Lydia sprints to the finish.
The District Meet is the first race of Ohio High School Cross Country’s post-season. Fourteen teams of seven take to the field with the top six teams and top twenty runners advancing to the Regional Meet the following week, where they will compete for a spot at the State Championship. Looking at the line-up, the coaches and Sydnie felt her chances of making it to Regionals, if not to crack the top-ten, were very strong. If Lydia had the race of her life, she had an outside shot too. If Ashleigh, Natalie, and Hannah, the next three runners on the team also raced their hearts out, the entire North team could be the Cinderella story of the season, and make it to Regionals together.
A silver sky and cold, blustery winds greeted the girls as they returned to run the grounds of their cross-town rival school, Willoughby South, which also hosted of the second meet of their season. The fields were sodden from steady rains in the days leading up to the race, but fortunately the course held up and the rain was long past by the time the girls stood on the sidelines screaming for the boys’ race. Their efforts were fruitful, as North’s top male runner, Nick, grabbed a spot at Regionals with one second to spare!
Calina was first back at the tent after cheering for the boys, waddling under the blanket she had wrapped tight around her, chattering through her teeth that the rest of the girls were still on their way back. While we waited, Coach asked Calina what she hoped to accomplish at Districts and she grinned, “Finish in the top 20!” While she was joking about today, there was certainly some truth in there: ambition projected onto her next two years of high school cross-country.
With the race looming ahead and gusting winds whipping their ponytails, the girls returned to the tent, where they set about the business of preparing. Caitlin, along to cheer on her teammates even though her own season ended last week, was the most energetic of the bunch; later, she and Cheyenne would both be bouncing on the side of the course bundled in winter jackets, clapping their mittened hands and shouting encouragement. As shoes were changed and shirts were tugged on under singlets, the rest of the girls remained tight-lipped.
Sydnie, whose range of outward emotion is fairly short, was trending more nervous. Her nerves show themselves in subtle ways: fewer chuckles at her teammates’ antics and more tiny moments staring off, lost in thought. No one could blame her for being nervous; it’s her last season of high school cross-country, the last fall of running as fast as she can over the grass of school yards before she heads off to Air Force boot camp. It’s also her last opportunity to make it to the State Championship.
In Ohio, runners must advance from the District race to the Regional race and then from the Regional race to the State Championship. Until this year runners needed to finish in the top-16 to advance out of both Districts and Regionals. Freshman, sophomore, junior years Sydnie placed no higher than seventh at each District race and advanced to Regionals all three years.
Her freshman year she ran an incredible race at Districts in 20:01 for fifth place, then struggled at Regionals, finishing in 105th in 21:58. Her Sophomore year she ran 21:02 for seventh at Districts, and then ran 22:09 for 109th place at Regionals. Her Junior year she ran 20:28 for sixth place at Districts, and then ran 20:05 for a heartbreaking 27th place, just short of the top-16 who advanced to State. This year, she needed a top-20 finish at Districts to advance to Regionals, which seemed pretty close to a sure thing.
But nothing is ever certain.
Finally the time came for drills and strides on the starting line. Lydia, intent on going for a spot at Regionals no matter how long the odds, turned to me and asked me if she should wear tights and a long sleeve. At 48 degrees, even without the sun and strong winds, the answer for someone gunning for the best race of her life is no. She thought about it and decided to take the tights off and leave the long sleeve on.
Quickly, Cinnamon and I scrounged through the garbage can that holds all the teams warm-ups and found two banners to hold around her as she frantically stripped down and put her shorts back on. It was definitely a little stressful for her, but Lydia takes things in stride, and recovered well as she rejoined her teammates. The team did their final huddle of the season, with a circle of cozy runners and coaches in sweatshirts and warm-up pants around Lydia and her bare legs.
Coach James started the call-out, “Rangers on … wait!” He changed his mind: “Syd, you do it.”
Sydnie counted, “One, two, three …”
And her teammates chimed in right on cue: “RANGERS!”
The team shuffled back to the start, stripped off their warm-ups and were ready to go.
As with many sports, the high school cross country post-season is different from the regular season. Teams that have a shot at the State Championship train exclusively to collectively peak around Districts. These teams tend to have extensive depth, meaning they have well more than seven girls at any time who could compete as a team and plausibly win. While some do race their top girls week after week, many do not, choosing instead to vary their lineup to win JV meets or to rest their best runners. This depth also means that runners on other teams have multiple teammates to train with and to constantly push them to be better.
Many also have coaches who were top runners themselves in high school, college and post-collegiately, giving them not only greater understanding of their athletes, but also exposure to other top coaches.
Each of these competitive teams have two, three, four or more girls capable of being in the top-20 at Districts. Realistically, North has one.
At all high school races, runners tend to go out very fast relative to their ultimate finishing time. At Districts, this effect is magnified by the weight of the reward and the virtual nonexistence of risk. If a girl goes out hard and ends up being able to maintain her pace, she can make it out to Regionals! If she blows up, she has three months to wallow before track season starts.
Sydnie recently discovered she races well when she goes out conservatively for the first mile and spends the second hunting down runners who went out too hard. This strategy worked brilliantly over the last three races of the regular season, culminating in her magnificent third-place finish at her conference championships, where she outran many of the contenders she would face at Districts. Her plan going into Districts was to do what works, to run her own race.
Sydnie (945) executing her plan, mid-race.
A half mile into the race, and Sydnie was well in the middle of the pack, with at least two dozen girls ahead of her. Lydia was way in the back of the middle with Ashleigh, Natalie, and Hannah strung out not far behind. Near the back of the race-pack was Vidhi and then at the very tail end Calina was working to stay in contact with last place. At almost a mile in Syd was still pretty far back. The good news is that she trusted her plan and was sticking to it. The bad news was that too many of the girls who went out crazy fast were maintaining their pace. I hate to admit it, but I started to worry.
Natalie approaches the mile mark.
As the girls made their way past the halfway mark, Sydnie had moved up into 16th. As I counted runners, my heart sank a little for long-shot Lydia once I got to 40 and she still wasn’t there. Tough as ever, she was running fast but did not look as comfortable or as smooth as she has in her best races. Even so, she was not getting down on herself and dug in and tried harder.
Lydia, past the half-way point, soldiers on.
Ashleigh was now significantly behind Lydia with Natalie still close. Hannah had fallen back and brought her hands up as she shuffled, with Vidhi now just a little behind her flashing a smile as she passed.
Calina was third from last now. As she ran by I reminded her how she wanted top-20. “My knee hurts!” she shot back. “You have three months to rest it. RUN!” I said. She picked it up as she embarked on the second half of the course.
As the Gator approached the finish line, one girl had broken away and was leading the pack as they hurtled themselves down the field, willing every last ounce of energy out of their spent bodies. They came by fast and furiously: one … two … three, four, five, six, seven … no Syd … eight, nine, ten, eleven … here comes a bunch … eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen … no Syd …
And then there she was in a group of four runners with more coming for them. She was straining, wobbling, flopping from side to side, trying to hang on as three of her group pulled away from her and more were hunting her down.
There was no doubt she was giving it everything — everything — she had. She was not going down without a fight, no matter what. Through all the obstacles thrown in her way — past season disappointments, sickness, her teammates’ problems, the North mentality — she was not going out like this. She had come too far to turn back now.
Sydnie (945) fights to the finish.
Somehow, despite her body’s protests, she crossed the finish line in her fastest time at Districts ever: 19:59. And still, this was only good enough for eighteenth place, eleven places higher than she’d ever finished at Districts before. But for Syd, eighteenth place is the same as first, a ticket to Regionals and a shot at State.
Lydia fittingly finished out her season fighting to the line, only considering the disappointment of 54th place after she finished, with a time she would have killed for at the beginning of the season, 21:59.
As Ashleigh, Natalie, Hannah, and Vidhi each finished their last races of the season, having long since given up on the idea of a fairytale ending to it, they found their victories outside their place or the numbers on the clock. Districts for them, was not a long shot, not a ticket to something greater, not hope, but a last hurrah of cross-country for a while. None exceeded her PR or her season-best, although Vidhi did come close.
Could they all have run faster? Sure. But each girl overcame something to get there and, while maybe they didn’t run the PRs we fans wanted them to this season, each girl has so much to be proud of for crossing this finish line.
From left: Ashleigh, Hannah, Natalie, and Vidhi rightfully celebrate the finale of their season and Lydia (in the background) jogs to catch up.
And then there’s Calina, whose always talked a big game, saying she’s going to achieve this huge accomplishment or that one. But Calina seemed to surprise even herself with how well she eventually did this season, making it on the varsity squad at Districts and taking off almost ten minutes from her PR over the course of a season shortened by injury.
Last I left her at the halfway mark, she was making excuses, perhaps fearful of giving it her all as she fell far short of her big talk before the race. No one expected her to run faster, place higher, or be better than she is. Not her coaches, not her mom waiting to cheer for her at the finish line, not her teammates, not Cinnamon or me. I can’t speak for everyone else, but all I want for Calina is to know how capable she is of accomplishing all the things she says she wants to. Maybe not today, but soon, she can provided she keeps working at it. In only her sixth race of high school cross-country, nobody can expect her to know what she’s doing or how to get every last drop of energy out of herself. At this point, all anyone hopes is that she inches ever closer to her dreams.
So no, Calina did not crack the top twenty, far from it. She did not run a perfect race. She still has a lot of room to grow. But that’s the point of doing this. As Calina gunned for the finish line, face full of emotion, she finished her first season of cross-country a better runner, but also … just better.
We’ll be back next week with our next installment of North.
For past posts in this series, go here.
You can see the full results of the 2016 Ohio High School Athletic Association Northeast District Division I Willoughby South Girls (phew!) race here.