditional European-style cross country races, which tend to be more challenging, particularly the farther back you go in time.
Cross country races are supposed to be adventurous. The steeplechase, now an event on the track, was originally a race between a point out in the country and a church steeple seen off in the distance. Anything from rivers, forests, and innumerable other obstacles could lie between.
Cross country came from such a tradition and, to some, the more it retains this unpredictable and adventurous character, the better. Time, in such an event of differing courses, matters less.
But all races are finally measured against the clock, against the coming winter, against time itself, which plays by no rules but its own.
Ben Johnson appropriately called time that old, bald cheater, but Homer was more to the point in asking, “What greater glory attends a man, while he’s alive, than what he wins with his racing feet and striving hands?”