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 Edgetiming.com 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 Athletic.net 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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Photo finishing high school


Photo by Steven Bugarin

I prepared this for our news people back at Ignatius, a recap of our first day at the state track meet.  And I owe Chris Korabik (@Cknation29), on the left above, a thank you for the tag line!

On the second day of the IHSA Boys Track and Field Championships today, four Ignatius athletes will compete for medals and team points.  In the preliminaries yesterday, the Wolfpack moved into serious contention  for four events.

In the 110 meter hurdles, senior Conor Dunham won his heat to advance to the finals in a time of 14.49 seconds; it is the second fastest time in school history, behind only Dunham’s own 14.15 mark in the sectional meet last week.  Senior Chris Hawkins also competed in 110s, running 14.79, but he did not qualify for the final.  He did, however, finish sixth and win his flight in the preliminaries of the triple jump, where he leaped 44 feet and 11.5 inches; that jump leaves him just two inches from third place.  He gets three jumps today to close the gap.  Dunham returned to the track in the 300 intermediate hurdles, where he battled long-time rival Imani Payton of North Lawndale College Prep in his qualifying heat.  Payton won by a step in 37.85 seconds, with Dunham at 38.14, but they were the fastest of the nine qualifiers for today’s final.  Finally, senior Chris Korabik finished second in his heat of the 1600-meter run to advance to the final, running 4 minutes and 14.80 seconds, second fastest of the rounds.

Junior Andy Weber will also compete today in the 3200-meter run, which has no preliminary race.  Senior Emmett Boyle competed in the pole vault on Friday, as well, but he did not advance.

To attend the state meet, Dunham, Korabik, and Hawkins had to miss graduation back in Chicago on Friday night.  Instead they made a cap and gown visit to the track in the evening during the open track meet there.  They marched around the infield as Weber carried a music player blaring Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”—and they took a few pictures.

“Our seniors made some sacrifices to be here,” said Coach Ed Ernst.  “We have a chance to score some points tomorrow.”

The Wolfpack finished fourth at the state meet last year.


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Long time, no blog post:  A hurdlers tale for spring


North Lawndale’s Imani Payton and the Wolfpack’s Conor Dunham race in the 300 intermediate hurdle preliminaries at the 2014 state track meet. Payton won the heat with the day’s fastest time of 37.85 seconds; Dunham had the second fastest time of 38.14. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

It has been a busy spring.  We’re at the IHSA state track meet already.  I haven’t written a blog post all spring.  Before I write about the state meet, here’s a post I began but didn’t finish.  It should catch us up a little bit.

In early April at Lane Tech’s stadium track, our Wolfpack boys track  team began its outdoor season with an annual event that has taken on a great personality—our home and home dual meet series between the Saint Ignatius and Lane Tech boys and girls teams.

Tuesday, April 15 was our fourth installment, the second Ignatius visit to Lane Tech.  It was, as I remember it, one of the first nice weather days of the spring after a cold and snowy winter.  The artificial turf was green, the track was black, and the old Lane stadium was historic.

On the sunny infield I talked with Tony Jones, who in addition to managing his Illinois Milesplit web site, of course, coaches the Lane Tech distance boys.  “This has really become a pretty nice event,” he agreed.  “You should blog about this.”

Two teams, two schools, boys and girls.  The Lane Tech boys and girls are the perennial champion of the Chicago Public League, with some time out for Whitney Young’s teams; our girls have a catalog of Girls Catholic Athletic Conference titles.  Our Ignatius boys are not quite as prolific, but we won the Chicago Catholic League last year.  It is the best of the city public schools against the best of the city Catholic schools.

It is really just an early-season meet—our first on the outdoor track, even a rust-buster, I suppose, after a few weeks off from competition following the indoor season.   Ignatius even took a one-week school vacation—no practice even.  None of the teams stack the lineups trying to win, and the results this year repeated those of past years:  the Ignatius girls won– and the Lane Tech boys.  Both wins were convincing, but not dominant.  And there were several interesting moments of competition.

Lane Tech senior Maciej Markiewicz and Conor Dunham race the 300 hurdles at the Lane Tech-Ignatius Dual meet in April.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Lane Tech senior Maciej Markiewicz and Conor Dunham race the 300 hurdles at the Lane Tech-Ignatius Dual meet in April. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

An email earlier in the week from Lane Tech head coach Kris Roof had asked me politely to confirm whether our senior hurdler Conor Dunham, top returning performer from the 2013 3A state meet where he was third last year in 38.63, would be running in the dual meet.  When the gun went off, the motivation for the email was clear.  Lane Tech’s senior Maciej Markiewicz ran a strong race, stride for stride—even a step ahead—until the last two hurdles.  Dunham, a strong finisher, closed with a burst for the win.  But the two runners’ times—40.19  and 40.76—were quite good for the first time out.

It was our first outdoor meet and the events and logistics outdoors are a little bit different from indoors. The boys range a little bit far and wide on the outdoor track.   Our coaches spent quite a bit of time finding and then hustling our younger runners to their events.  There were a few close calls getting boys on the track in time.  The relays were a little bit ragged.    It was clear during the meet which boys had skipped some training during spring break and which had trained seriously.

The season’s first outdoor meet inaugurates a clean slate, putting the winter indoor season behind us.  The weather cooperated for this meet, at least, although we had some cold weather to follow.  All the athletes begin the new season as a season of hope and excitement for big things to come.


Two-and-a-half months later, I talked once again with Lane Tech coaches Kris Roof and Tony Jones on another infield at the conclusion of another meet:  the 3A IHSA Saint Ignatius Sectional held at Concordia University’s track in River Forest.

In both conversations we remembered back to the meet in early April.    Both the Ignatius team and the Lane Tech team had competed well at the sectional, finishing just a few points apart behind Oak Park-River Forest’s winning team effort.

There were, of course, a few disappointments, and I felt the Ignatius disappointments quite painfully.

But there was also good news, and once again it included the same two hurdlers who had raced so well in early April.

Maciej Markiewicz had achieved the goal he had set out to achieve as a freshman, qualifying for the IHSA state championship meet by finishing third in 39.63 but meeting the state-qualifying time of 39.84 seconds:  “He’s been working for this for four years,” Roof told me.

Conor Dunham, meanwhile, had returned from a hip flexor injury that had kept him out of the Chicago Catholic League conference championship meet the week before.  It had been a painful day of watching for Dunham, as his team fell just short of winning a second consecutive team title, losing to Loyola 124-117.  A win by Dunham in either hurdle race would have swung the win to Ignatius.  But the school trainers had evaluated him and determined he was not physically ready to compete.

But three days later, he was given the thumbs up to practice.  And at the sectional meet on Concordia University’s stadium track, Dunham exploded.  After running conservatively in the 110 high hurdle preliminary heat, Dunham ran 14.15 seconds in the final, beating rival Imani Payton of North Lawndale College Prep by almost half a second—and improving his own personal best by that margin.  It was also at that moment the second fastest time in the state of Illinois this year.  An added piece of good news:  Our second Ignatius high hurdler, senior Chris Hawkins, also ran a personal best of 14.74 to meet the IHSA standard.  He, too, qualified to run in Charleston.

Conor  Dunham wins 300 hurdles at the Saint Ignatius 3A IHSA sectional championship at Concordia University.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Conor Dunham wins 300 hurdles at the Saint Ignatius 3A IHSA sectional championship at Concordia University, his fourth sectional championship in that event. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Then, later in the meet, Dunham raced Payton again.  Payton held the year’s fastest time in the state  for 300-meter hurdles, 37.42 seconds.   Dunham had been sectional champion in this same meet for the three previous years, starting as a freshman.  He was the top returning hurdler in class 3A this year after his third place medal in 2013.

In the 2014 sectional, Dunham ran the year’s second fastest time in the state of 37.85 seconds, beating Payton (38.99) easily.  Later we learned that Payton was suffering from an injury.   But the two would meet again on the track at the state championship.



Indeed, they raced in the same heat at the state championship preliminaries today.

In that race Payton held on to beat Dunham, 37.87-38.14.  The two Chicago rivals had the two fastest times of the preliminaries, and they will race side by side in lanes 3 (Dunham) and 4 (Payton) tomorrow in the final.

Dunham and Payton have been racing for years.  North Lawndale ran at the 2A level last year, so Dunham and Payton did not race at sectionals or state.  But they have competed in summer track for years, always, I think, on separate clubs.  They have followed that path together all the way to Junior Olympics nationals.  They have competed, I remember, on our Ignatius track in small weekday meets.  I don’t recall too many occasions where they have raced in invitationals; our teams run different schedules.

Now they race for the first place medal at the state championship as seniors–although there are a couple others, like Edwardsville’s Craig James, who might battle them, as well.

As Dunham told Chicago Suntimes reporter Mike Clark after the sectional race:  “I’m really thankful for him,” Dunham said, “because he really pushes me to my potential. He’s a great competitor.”


End of the story:  This blog post originally ended above.  If you were in Charleston, you know the outcome of the 300-meter hurdles race between Dunham and Payton.  And it was the kind of race, of course, that you are likely to remember when you watch the 300s again in the years to come.

I made a decision to watch the race from the starting straightaway, which is where I had watched Dunham run to his third-place medal last year.  Like last year, as well, Dunham drew lane three.  Payton, it turns out, was in five, not four, as I had originally supposed.

I was watching him on the first straightaway—and as I discussed with his father later, I watched him misstep on the first hurdle.  I cringed.  Later, Dunham himself wasn’t sure what had happened.

But it was also my impression that once awkwardly but safely over that hurdle, Dunham set to work with a serious resolve.  He seemed to recognize instantly that he had lost a step and needed to recover, and he would do so.  Over the second hurdle, he swung a little bit wide toward the fourth lane, which, because of the stagger, of course, was clear.  He was moving really, really fast–too fast to stay in the center of his lane, even.


Conor Dunham took the lead off the curve–and then he accelerated to the finish. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Around the curve, he clearly made up a lot of ground.  He was stepping smoothly over the hurdles and the stagger spacing disappeared quickly.  Over the last hurdle on the curve, he had taken the lead.

And on the straightaway, as the stadium crowd gasped, he accelerated.  Imani Payton, also moving fast, drifted back.  He would finish in a personal best time of 37.33 seconds, a fast second-place finisher.

Dunham rocketed to the finish in 36.90 seconds.  He was moving so quickly that people looked at the clock expectantly.  The state record was 36.77 by Jon Schweighardt of Wheaton Warrenville South in 1999.  It was clear that Dunham had finished under 37 seconds.

The meet announcer was watching, too, and he called it out when posted:  36.90, just .13 seconds off the record.  On the all-time Illinois list, it puts Dunham fourth overall.  The missed first hurdle had cost him the record, perhaps, but maybe it had boosted him to victory, as well.

IMG_2383Later Dunham and I debriefed and talked about the race—and about the difficulties of planning and executing a race plan.  He had missed the first hurdle, presumably, because he had reached the hurdle so quickly in the adrenaline rush and excitement of the big state meet.  It is not really something you can practice.  You can never get that same level of energy in practice.  As we noted often, every step he could eliminate from the race between hurdles would mean a faster race.  He should make that rush work for him.  To plan for it, we had talked about cheating the hurdles a little bit closer in practice to develop a step pattern that Dunham could duplicate in the race.  But we had never really tried it.

Instead, Dunham had worked hard at getting comfortable hurdling with both legs, even though he preferred to lead with his right leg.  We did a lot of fast running, at least once a week, over the 300 hurdles in practice—250s, 150s, 100s.  And it is important to note that he had been racing the 300s for four years—a lot of races, finally.   He had learned, it seems, to know by feeling and anticipation when he would have to switch legs hurdling.

“I just told myself to be confident hurdling with either leg,” Dunham said.  “I tried not to think and just let my body do what it needed to do.”

Photo by Steven Bugarin

Photo by Steven Bugarin

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