Magis Miles are Magical


Photo by Steven Bugarin

Jake Campbell runs fastest time in Chicago for many years but not a 4:00 mile, as Hope Schmelzle wins women’s race.  High schoolers Sean Torpy and Kelly O’Brien run state leading times.

June 3, 2016

Chicago, IL—On a night described by track and field reporter Mike Newman of Dyestat Illinois as “magical,” the second Saint Ignatius College Prep Magis Miles set new meet records in every event.

Organized in part to bring younger runners together with heroes of yesteryear, the 2016 Magis Miles put high schoolers right into the Elite Mile men’s and women’s events up against professionals and collegiates.  The results brought state leading high school times for Sean Torpy, Sandburg High School’s Illinois 3A state champion for 1600 meters—and  for Palatine High School’s Kelly O’Brien, who followed up her 3A state champion 1600-meter run two weeks ago with the second fastest all-time high school time ever for an Illinois high school girl.

The headliner men’s Elite Mile came closer to breaking the storied sub 4:00-minute mark than last year when Polish national champion Greg Kalinowski ran 4 minutes and 4.5 seconds on a chilly and windy June night.

This year, with temperatures in the 70s and still winds, NCAA Division III national 1500-meter champion Jake Campbell, a recent graduate of St. Olaf College, set a personal best of 4 minutes and 2.05 seconds to win the men’s Elite Mile.


Hope Schmelzle wins the women’s Elite Mile in 4:43.96. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

In the women’s Elite Mile, Hope Schmelzle of Northern Illinois University and Wheaton Warrenville South High School ran a personal best outdoor mile of 4:43.96 for the win.

Chasing the pacer through a 2:00 half-mile, Campbell did his own work in the lead over the final two laps, reaching 1200 meters in 3:01.  Behind him second-place finisher Eric Delvo, a Bradley University graduate who ran the previous week at the NCAA west regional in the steeplechase, closed to within a few meters as Campbell  reached 200 meters to go in 3:32.

Campbell, who will get another collegiate season to break the 4:00-minute barrier because he will run at the University of Minnesota next year as a fifth-year eligible graduate student, pulled away again for the win over the last 200 meters.  Delvo, who attended Sacred Heart Griffin in Springfield,  was second in 4:03.39 as he held off a hard-charging Anthony Wondaal of Hillsdale College and Illiana Christian High School, who was timed in 4:03.89.   It was a remarkable 12-second personal best for Wondaal.

In the women’s race, Eric’s sister and Bradley teammate Emily Delvo took the lead over from the pacer with 800 meters to go in 2:25, with Schmelzle sitting comfortably on her shoulder, and they stayed that way for a lap.   Schmelzle made her move with just over 200 meters to go and pulled away for the win.

Delvo, like her brother, finished second in 4:45.98, with Emily Gapinski, a recent St. Thomas College (WI) graduate, third in 4:47.51.

But in fourth place, close behind Gapinski, came Palatine’s O’Brien, still a high school senior, in 4:48.01.  She had sat at the back of the close, fast-moving pack for most of the race, and then, just as in many of her high school races, she closed fast over the last 400 meters.  At the Illinois state meet 1600-meters, she ran 63 seconds for the last 400 meters to win in 4:56.  At the Magis Miles she passed 1600 in 4:46.30.  According to the list posted on, her 1600-meter time trails only Kayla Beattie of Woodstock who in 2011 ran 4:43.65 to win the state championship.

Behind O’Brien was a second Illinois high school girl, Mackenzie Altmayer of Geneva, who finished sixth in 4:53.18.  Her 1600-meter time of 4:51.39 was a personal best by eight seconds—and a new school record at Geneva.

In the men’s race, high schoolers Sean and twin brother Chris Torpy aggressively slipped into second and third place behind Campbell on the third lap of the race, as the crowd roared.  Both struggled a bit in the last lap coming off the fast pace, but Sean Torpy finished fourth in 4:05.10 with Chris fifth in 4:07.13.  At 1600 meters, the distance at which Sean won the Illinois state championship the previous week in 4:15.13, their times were 4:03.42 and 4:05.40.  At both the mile and 1600 distances, Sean Torpy ranks number one in Illinois for the 2016 season with Chris number three.

The plan to run the high-schoolers in the Elite race was hatched by meet co-director Nate McPherson and coaches John O’Malley of Sandburg and Joe Parks of Palatine.

“We wanted to give these great high school runners the best chance possible to run really, really fast,” said McPherson.  “They took full advantage of that chance.”

Released from the responsibility of leading the race, the high school runners all talked afterwards about genuine feelings of disorientation and strangeness as they settled into big packs of runners and tried to hold on to a pace faster than they had ever tried before.

“It was such a weird race because when I got out I did not get out in front. It was just like a solid pack of people going around the track,” O’Brien told Dyestat’s Newman after the race. “I did not know what I was doing. It was a good distraction. I just wanted to stay with them (the front pack). I kept telling myself to go with them, go with them.”

“It felt a lot smoother in the pack than taking the pace up front all the way,” Chris Torpy told Newman. “We were just ready to get into the mix tonight. Whatever happens would happen.”

The Elite Mile races capped an evening of running that saw many more great performances—and a number of new local high school records.

In the boys high school mile, senior Connor Madell of Lyons Township ran 4:13.52 (4:11.88) to win with a big seven second personal best.  Lyons teammate sophomore Danny Kilrea was second in 4:16.15, with another school sophomore Dylan Jacobs of Sandburg third in 4:17.21.

In the girls high school mile, York freshman Sarah May won in 5:01.35 with a strong finish over the last 400 meters to defeat second place senior Madison Romig of Grant (5:04.87) and third place freshman Christina Ryzhov of DeKalb (5:06.07).

The boys freshman race produced the closest finish of the night as Palatine’s Jorge Corona took a narrow lead with 100 meters to go on the final straightaway and then held off Eddie Slack of Marist to win, 4:35.02 to 4:35.32.  Christian Knowlton of Plainfield South was third in 4:40.71.

The girls freshman mile was won by Gillian Fiene of Illiana Christian in 5:17.53, with sisters Kate and Liz Lechowicz of Palatine second and third in 5:23.40 and 5:23.88.

In the boys middle school mile, 8th-grader Jacob Kluckhohn of Hubble middle school won in 4:43.52, with Richard Jacobo of Palatine’s Winston second in 4:45.47 and Vladys Slokenbergs of Geneve Middle School South third in 4:47.58.

The girls middle school mile was won by Josie Bond of Naperville Jefferson in 5:38.14, with Ella VanderMolen of Timothy Christian second in 5:57.40 and Ellie Roy of Winston third in 5:59.54.

Kelly O’Brien’s Palatine coach Joe Parks started the evening with a meet record in the coaches mile, taking the lead after two laps to run 4:24.94.  Saint Ignatius alumni also competed in the event, and Grinnell College’s John Lennon set a new alumni mile record of 4:44.24.

Finally, a special event of the night is the “Flight Mile” event.  A three-man team from Lyons Township—Dan Palmer (4:25.45), Matt Begeman (4:29.7), and Tim McCarthly (4:36.37)—finished first, second, and fifth overall for a cross-country-style score of eight points for the win.

Many of the graduating high schoolers will take their talents to college programs next year.  The Torpys will attend Miami University of Ohio.  Altmayer will go to Syracuse University and O’Brien will attend Northwestern University.  Connor Madell will go to the University of Illinois.

“The Magis Miles” expects be an annual night of one-mile races in a spectacular setting, under the lights of the newly renovated Mailliard Track and Fornelli ‘51 Field and against the backdrop of a Chicago skyline just a mile away.  Spectators watched the races “gauntlet-style,” standing right on the track.  Save the date for the 2017 Magis Miles, tentatively scheduled for Friday, June 2.

Magis (pronounced ”MAH-jis’) is a Latin word that means “more” or “better.”   It is related to Ad majorem Dei gloriam, a Latin phrase meaning “for the greater glory of God.”

“At Saint Ignatius College Prep, we use the word Magis as an inspiration for doing more for others and our community,” says Nate McPherson. “We hope this meet can be an expression of Magis for the running community.”

“We think everyone needs more track and field in their lives, and we don’t get enough of it in Chicago, especially,” said Saint Ignatius boys track coach Ed Ernst, one of the Magis Miles organizers.

“We are high school track coaches, first.  So one big goal for this event is to put elite level runners in front of our high school kids so they can see what’s possible.

“When our high school hero runners graduate and move on to the college ranks, sometimes we never get to see them run again.  This is an event where we bring the old heros back to run in front of the new heros.

“We have this beautiful facility in a beautiful city.  We are excited to invite people in for this event.”

And, finally, said Ernst:  “When they put up light towers around our beautiful track two summers ago, the idea popped into our heads, just like in the movie ‘Field of Dreams.  ‘A night of mile races in Chicago.’  That’s our basic idea:  We want to build this event.  If we host it, they will come.”

This year’s event built upon a successful first year in 2015.  The total crowd, runners included, grew from 300 in attendance to over 400.  The meet ran on a tight schedule, with the National Anthem at 7:00 PM and the final race concluded by 9:40 PM.

Billy Poole Harris, head boys cross country coach at Whitney Young High School and an announcer at the IHSA state meet, and Anthony Curran handled the announcing duties.  Kenric Bond, father of the girls middle school mile winner, was the official meet starter.

Dick Pond Athletics and Saucony Running Shoes gave sponsor support for the event.

FAT timing services were supplied by Dave Behof of LA Timing and Bob Geiger of Illinois Prep Top Timing.  Results are posted on the meet web site and here:

The Magis Miles track meet has an information web site:

There are additional meet recaps posted by Dyestat Illinois ( )   and at Illinois Milesplit ( ).

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Bringing back the Mag Miles!


Above:  Greg Kalinowski, who ran at Eastern Michigan and then trained with Nick Willis in Ann Arbor as part of Ron Warhurst’s group, wins the 2015 Mag Miles at Saint Ignatius College Prep.  Loyola’s Sam Penzenstadler and St. Olaf’s Paul Escher, NCAA Division III 1500 champion, chase him through the guantlet finish.  Kalinowski went on to win the Polish national 1500 championship last summer.

The following story appeared in the latest and, sadly, final edition of the Cross Country Journal.  Thank you to Knowles Dougherty for his labor of love on that publication and for his encouragement and support in writing this story!  It has been a while since I have written anything I could use on this blog.

Saint Ignatius College Prep is located just southwest of downtown Chicago, blocks from where the O’Leary cow kicked over the lantern,  in a building so ornate inside and out that students sometimes call it “Hogwarts.”  We have a regular 1.5 mile run each way to the Sears Tower, officially the Willis Tower, of course, and that building and the city skyline tower above a row of tall trees on the east end of the campus—and our track.  The black track and green field-turf athletic field nestle into what is actually a grove of trees behind two blocks of buildings along Taylor Street and Chicago’s Little Italy.

It is a spectacular spot, which we sometimes forget because we practice there every day.

In the summer of 2014 the school administration decided that Friday night home football games would provide a boost to school spirit and a sagging program, and so they added towering light poles at the four corners of the newly renovated Mailliard Track and Fornelli ’51 Field.

We embellished the next part of the story just a little bit in a press release announcing our new event:

“When they put up light towers around our track last summer, the idea popped into my head, just like in the movie ‘Field of Dreams,’” said Saint Ignatius boys track coach Ed Ernst, one of the Magnificent Miles race organizers.  “Imagine a full night of mile races in Chicago under the lights!”

On Friday night, June 5, 2015, Saint Ignatius College Prep inaugurated a new event in the post-season high school and collegiate distance runner track season for the Chicago area—and a new event to kick off the elite summer professional calendar.   We organized a night of one-mile races in our spectacular setting, under the lights and against the backdrop of a Chicago skyline just a mile away.  Spectators watched the races “gauntlet-style,” standing right on the track.

Our event followed just a day after the much more established St. Louis event, the Nike-sponsored Festival of Miles, where Grant Fisher ran 3:59.38 to become the seventh high school runner to run a sub four-minute.

It was actually a surprise when we realized that we could bill our Chicago event as an assault on the first-ever outdoor four-minute mile in Chicago history.

Loyola University’s Sam Penzenstadler had ran 3 minutes and 58.21 seconds at Notre Dame’s indoor Meyo Mile in 2014, a Chicago runner breaking the barrier in nearby South Bend.  Loyola’s Tom O’Hara, also a Saint Ignatius alumnus, set his world record indoor mile of 3:56.4 at the Chicago Stadium on March 6, 1964.  Jim Spivey ran 3:59.4 outdoors in the nearby Chicago suburb of Naperville in 1994 at a North Central College meet.

But our research did not turn up a single official mile under four minutes outdoors run in the borders of the Second City.

We also conceived the event as something that would bring youth, high school, collegiate, and professional runners together in one venue—something that seldom ever happens.  Illinois has strong collegiate track and field traditions at Loyola, the University of Chicago, North Central College, and the University of Illinois, to name a few.  The Illinois High School Athletics state championship meet at the end of May at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston is one of the best high school meets in the country, year in and year out.  Many of the stars of that meet go on to collegiate careers, and some go on to professional success.

But once the high school state meet stars go to college, their younger high school teammates and their fans almost never get to see them run again, especially if they go to college out of state.

Working with assistant track and cross country coach Nate McPherson, co-director of the meet, we began our planning with what we know best—assembling a high school field.  We wanted it to be an elite meet, with top runners—but we also wanted some numbers, which we thought would bring fans, friends, and family as spectators.  Assistant coach Steven Bugarin came up with the idea of a flight mile.   We would recruit three-runner teams from ten to fifteen schools and have them race in flights—number ones against number ones, twos against twos, threes against threes.  Then we would score the flights cross country style—low score wins.

We successfully ran the meet with twelve boys’ flight teams—but no girls’ teams.  We felt badly about this, but part of the problem is that we coach boys and we know boys teams and coaches.  Note for next year:  Recruit a girls coach to build the girls field.

We also recruited a high school freshman mile, which has been a successful event in other area post-season meets.

Finally, we assembled a post-season elite mile, with top high school runners, boys and girls.  We ended up with two heats of boy runners, one for the girls.

Building professional and collegiate races proved more difficult.  We had hoped to run multiple heats.  In the end we ended up with one heat for collegiate and professional men and one for the women.

We sent out a batch of emails to college coaches in March, and we got one enthusiastic response from the University of Illinois coach Jake Stewart.  His ace runner Bryce Basting had run 4:02 indoors for a mile when an injury sidelined him.  He was redshirting in the spring, and he might be looking for a fast race right around NCAA championship week.  Stewart figured he might also have a few other Chicago-area runners who would not qualify for NCAAs but would want one more race.

So we started shopping  Bryce Basting’s name to a list of runners that included Lex Williams, former Michigan runner who was coaching at Illinois State University.  Williams had run 4:01 at Nick Willis’s Michigan Mile the previous summer, and he was looking for a race to start his summer, yes.  And Williams was looking for a race for red-shirting Illinois State runner Kelly McShea.  So we recruited two elite runners with one email.

Once we got our web site up and running,, and started recruiting by word of mouth at track meets, some more names came in:  Andrew Nelson, back in Geneva after completing college at Syracuse, where he ran close to 4:00 in the mile, signed up online.

A friend and Ignatius alumnus named Tom Coyne, formerly an administrator at Western Michigan University, had to remind me several times to get in contact with Nick Willis, whose Michigan Mile run was a little bit like the event we were constructing.  Coyne provided me with email addresses and phone numbers for Willis and Ron Warhurst.   I finally got an email off to Willis, and his response was supportive and polite.  His training and competition schedule was pretty tight; he was aiming, of course, at the World Championships 1500 in August.   “Congrats on getting this event off the ground!!!” he wrote.  “At this stage my plan is to race sparingly in this world championship year, and will start my racing on June 13th in NYC.  If I talk to anyone looking for a race, I will be sure to let them know about your event.”

Two weeks before our event, Willis came through.  He training partner Greg Kalinowski was looking for one more race before returning home to Poland after five years in the United States.  Kalinowski , formerly junior national 1500 champ in Poland, ran at Eastern Michigan before joining Ron Warhurst’s training group in Ann Arbor.  Willis figured he was ready to break 4:00 in the mile.  By the way, were we offering any prize money?

We did have prize money–$500 for first, $300 for second, $100 for third.  More to the point, however, we could send Kalinowski a train ticket to bring him in from Ann Arbor and book him a room in Chicago for the night.  He would be leaving just a few days later for Poland, and a race in Chicago, a big Polish town, after all, seemed like a good fit.

We had one more difficult group to recruit.  One goal of our race was put some of our local collegiate stars on the track for the current high schoolers to watch.  Our list of possible runners included Saint Ignatius alumnus and Stanford runner Jack Keelan, who was Illinois cross country, 1600, and 3200 state champ in 2012-13; 2011-12 Illinois cross country champ and 1600 champ Leland Later, from New Trier High School and now from the University of California-Berkeley; Will Crocker of Belvidere North and the University of Missouri; and Michael Clevenger, 2011-12 state champ at the 2A level in Illinois in cross country, 1600, and 3200, from MacArthur High School, now at Notre Dame.  We also thought it would be great to recruit Sam Penzenstadler from Loyola, who hails from Wisconsin—close enough to Chicago.

But recruiting these guys in early May was a sensitive project:  They all had big hopes for NCAA qualification.  We had to invite them to run in Chicago in early June, while wishing them the best at NCAA regionals in mid-May.  But they could only run our race if they failed at the regional.

From the group, only Clevenger, as it turned out, made it through to NCAA nationals.  Keelan, who missed qualifying in the 5000 by just one spot, still had to decline because Stanford was still in school; he would be taking his finals.  But Later, Crocker, and Penzenstadler signed on quickly after they missed out at regionals.

Finally, on a lark, we made one more pitch, sending an email to St. Olaf coach Phil Lundin.  I had interviewed Lundin for another article in Cross Country Journal.  His team featured four of the top ten NCAA Division III 1500 meter runners in the country.  D III nationals took place two weeks before our event in May.  Maybe one of his guys would be interested in coming to Chicago for another race?

It was a big surprise when I got a return email from Paul Escher, D III national champion at 1500, asking for a spot in our meet.  No, he assured me, we could not help him with transportation or housing costs.  D III rules don’t allow that kind of support, even in the summer.  But we would see him on the starting line on June 5th.

The night of June 5th turned out to be a little bit cold for the season—and Chicago winds were blowing a little bit hard.

Performances weren’t quite as fast as we hoped in any of events.

But as race organizers, we felt a tremendous response from the runners in terms of positive energy.  Our announcer, Billy Poole-Harris who coaches at nearby Whitney Young High School, introduced our elite high school milers one by one before their races, as they ran up the track from the 100-meter start to the finish.  The spectators in the gauntlet crowd on the track cheered wildly.

The winner of the high school boys mile was Sean Torpy of Sandburg in 4:18.35.  Conner Madell of Lyons Township finished second in 4:19.99. Brooke Wilson of Prospect (5:03.56) outran Audrey Ernst of St. Charles (5:07.22) in the girls high school mile. In the women’s collegiate and professional mile, Jessica Watychowicz of the Wisconsin Runners won the women’s race in 4:54.88.  She overtook second-place finisher Alyvia Clark (4:56.71), running unattached after a career at Loyola, with a strong kick over the last 200 meters.  “The crowd support was amazing,” said Watychowicz.

The main event of the night, of course, was the men’s mile—and their attempt to break the 4:00 minute barrier.

With 200 meters to go Grzegorz Kalinowski was literally right on time.  The Mailliard track stadium clock at Saint Ignatius College Prep blinked 3 minutes and 30 seconds.  With a 29-second 200 Kalinowski would become the first runner in history to break 4:00-minutes outdoors on a Chicago city track.

He ran a 34-second last 200.

“My coach is going to make fun of me,” said Kalinowski, who runs for former University of Michigan coach Ron Warhurst’s Very Nice Track club out of Ann Arbor, shaking his head after the race.  “That was really slow the last 100 meters.”

Kalinowski finished in 4 minutes and 4.07 seconds.   Closing fast in the last 200 meters, recent Loyola University graduate Sam Penzenstadler was second in 4:05.37.  Paul Escher of St. Olaf College finished third in 4:05.37, with Lex Williams of Brooks Running fourth in 4:05.63.

As the race professionals, Kalinowski took home the $500 first prize, Penzenstadler $300, and Williams $100.

Leland Later was fifth in 4:06.21, with Will Crocker sixth in 4:09.20.

The meet crowd, as it happened, included Saint Ignatius and Loyola University alumnus Tom O’Hara.   It was a busy night, but we had a few minutes to talk.  I wanted to confirm something with O’Hara.  Our research into sub-4:00 minute miles in Chicago, especially an outdoor sub-4:00 mile, had turned up a story.  In the spring of 1964, after he had set the indoor world mark and as he was preparing to make the U.S. Olympic team that year, O’Hara ran a workout at the University of Chicago.  The workout was a sub-4:00 mile—solo. Was the story true, I asked O’Hara? Always a humble fellow of few words, O’Hara just smiled.

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We did what you are supposed to do:  We tried to win.

Kallin Khan, Dan Santino, Andy Weber, and John Lennon put themselves in the lead pack at the Niles West sectional and tried to win the race.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Kallin Khan, Dan Santino, Andy Weber, and John Lennon put themselves in the lead pack at the Niles West sectional and tried to win the race. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

I am sitting in the Embassy Suites hotel in East Peoria, in the early morning before the IHSA state cross country championships.  Our Saint Ignatius boys’ cross country team races at 2:00 today.

We almost didn’t make it here.

Last Saturday our team qualified—just barely—for the IHSA 3A state meet for the second consecutive year, finishing in a tie for fifth place (140 points) with York High School at the Niles West sectional.

York qualified for the state meet for the 50th consecutive year.  They have won 31 sectional titles–and 27 state titles.

Our Saint Ignatius boys have never won a sectional title.  We thought the 2014 Niles West Sectional was our chance to do so.

The close call in our favor was a welcome reprieve.  Niles West has some ghosts for us.

It could have been three times in a row.  Two years ago, results were posted at the Niles West sectional that placed us in the fifth qualifying position.  We had not run as well as we hoped that day, but it appeared that we had qualified.  Our team celebrated somewhat raucously.  Then rumors circulated that there had been an error in those results, and the rumors were confirmed when a frustrated Niles West meet worker tore the posted results off the wall.  Officials had not reviewed the full video of the finish.  A Lane Tech runner had not been scored because of a chip error.  When he was reinserted into the results, we were relegated to sixth.  Our only consolation was that Jack Keelan and Chris Korabik advanced as individual qualifiers, and Keelan went on to win the state individual championship in Peoria.

This year, interestingly, our team was subdued, even almost seemingly disappointed, when the news came that we had finished in a tie for fifth, even though we had survived and advanced through the sectional.  Perhaps they were just relieved.

The good news came first in a Dyestat Illinois tweet.

The good news came first in a Dyestat Illinois tweet.

We got the news first when someone read a tweet from Dyestat Illinois listing the top six finishers as qualifiers.  There was some nervousness from those who were not sure that both teams would advance from a sectional when there is a tie for fifth; according to the tie-breaker, we were actually sixth.  Some of those nervous people had been there in 2012.

When we saw official results on the web site, by mobile phone, there were a few questions about whether those results could still change.  Then they went up on the wall of the Niles West field house.

When it was clear we had advanced, there was no celebration.  We went to the awards ceremony.  Dan Santino got his medal for tenth place.  When they announced the team awards, New Trier got a first-place plaque.  It is almost amusing that at the sectional meet the other qualifying teams—Glenbard West, Loyola, Maine South, and York–simply get parking passes for the state meet.  There were only five of them, as it turned out.  As the sixth place team, technically, we were told we would have to email Ron McGraw at the IHSA office to get ours.

Our only celebration, really, was to take some photographs of the group.  We even had to remind them to smile.

We had not run our best rest.  We had, in fact, wanted to win the race.  We thought we would win the race.

We had raced to win.  Our plan was to be aggressive from the start, putting our top four runners in the lead pack.  Assuming the pace was reasonable, not too fast and not too slow, our guys would try to move and push the pace just after the mile when the runners turned south in the long corridor from one end of the Niles West athletic field to the other.  From that point they would try to make it hard.  We wanted to put our team at the front of the race with a dwindling number of competitors.  If we could execute the race this way, we thought, it would mean low numbers for our top four runners—and a low team score.

Our team had been lurking at the front of some of the top Illinois meets through the fall.  We were fifth at First to the Finish, just behind New Trier, and at Palatine we were sixth, behind New Trier, once again, but just twenty points from winning.  At the Chicago Catholic League meet we had tied Loyola, 29-29, and then lost on the sixth-runner tie breaker.  It was time for us to cross the gap between being a good team and being a team that should try to win a big race.

The early part of the race seemed to go the way we had hoped.  From box position number two on the far outside of the starting line, we moved through open ground at one end of the starting line to the front of the race before the sweeping first turn to the left 300 or so meters from the start.  It was important to get to the front of the race at Niles West because at 500 meters the race moves through a narrowing gate which takes the runners to a small wooded area and a narrow trail.  Going through that gate the first time, our top four were up towards the front of the race and moved through easily.  I saw our second group of three runners get through, also, well toward the front of the race.

At the half-mile mark outside the return gate to the field, where I was watching, the race leader was Irwin Loud of Oak Park-River Forest in about 2:22.  Our top four—Dan Santino, Kallin Khan, John Lennon, and Andy Weber—trailed him in a big pack of 20 to 30 runners.  They were not running together, really, but were kind of strung one behind the other, with Santino leading in around 2:25.  Our second group of runners—Vince Lewis, Patrick Hogan, and Brian Santino—would be important for us, too, of course, because from among them would come our fifth scoring runner.  Santino and Lewis came through the half-mile in around 2:32, with Hogan right behind them.

The lead group ran away from me at my position on the south end of the Niles West field, but I’m told at the mile Loud went through in 4:52 and the lead group was at 4:55.  When they returned to my end of the field our guys had not taken the race lead, but they were in good position.  Our four—Santino, Khan, Lennon, and Weber–were very close to the front in the top 15.   At the half-way mark of the race, as Santino and Khan passed together with Weber and Lennon just behind, I yelled out 7:35.  Then I continued to count back to our number five.  Lewis was now 64th at the half-way mark.  That was a concern.  Our plan for winning, targeting around 90 points, probably required Lewis to finish at around 50th.

The race ran south again.  Loud continued to lead all the way to the two-mile mark, I am told, which they passed in 10:10.  In video before the 2-mile that I viewed after the race, Lennon had fallen back out of the lead pack.  Weber was holding on at the back.  But Khan and Santino were still way up front.

After the 2-mile mark, as the runners prepared to go through the gate for a third time, the attackers had begun to amass behind Loud—including Khan and Santino.  But that lead group clearly did not include Andy Weber, who had faded to 19th, and John Lennon, who had fallen back to around 30th.  Lewis went by in about the same spot, as well, in 64th.

With 1000 meters to go, Khan pushed to the lead, with Santino following.  But going into the back wooded loop through the gate, our team fortunes were declining.

Coming out of that loop Santino pushed into the lead, and Khan got swallowed up by a group of trailers that included members of teams that we were racing for the team win and for the top five team places to go to the state meet.  From New Trier there was Josh Rosenkrantz, from Glenbard West Chris Buechner and Eric Neumann, from York Charlie Kern, and from Maine South Henry Mierzwa.  Following that group of ten or so, loping by five meters behind, was Loyola’s Jack Carroll.  Carroll had run by Santino in the final 200 meters at the Chicago Catholic League meet for the win, after Santino had opened up a ten meter gap.  That one point swing had given Loyola its tie—and then its win on the sixth-runner tiebreaker.

With 400 meters or so to go, the chasers were going by Santino.  Carroll quickly took the race lead at about the same time.  He did it convincingly, with only York’s freshmen Charlie Kern able to challenge him.  The race ended at the end of the Niles West stadium on the track after running the full straightaway.  Carroll was the winner, with Kern second, and then Buechner third.

Santino would fade all the way to tenth.  Khan was chasing him to the finish, but he was passed by two runners in the last meters to finish 13th.  Lennon caught Weber, who had continued to fade, to finish 28th, with Weber right behind in 29th.  As Weber crossed the line, two more runners flashed past him.  If there had been two more meters  in the race, Weber would have been 31st.    Lewis finished in 63rd overall, but three individuals without teams were ahead of him to make him 60th in the team race.

After the race, Weber was disoriented—and probably dehydrated.  Santino was frustrated to have had the lead and then get passed by nine runners.  None of our runners seemed happy.  But six out of the seven—Weber had most notably struggled just to finish—ran faster times in the sectional than they had run in the Pat Savage Invitational four weeks before on the same course.

We wouldn’t know for another hour or so how close we were to not even qualifying for the state meet.  But we had, in fact, simply tried to win the race—like you are supposed to do.

The final standings gave New Trier the victory with 81 points, Glenbard West second with 88, Loyola third with 103, a surprising Maine South with 138, and then York and Ignatius with 140.  Like they say about the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, “survive and move on.”

Today at the IHSA state championship, our team is no longer in the conversation really as one of the top teams competing for a trophy.  There are no polls or rankings this week, but we would undoubtedly have fallen from our perch as number five in the Milesplit rankings and our number seven in the Dyestat Illinois rankings and the ITCCCA coaches’ poll.   We probably would have fallen right out of the top ten.

But today there are no polls—just head to head racing.  It is a different kind of race, and probably not a race that we can win.  Our strategy will be a little bit different—but also the same.

Our top four runners need to finish the race with as low a number as possible—with perhaps all four in the top 30.  We think Weber, Khan, and Santino can compete for all-state honors, and Lennon could be close behind.  Our number five runner—either Lewis, Hogan (just a freshman), or Brian Santino—must finish no lower than 70th.

In 1982 York won the state championship with 79 points.  But with 167 points, the highest points total ever in the state meet for second place, Saint Ignatius was second, the only trophy in our team’s history.

Carl Sandburg High School looks like the front runner today, with the defending champion Hinsdale Central chasing them.  Perennial state meet trophy hunter Neuqua Valley is chasing them, along with last year’s fourth place team Lyons Township and last year’s second place team Downers Grove North.  Then there are the four top finishers from our sectional—along with York, whom many had written off earlier in the season as unlikely even to qualify for the state meet.  There are strong teams from the other sectionals, as well.

Mike Newman from Dyestat Illinois yesterday told me that he expected there could be a high points total in the race—especially for the second and third place trophy positions.  The higher the totals for all the teams, the better our chances might be, like in 1982.

We ran the Niles West sectional expecting it to be our breakthrough race for the year—and for our program.  It didn’t happen.

We’ll run the state meet hoping for the same thing to happen.  We still think the big race is in us.  We just have to run it.

It was a nail-biter, but the Wolfpack qualified to run the IHSA state meet with a fifth plae tie finish.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

It was a nail-biter, but the Wolfpack qualified to run the IHSA state meet with a fifth- place-tie finish. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

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Starting a new tradition: The South Loop Challenge for the Sears Tower Trophy

A post-race photo of the Saint Ignatius and Jones College Prep cross country teams--with the Sears Tower Trophy.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

A post-race photo of the Saint Ignatius College Prep and Jones College Prep cross country teams–with the Sears Tower Trophy. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Almost every weekday in Chicago’s Grant Park, on opposite sides of the artificial knoll and the General John Logan Civil War monument that divides the south end of the park along Michigan Avenue, our Saint Ignatius College Prep cross country meets at Roosevelt and Michigan to practice while the team from Jones College Prep meets at Balbo and Michigan.

We both use the same bridge over the Illinois electric tracks and the same tunnels under Columbus Avenue and Lake Shore Drive when our boys run out to the lakefront trail.  We wave and say hello as we pass each other coming and going as far south as 39th street beach on that trail.  We both use Bobsled Hill near Soldier Field for sprint and interval workouts, and coaches even check with each other sometimes to make sure our teams are there on different days.

We each know how hard the other team works.  We start our competitive seasons together at our low-key Wolfpack Howl, really kind of a scrimmage.  We compete against each other in several big invitationals with dozens of other teams, most notably at the Palatine Invitational at the end of September.

So it just seemed natural that we should get together and race one team against the other with something at stake.

“Last summer,” our assistant coach Nate McPherson tells the story, “I attended a barbecue hosted by the Palatine cross country coach Chris Quick. In attendance were a number of cross country coaches, among them Andrew Adelmann from Jones College Prep.   We discussed the fact that neither of our leagues (Chicago Public League and Chicago Catholic League) host regular dual meets among the members.”

Other conferences, like the West Suburban and the Mid Suburban leagues, require small meets among its teams during the season.  McPherson concludes, “We talked about how neat it would be to have an annual dual meet with each other. “

The meet took shape over the next few months, as both teams dropped the invitationals they had scheduled for the October 11 weekend before the conference meets for the Chicago Catholic League and the Chicago Public League.   Jones took on the job of home team and arranged for permits to run on the Chicago Public League championship course in Washington Park.  We offered up our computer watches and Hytek computer software for tabulating results.

Starting line for the first Jones Vs. Ignatius South Loop Challenge.

Starting line for the first Jones Vs. Ignatius South Loop Challenge.

Along the way, coaches and athletes discussed various components to make the meet “special.”  Our early season, informal race had always had a competitive aspect.  But this dual meet would take place right before the conference meets, as both teams expected to be rounding into championship form.  Jones would be prepararing to win back the Public League crown that they had earned in 2012 with a dominating score of 17 points—before going on to win the IHSA 2A state championship.  Ignatius would be trying to win back the CCL championship it had won in 2010 and in 2012.  There would be bragging rights at stake—both for our teams and for our leagues—as both are teams that could make a claim to be among the best in the city.  At the very least, it would be a championship for the South Loop.

Wolfpack captain Andy Weber leads the team during the pre-race handshakes.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Wolfpack captain Andy Weber leads the team during the pre-race handshakes. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Adelmann and his coaches emailed with the suggestion that we start the race a little bit differently than other invitationals.   Before the race both teams would line up for a handshake.   Then, instead of assigning each team to its own starting box, the top seven from each team would take the starting line together—and they would line up in alternating order, Jones, Ignatius, Jones, Ignatius.

And then there was the trophy.  He took some input from our boys—and even from me.   But it was really McPherson’s brainchild and baby.  His brother, Aaron (an accountant by day), was a woodworker, he told me as he laid out his plan early in September.   They were going to build a Sears Tower replica, and there would be room to put the names of the boys from the winning team each year, like the Stanley Cup.

“In the three weeks before the meet,” McPherson continues, “my brother and I got together on Saturday afternoons to work on this trophy.”  He supplied some photographs as the trophy took shape—most notably, one without the base as an unstained tower structure which was nonetheless almost three-feet tall already.  He showed us the small plaque for the trophy base when it arrived in the mail.

The finished trophy.  Photo by Nate McPherson.

The finished trophy. Photo by Nate McPherson.

On the Monday before the Thursday race, the photo showed a finished product, wood stained black, with white antennas on top.

I sent the photo to some media friends, including Justin Breen of DNA Info Chicago and Mike Clark of the Sun-Times.   Breen expressed interest in the story, and you can read it here.  Clark wanted a photo so he could put it in his cross country notes column.

The trophy itself appeared in the faculty lounge at Ignatius on Thursday morning before the evening race.  When we loaded the bus to take it to Washington Park, there were some comments about how important it would be to bring the travelling trophy home to Ignatius at the end of the day.

The meet began with the frosh soph race.  It was a good one.  We had lost to the Jones frosh soph team twice previously, at our own Connelly-Polka Invite and then at the Palatine Invite back in September.  Our boys gave a very strong Jones group a run for their money, but we came up just short, 25-30.  Freshman Patrick Hogan led the Wolfpack with his second place finish, running 16 minutes and 56 seconds on the slightly longer than 3-mile course.  Sophomore Lyndon Vickrey (5th, 17:18), sophomore Joe Amoruso (6th, 17:28), freshman Brett Haffner (7th, 17:36), and sophomore Paul Tonner (10th, 18:12) completed the scoring five for the Wolfpack.

Then it was time for the main event.

Our team ran what was arguably our best race of the season—and the Jones team didn’t.

The top three Wolfpack runners--Kallin Khan, Andy Weber, and Dan Santino--took control of the race early.  In a dual meet, 1-2-3 wins the match.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

The top three Wolfpack runners–Kallin Khan, Andy Weber, and Dan Santino–took control of the race early. In a dual meet, 1-2-3 wins the match. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Midway through the race, after the first 1.5 mile loop, it seemed like Ignatius was in control, with four among the top five leaders.  But Jones runners lurked nearby.  Mark Protsiv, number one Jones runner for much of the season, chased the top three Ignatius leaders—Dan Santino, Andy Weber, and Kallin Khan.  Ignatius runner John Lennon trailed that group closely.  But four more Jones runners—Tony Solis, Will Sarchet, Nico Moreno, and Kyle Maloney–were leading the Ignatius number five runner, Vince Lewis.  The race would be decided on the second lap.

But on that lap our boys moved forward, while the Jones boys retreated a little bit.

Dan Santino, Andy Weber, Kallin Khan, and John Lennon go 1-2-3-4 for the Wolfpack.

Dan Santino, Andy Weber, Kallin Khan, and John Lennon go 1-2-3-4 for the Wolfpack.

At the end, the Wolfpack brought the new travelling trophy back to Ignatius and defeated Jones by the score of 19-36.  Ignatius went 1-2-3-4 with Santino (15:48), Weber (15:53), Khan (16:08), and Lennon (16:16).  Then it was Solis, Protsiv, Sarchet, and Moreno.  Vince Lewis (9th, 16:41) was the fifth scoring runner for the Wolfpack, with seniors Brian Santino (11th, 16:49) and Joey Connelly (14th, 17:16) completing the team.

The two teams will meet again at the IHSA Regional meet, again at Washington Park, on October 25.  Both teams will likely advance to the IHSA Sectional at Niles West on November 1.  Both teams have teams that are strong enough to advance to the IHSA state championship in Peoria a week later.

We don’t know where we will keep the trophy until next year.  We will probably add a small plaque with the names of our boys as the winning team for 2014.

And next year we will race for the trophy again.

“Although it started out as a small idea, it kept growing as we got more input from the boys on the team and others in the community,” says McPherson, who gets lots of credit for the success of this new event on our calendar. “We are hoping to make this a quality tradition for both the Saint Ignatius and Jones College Prep teams.”

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Not quite a time trial—and not quite a city championship

The Wolfpack Howl kicks off the cross country season for four Chicago city teams.

Defending Chicago Catholic League champion Dan Santino was the obvious first choice when the captains drafted their teams for the 2014 Wolfpack Howl.  But who would go number two?

Defending Chicago Catholic League champion Dan Santino was the obvious first choice when the captains drafted their teams for the 2014 Wolfpack Howl. But who would go number two?  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Last year, in preparation for our start-of-the-season practice meet, we did not let the boys draft their own teams for our annual Wolfpack Howl.  It was simply an oversight—and we ran short of time with our preparations.

This year senior Kallin Khan sent us an email fully two weeks before the event as a reminder.  The opportunity to pick their own teams, Khan was suggesting politely as a senior leader, is an important part of the event for the athletes.  Lesson learned.

We begin our season with a practice meet we call the Wolfpack Howl.  We break our boys up into color teams, White, Black, Gold, and Maroon, our Saint Ignatius College Prep school colors.  Initially we ran this meet on our own.  But when the Illinois High School Association added a week to the beginning of the interscholastic competition season a number of years ago, we invited a few other schools to join us.  This year Jones College Prep, University High, and St. Patrick’s came along.   We ask them to do the same—break their teams up into intersquad teams– but only Jones has the numbers to do so.

We gather in Chicago’s South Side Washington Park, which would have been the location for the Olympic Stadium in the city’s ill-fated bid to be the 2016 host.   It’s probably not a cross country race proper because while we run on the grass for some of the race, most of the race follows the 1.4 mile crushed limestone jogging path around the northern side of the park.  That way, we figure, no one can get lost.  As a starter race—and to help make sure no one takes it too seriously—we only run two miles.

But we do have a cross country-style start across an open field.  We do have a finish chute to teach the newcomers to keep moving after they finish—and to collect finish cards at the end of the chute.

We do have results, which we compile old-style with envelopes.  We give them to the team captains of the color teams from each school, and we stick a golf pencil in the envelope and ask them to record the names and finish places for their teams on the envelopes.   It’s a way to be sure all the athletes understand how to score a cross country race—and that all the members of the team are important.

The color team captains collect finish cards and write the names on the envelopes, to compile the results old school.

The color team captains collect finish cards and write the names on the envelopes to compile the results old school.

As a concession to modernity, the watch is a Nielsen-Kellerman Interval 2000xc.  We record all the times on one watch, which we give to a parent to click at the finish line.  Then we import the times from the watch directly into the computer.

We made an attempt this year to collect team rosters at so that we could use our Hytek.  It didn’t really work.  So when it came time for results, like other years we just copied the names off the envelopes and typed them into Excel.

We pointedly do not share our official unofficial results with Dyestat or Milesplit.

We call it a two-mile race, and we compare results for our boys year-to-year.  But we’re never quite sure of the course, as simple as we try to be by using the jogging path.  Some years we have arrived in the park to discover the Universal Soul Circus has set up in the park, blocking part of the jogging trail.  This year I checked the schedule for the Soul Circus, and they aren’t coming until October.  But on Friday night when I visited the park it was the African Festival of the Arts blocking the path with an enclosed chain link fence.  So we improvised the course, cutting through the grassy outfield of some softball diamonds.  A quick bike tour with the Garmin GPS showed the course to be a little bit short, so we extended  the start to the edge of the field and then we moved the finish line back.

Even the start , approximately 400 meters across the grassy park, can be tricky.  We negotiate with the University of Chicago Ultimate Frisbee team and ask them to stop their practice for 30 seconds each time for our two races as we run through the cones that mark their field.  We also had to run around two cricket circles this year.

The grass is long and unmowed.  The field, if it has been raining, can be a little bit sloppy in spots.

We moved the race schedule up 15 minutes or so at the last minute when Jones College Prep told us that they had some kids who had to get to a school concert performance later in the morning .  We aimed for 9:30, and we were more or less on time.

But at 9:15, as our assistant coach Nate McPherson told the story, he looked up where the finish chute was supposed to be—and there was no finish chute.

It was ready in plenty of time by 9:25.  We sprayed a 15 foot long white line at the front of the chute, and stuck some soccer corner flags into the ground.  We ran 30 feet of yellow caution tape down each row of poles to make the chute.

Gun violence is a terrible problem in Chicago, especially on the South Side.  As a gesture of understanding, we started the race with a whistle.

We paint a line for the start—and we even have some boxes, which the runners basically ignore.  We run girls from University High and Jones as teams with the frosh-soph boy runners.    There were a lot of runners in this group who had never run a race.  I gave clear instructions:  “I will blow the whistle three times to get you ready.  Then I will blow it once a long time to start.”

I paused and moved into position.  One whistle—half the 70 runners started off the line.  I blew the whistle a bunch of times and told everyone to stop.

“Let’s try that again.  I will blow the whistle three times to get you ready.  Then I will blow it one a long time to start.”

The second time it worked.  Only one or two stepped forward on the first whistle, and we let them step back quickly before we started the race.

The only other mishap in the frosh soph race occurred when the race leader, our sophomore Lyndon Vickrey, ran off what we thought was a very simple course.  He was following a bike ridden by assistant coach Steven Bugarin, but Bugarin had stopped to close the gate of a giant dumpster which had opened and was a little bit of a hazard on the course.  Vickrey ran right by him toward the chain link fence blocking the path instead of turning across the ball fields.  Bugarin quickly called him back and he had such a big lead no one else really followed him or lost much time.  And Vickrey won going away, anyway.  We probably should have put him in the varsity race.

When the varsity boys started, there was no problem at the start or on the course.  As low key as we try to make it, they still take it pretty seriously.

Jones and Ignatius have become pretty serious rivals in recent years, competing with only Lane Tech, perhaps, for the title of the best team in the city of Chicago.

Our Saint Ignatius students are drawn from all over the Chicago metropolitan area, including near and distant suburbs, but about half come from the city itself.  Both teams train on the Chicago lake front, and our staging areas are a block apart on either side of the Grant Monument on the top of the hill at the south end of Grant Park along Michigan Ave.  We both run across the same bridge and through the same tunnels to get to the Lakefront running and biking path.  Last week they practiced on Bobsled Hill near Soldier Field on Tuesday.  We were there on Wednesday.

When our groups pass each other on the path coming and going, we nod politely.

As it happens, this year the teams will actually race six times—maybe seven if both teams qualify for the state meet.  Jones moved into a new building last year and enrollment will double in the next few years from 900 to 1800.  We sit at about 1400.  Jones was state champion in the 2A state division in 2012, but the increase in enrollment has moved them into the large school 3A division with us now.  We will fight each other in the same sectional for one of five team state qualifying spots in early November.

Apparently unable to get enough of a good thing, Jones coach Andrew Adelmann this summer proposed that we race each other in a late season old-fashioned dual meet.  Both of us withdrew from our invitationals the weekend of October 11 to make it happen.  We don’t have a site yet, but we have a date:  Thursday, October 9.

So the race at the Wolfpack Howl was like a good preview for a season of drama ahead.

Our official but unofficial results score the meet as a multi-team meet between the color teams.  On those results, two Jones teams—the Jones White and Jones Blue teams—battled for the win, with the White team scoring 81 to the Blue’s 85.  Our Ignatius Black team was third with 90 points—and all they really cared about was winning the Ignatius color team battle.  The Black team earned a visit to our team treasure chest with their win.

It wasn’t hard to notice with just a glance, however, the outcome of this first Jones versus Ignatius meeting, even if it was just a skirmish.  Junior Dan Santino, the 2013 Chicago Catholic League champion, won the race, with two more Ignatius seniors—Andy Weber and Kallin Khan—close behind.  Mark Protsiv of Jones was fourth, with Jacob Meyer of University High fifth.  But then Ignatius senior John Lennon was sixth, junior Vince Lewis was 10th, and freshman Patrick Hogan came close behind in 13th , with another freshman Brett Haffner 15th–for an even more unofficial score of 22 for the Wolfpack.  Jones scored 38.

But no one was keeping score, of course.

The Ignatius color teams did, in fact, care mainly about their own competition and their own teams.  Each color team came up with their own uniforms.  They warmed up together,  and they made their own team strategies.

The teams had been created in a draft.  On Tuesday before the Saturday race, after a workout run on the lakefront, the four junior captains, who had been chosen by their coach, gathered on the picnic tables near the Saint Ignatius track.  We had given them a team roster of juniors and seniors, plus the names of a few sophomores and freshmen.  The list, in fact, ranked the runners in roughly rank order in terms of expected performance.

Chris Jeske went first, and he made the obvious choice—Dan Santino.  Then it was Andrius Blekys’s turn.

“I pick Vince,” he said.  And everyone laughed.  Vince Lewis was a new runner on the cross country team, coming over from soccer.  He ran track as a freshmen and sophomore and has lots of potential.  But he was not the runner anyone expected to go number two in the draft.

Jack Morgan quickly picked Kallin Khan.  Then Colin Hogan took Andy Weber.  In the snake draft order the boys had established, Hogan chose again and grabbed John Lennon as the fourth pick.  Morgan took senior Brian Santino at five.

Then it was Blekys’s turn again: He took Dante Domenella—another surprising choice.  On his next turn, he chose AnthonyImburgia, once again, probably not the runner you would choose if you were picking according to the rank order.

What had become clear to everyone was that Blekys wasn’t picking runners by their abilities.  He was choosing friends that he wanted on his team.

Blekys, as it turned out, was not able to run in the race when Saturday came around.  He was shut down from running by our trainers, because of severe shin splints with point tenderness, sometimes a precursor for stress fracture.  The White team finished fourth among the four Wolfpack teams.  Even with Blekys in the lineup, they probably would have been fourth.

Interestingly, Vince Lewis had one of the best runs on the team, finishing as number five for Ignatius.  The confidence of his friend and captain Andrius Blekys maybe helped to spur him on.  He ran like a number one pick.

And perhaps the White team were the real winners, just because they seemed to have the most fun.

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Not always a natural match: negotiations between track and cross country

Including some thoughts from St. Olaf’s Phil Lundin

A version of this article appears in the current edition of the Cross Country Journal.


Photo by Steven Bugarin

Each year we try to meet with the freshmen athletes at the end of football and soccer in the fall and then basketball in the winter to recruit them for track. Playing football, soccer, and basketball year round, we tell them, might not be the best way to become a better player.

We can make them better football, soccer, and basketball players by teaching them to run faster and jump higher. They can develop more as athletes in track, and then return to their chosen sport with new abilities.

But even as I deliver that message, sometimes I feel like a hypocrite. We tell our cross country runners to run track if they want to reach the highest levels of their abilities. We even encourage our track sprinters to run cross country for the conditioning if they are not doing a fall sport.

While there are always exceptions to the rule, distance runners develop best by running all year round. What’s more, the competitive seasoning of track season—and the slightly different kind of training emphasis on speed—develops runners both physically and mentally in ways that make them better cross country runners.

There are differences in the sports of track and cross country for distance runners. In cross country we teach runners to race side by side. In track, we tell them to run behind in lane one to save distance and draft, or else just edge up on the shoulder. There are other tactical differences, like planning race strategy around hills and terrain in cross country, as opposed to positioning in the pack and carefully watching the pace clock in track.

In terms of the time we have with our athletes, the track season covers much more of the school year than cross country season. On the East Coast, indoor season starts in early December and then outdoor continues in the spring, with three months for cross country and six months for track season. Track runners run fast early season track times building off their cross country training. The Illinois High School Association mandates a couple months off from official practice after the mid- August to early-November cross country season, but the track season covers five months from January to the end of May. In warm weather areas, it seems, cross country is an even shorter season—and track season is longer. Track can extend into June with national competitions, but the regional and national cross country season goes until December. Summer training in July might be counted as part of cross country. But, pretty much everywhere, runners are in school and under the watchful eye of the school track coach for much longer during the track training season.

This summer a family trip took us to Northfield, Minnesota, and a visit to St. Olaf College for a long weekend. I dropped an email to Phil Lundin, coach of the defending Division III men’s cross country champions at St. Olaf. He came in for a chat. The topic of the relationship of track teams and cross country teams came up in our conversation—even though I hadn’t even taken on the assignment for this story yet.

When he arrived at St. Olaf College as head coach for track and cross country, Lundin says, “There was probably a culture among the distance guys here that emphasized cross country as opposed to track.” It is a natural and common situation, he acknowledges: “Many of the distance guys are just going to like cross country best. It’s a purer version of what they like to do. They like to go out to the woods and roads and run.”

But part of the process for building a national champion Division III cross country team at St. Olaf involved an emphasis on the cross country guys running track, as well. In the 2014 spring track season, after winning the 2013 cross country title, three St. Olaf runners ran in the final of the 1500 meters at the DIII national track championships. Sophomore Paul Escher finished second in 3:48.12, and, as it happens, he was St. Olaf’s number eight runner in cross country. Lundin will have to replace runners at the number three and seven spots next year. Escher’s emergence as a track runner suggests he will be an even better cross country runner now, and he will fill in nicely as the team defends its title.

A great cross country program does not automatically mean success in track. Even as York High School dominated Illinois cross country championships through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Coach Joe Newton’s track teams did not win a state title until the spring of 2000. In 2013-14, Hinsdale Central won the Illinois 3A cross country championship with a dominating performance that featured four runners in the top 30 spots. But at the state track meet they managed just one medal for fifth place in the 3200 out of the four distance events—not even making the final in the 4×800 relay.

The sting of that disappointment, however, arguably makes them more dangerous for the coming cross country season.

There is potential for the relationship between track and cross country to go wrong–especially when there are different coaches for each sport. I know nothing other than what I have read about the situation at Arcadia High School and the conflict between the track and cross country coaches there. But it seems like a good example of what can go wrong. Neither program and none of these coaches and athletes win in that kind of conflict situation.

Track is not for everyone, of course, and even cross country runners can be athletes with multi-sport skills.

In Illinois, on the boys’ side, there can be athletes who run cross country and then choose lacrosse—or even baseball—in the spring. On the girls’ side, there is a bigger conflict, because girls can run cross country in the fall and then play soccer in the spring.

At St. Olaf—and in many northern states—the conflict arises between track and Nordic skiing. Cross country skiing, one might argue, is even a more natural fit with cross country running than track. St. Olaf’s number two cross country runner, junior Jake Brown, Coach Phil Lundin understands, “is first and foremost a Nordic skier.” Brown transferred to St. Olaf from Princeton, and at least part of the reason was to be closer to the snows of Minnesota. He has been one of the top American finishers in the Birkebiener over the last couple of years. This year he initially was not going to run track after the rigors of the ski season, but he ran a few races to help the team. He won the 3000-meter steeplechase at the conference meet, and his time of 9:09.46 would have qualified him for track nationals . “We encouraged him to run in the NCAA meet,” Lundin says, “but he was scheduled to depart for Norway the Sunday after the championships and felt that he had had enough.”

The relationship between track and cross country is sometimes a negotiation. Boys inclined toward track might want to pursue track competition through the summer in the AAU and USATF Junior Olympics series. Cross country coaches tend to prefer runners shut it down, in terms of serious summer competition, and build a distance base. Cross country coaches tend to win that one.

Track coaches win the battle when the cross country runners join the track team.

And when those tricky conflict situations arise, as Lundin notes, “negotiation is always possible.”


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He Prefontaine-ed it, as we still like to say


Chris Korabik moves to the lead of the 1600-meter run at the 3A IHSA state meet with just over 400 meters to go. Korabik is about the take the race lead from Patrick Perrier and Zack Smith.  Jake Hoffert, Jessie Reiser, and Ryan Clevenger are in the mix.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

I started my coaching life in what must have been a spring season in the early 1990s when I was an assistant for my daughter’s one season on a tee ball team.  Not long afterwards I began a longer career as an American Youth Soccer Organization coach, rising up the ranks to become a clinic instructor and head of all the coaches for our Region 751 in Hyde Park.

As a tee ball and  soccer coach, I watched one very successful coach for many years.  From his sideline position—and with a loud voice—he carefully directed the actions of his tee ball and soccer players, play by play.  His kids listened carefully and performed well.  They did what he told them to do.

But it never seemed like the right way to teach kids how to play on their own.  It always seemed to me that you have to let kids make some mistakes so that they learn the right way to do things.

We have some rules that we teach our distance runners.  Run in lane one.  Don’t waste energy in a race; sit still if you can.  When you decide to pass someone, do it convincingly—and keep going.  We prefer even pacing—and negative splitting.  It takes a lot of energy to lead a race for a long time; it is better to have the lead at the end.  Make sure you run all the way through the finish line.

We have race plans that we talk about with our boys.  We ask them to participate in making those plans.

But we know that the boys are not going to learn our rules without making mistakes and breaking them.  And we know that on the track, the boys have to learn how to make their own decisions.  They have to be their own race strategists, too.

Our kids are smart.  They learn their lessons—and they run their own races.

On Saturday his coaches sent Wolfpack runner Chris Korabik onto the race track at Eastern Illinois University for the 3A IHSA state championship 1600-meters with three different race plans.  But it was up to Korabik to make his own decisions and execute the race as he thought best.

Korabik was one of just four runners in the race who had not run an earlier race that day—along with York’s Alex Bashqawi, Yorkville’s Jake Hoffert, and Downers Grove North’s Ryan Clevenger.  So race plan number one was to make sure the race was fast enough from the start.  A tactical race would allow the runners doubling back from the 4×800, 3200, or 800 a chance to conserve energy for a big finish—particularly dangerous, it would seem, in the case of Danville’s Johnny Leverenz, who had run 1 minute and 52.0 seconds to win the 800.    Korabik would push on the first turn to put himself in position near the front of the race, and he was prepared to take the lead on the first lap if necessary to make the pace honest.  He would give it up once the race was rolling.

As it turned out, Hoffert seemed to have an even more aggressive race plan—and he took the lead and pushed the pace right away, opening a significant ten-meter gap on the field from the start.  Korabik slid easily into second place at the front of the chasers.  Hoffert reached 200 meters in 28 seconds, with Korabik at 30.4.  In fact, just after the 200, first O’Fallon’s Patrick Perrier and then more aggressively Downers Grove North’s Zack Smith stepped into the space between Korabik and Hoffert—and closed the gap down quickly.  The race, it seemed clear already, would not be slow and tactical.

Smith, in fact, kept running right past Hoffert and into the lead as the runners came past the 400-meter mark.  Korabik, running in lane one, had already slid back to sixth, with 3200-meter winner Jessie Reiser from McHenry  pushing past him in chase of Smith and then Clevenger, too,  passing him outside his shoulder on the straightaway.  Korabik’s split was 62.4.

Korabik never left his position in lane one, and he never accelerated.  He patiently kept his spot in the line.  Around the curve, Reiser pushed back into lane one as Korabik gave way, but Clevenger stayed outside in lane 2.  On the straightaway and then around the turn the group was still in a line behind Smith—Perrier, Hoffert, Reiser, Korabik, with Clevenger still on Korabik’s shoulder outside.  Korabik was 1:33.6 at 600 meters.

Race plan number two was my plan.  It was not going to be a slow tactical race.  But Korabik, we knew, was not the fastest sprint finisher in the field.  In fact, he had been beaten in a sprint finish—off a slow tactical pace—just two weeks before in the Chicago Catholic League championship 1600-meter run by Fenwick’s Sal Flight, who had a personal best almost ten seconds slower.  Korabik knew he would have to run 60-seconds on the final lap of the state race.   But off an honest but not fast pace, he would also have to take the finishing kick out of some of the others—or have a lead he could hold onto.  The plan was the one Hicham El Guerrouj used to beat Bernard Lagat in the 2004 Athens Olympics 1500.  From about 800 meters out, Korabik would take the lead—and then carefully wind up the race.  He would apply more and more pressure at the front of the race, never pushing too far into the red, but never letting anyone pass him, either.  It would be Korabik’s decision, though, to decide if it was developing into a kicker’s race in which he would have to wind up the pace.

Coming into the home straightaway, Korabik positioned himself for a move off the curve.  Then down the straightaway he moved from lane one into lane two and was in position to move all the way around the group now bunching behind Smith.  He went smoothly by Reiser, then Clevenger.  He pulled up along side Hoffert.  Smith and Perrier were side by side in the lead just another step away.

Here was a moment of decision.  Before the race, in the EIU indoor track, we had laid out all Korabik’s options.  He is a 4.0 student at Ignatius.  He is a senior who has run many races.  He could understand complicated options.  With 800 to go, he would have to assess the race.  Was it fast enough?  Who was still in it?  Could he get to the lead efficiently and easily enough without anyone fighting him?  What did he have in his tank?

He had moved to put himself in position to try the El Guerrouj.  But then he made his choice.  He would wait.  His split at 800-meters was 2:06.3.  The race was moving fast enough; the kickers would be tired at the end, too.  He was still close to the front.

Korabik pushed his way back into lane one around the curve, in front of Clevenger and behind Hoffert, in fourth.  Reiser responded by moving around Korabik again on the outside.  Clevenger pulled up on his shoulder again.    At 1000-meters he was in sixth again at 2:38.4.  For a third lap it was still an honest and even fast pace.  He had made a good decision.

Around the curve, Smith was still in the lead, with Perrier on his shoulder.  Then Hoffert held on behind Smith, with Reiser behind him on the outside.  Then Korabik, with Clevenger beside him.

Boxed in with just over 500 meters to go, Korabik patiently waited for his opening on the straightaway--and then he moved to the lead.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Boxed in with just over 500 meters to go, Korabik patiently waited for his opening on the straightaway–and then he moved to the lead. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Plan number three came from our assistant coach Steven Bugarin, with an assist from assistant coach Nate McPherson.  They had worried the El Guerrouj plan would force Korabik to move too early and drain him for the last lap.  He should wait until 500 to go, they thought—and then move to the lead.

As the runners neared the 500-meter mark, we watched carefully, waiting to see what Korabik would do.  There might be a problem.  We weren’t sitting together, but talking after the race, we had all noticed the same thing:  Korabik looked like he was boxed in.

But the other runners no doubt had last lap plans, as well.  Off the main grandstand curve the front group was moving quickly.  Down the straightaway Reiser moved closer to Perrier on the outside.  It was not quite three abreast—Smith, Perrier, Reiser, with Hoffert crowding behind Smith looking for a place to go.

Korabik inched forward as Reiser did so—and Clevenger, perhaps thinking Reiser would move out to Perrier’s shoulder, moved out a bit wider out to lane three.

And then Korabik struck.  He went past Clevenger on the inside, with perhaps a brush of arms between the two.  He moved past Reiser to his inside.  And then he accelerated past Perrier and Smith.

Perrier made his own move a split second later to step ahead of Smith.  The others followed—Hoffert still chasing, then Reiser, then Clevenger, with Conant’s Zach Dale following and Smith fading quickly.

But Korabik had the jump, and he got to the lead and back into lane one all on the straightaway.  He went by 1200 in first at 3:10.4.  Perrier and the others were sorting things out behind him.  Korabik accelerated around the curve.   Perrier still followed closely, but a gap opened behind Perrier back to Hoffert.  Three meters, four meters, five meters—the gap widened as Korabik accelerated, Perrier chasing close and the others falling back.

Later another coach told us that Korabik’s courageous move had brought tears to his eyes.  It was the kind of move coaches want their boys to make–and train them to make.  As we sometimes still say, he was Prefontaine-ing  the race.  He didn’t hold back and try to run for second or third.  He made a move to win the race.  If it cost him in the end, so be it.  He was trying to win the race with a long 400-meter dash to the finish.

Korabik covered the 200 meters in right about 30 seconds.  He had dropped the pack, but he couldn’t drop Perrier.  At the 200 mark, which comes early on the EIU track with another 15 meters to the curve, Perrier accelerated into the lead.

Korabik chases Perrier and leads Dale, Hoffert, and Clevenger in a race to the finish.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Korabik chases Perrier and leads Dale, Hoffert, and Clevenger in a race to the finish. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

But Korabik did not give up.  He doggedly took up the chase.    Around the curve, Perrier’s lead grew to a second step, then a third.  Korabik was losing ground, but he was still moving quickly.  The wheels were still moving.

Behind Korabik, the others had begun to chase.  Conant’s Zach Dale was catching up.  With 90 meters to go, Perrier was well ahead, but Korabik seemed to find another burst of energy.  Perrier was no longer gaining, and Korabik was holding Dale off down the straightaway.  From behind Dale, then, came Clevenger moving faster than all the others.

Perrier won with his arms upraised.  Then the next three reached the finish line almost simultaneously, three across the track.  Korabik leaned in lane one.  Dale was beside him, more upright.  Clevenger actually seemed ready to go by them both, but he eased up at the finish line, standing straight upright.

Clevenger’s leg may have crossed in front of Korabik’s, but with his lean Korabik’s shoulder had beaten Clevenger’s chest to the line.

Officially Perrier was timed in 4:10.34.  Korabik’s time was 4:11.194—more than a three-second personal best–with Clevenger third in 4:11.199.  Dale fourth in 4:11.28, and then Hoffert made it four runners in the 4:11s, 4:11.71.

Korabik’s last lap had been a tick over 60 seconds.  If he had run 59 seconds, he might have been closer to winning the race.  But it had been a really smart final lap—and he won second place by running the fastest last 500 meters of the race.

He had run virtually the entire race in lane one.  He had stayed calm and still in the pack, moving only to take position when he needed to do so.  When he made his move, he did it with conviction and commitment.

He also won second place with his lean.

The night before Korabik and his teammates Chris Hawkins and Conor Dunham visited the O’Brien track dressed in caps and gowns, while junior teammate Andy Weber followed them with an Ipad and a speaker playing the “Pomp and Circumstance” graduation march.  Back in Chicago, their classmates were graduating in the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum.

“They’re up to the P-s,” Dunham informed me, looking at his mobile phone.  Apparently he was getting alert texts from the seniors in Chicago.

The boys took some photos on the awards stand.  They took photos in front of the IHSA banner.  And then they took some photos running in their caps and gowns—finish line photos.

Korabik practices his lean.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Korabik practices his lean. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

The evening light was challenging for photographs, and it took several tries for assistant coach and team photographer Bugarin to get a focused version of the group.  Once, twice, three times—the boys ran past the finish line.  You can see one photo on the previous blog post; here’s another.

Korabik leaned every time.

It turned out to be good practice.










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