We have been trying to get into the Palatine Invite for enough years that it was hard not feeling on Saturday like we had finally been accepted into an exclusive club. We had a few qualms, including the fact that our girls team has not been invited. Because our varsity team is still not yet performing at the level we expect to perform at before the end of the season, we feel like we are underperforming so far this season–and we underperformed on Saturday. Were we imposters crashing a party? Because it was our first time, even after reading through the race literature, we could not even find the entrance to the park on our first attempt—though we actually got into the park as instructed by 7:45 in time to find a parking place for our school van, something that even some old timers failed to do. One thing you learn right away about Palatine: The parking is limited, and many take advantage of a shuttle that runs from the high school, where there is plenty of parking.
Deer Grove East Forest Preserve is a beautiful park—green, clean, and rolling. The weather threatened rain a couple times during the morning, and even produced a spitting rain for a few moments. But overall it was cool and overcast—great running weather. The meet runs without a hitch, with what must be a hundred volunteers from the Palatine High School community manning the course, the food tent, and the results tent. Once the meet begins, everyone is focused on the runners with no other thoughts or worries.
With so many of the top runners and teams in the state gathered at Palatine, both boys and girls, there was a special thrill in the air as each preliminary race began and the varsity races approached. At the start of the boys’ varsity race, I listened for the gun from a spot about 300 meters away to start my watch. Then I looked out at the narrow alley where the runners climb a small incline and then head out onto the loops of the course, and I saw a bunch of coaches sprinting up the straightaway to stay ahead of the runners. I ducked under the flags lining the course to follow the running coaches out to the course and be part of that club, which included some coaches I know, like Dan Seeburg of Loyola and Steve Currins of Palatine. Between the team race that was definitely up for grabs and a large number of individual runners who had a legitimate chance to win, a lot of coaches felt they had a big stake in the race. Hence that big crowd of running coaches.
Actually, even if our varsity underperformed a little bit, our team as a whole did well. Our top freshmen runner, Andy Weber, had a breakthrough race. His time of 13:40 for the 2.5 mile freshman race extrapolates to 16:36 for 3.o miles—a great time for a freshman runner and a drop of 40 seconds or so from his previous best race. Andy started the race a bit conservatively, running in the third group of the race—and behind two Loyola runners and a few others in the group ahead of him and well back from two runaway race leaders. But over the final mile he moved from that third group to the front of that second group—from about 12th place up to third place as the race entered the final 400 meters. He lost a sprint for third place, but he looked like a runner who had found a new gear. I talked with Andy and his father after the race about having Andy run in one of our varsity races the next two weeks—because he will need that experience if he makes the top varsity group at the end of the season and we want him to run in the state championship series races. Andy led a group of five other Ignatius freshmen who also made big jumps in performance the last two races. They finished seventh out of twenty teams at Palatine—not really that far behind York, Palatine, New Trier, and Loyola, a few of the high-powered programs that dominated the meet at all levels.
Our sophomores did not have any breakthroughs. But they continued to perform well, finishing tenth out of 25 scoring teams. Our top sophomore runners, Chris Korabik (23rd at 16:38) and Taylor Dugas (33rd at 16:50) ran races that were personal bests—just not dramatically so. They are ready for a big break through soon.
Our top runner, junior Jack Keelan, did enough, however, to merit the invitation for our whole team. Keelan had been disappointed two weeks ago at the Peoria Woodruff meet because after running in the lead group of four for two miles, he had fallen off the pace at the end—losing 28 seconds over the last mile. The pace had been fast—faster, in fact, than his state meet splits last year for one and two miles. His final time was good—14:48, his second fastest ever—but he just couldn’t hold onto the leaders at the end. Keelan, the sixth fastest returning runner from last year’s state meet, was just a mention in the pre-meet stories about Palatine. In his pre-meet story for ESPN/Dyestat, Michael Newman had noticed that in the last mile at Woodruff, “It looked like he was carrying 3 pianos on his back.” Ouch. He did finger Keelan to be one of the front runners at Palatine.
Keelan was better than that. Sitting back in the lead pack for the first two miles as the runners ran a much more reasonable pace than at Woodruff, he moved to the front of the race with a half mile to go, making a strong surge. New Trier’s Leland Later countered with a stronger move, taking a lead of up to ten meters and splitting a big lead group running side by side into a line of chasers. Keelan and Todd Ford of Loyola were the only chasers who continued to chase. In a furious closing sprint, Keelan ended up third, as Later held on to win and Ford finished second. But the three runners finished just 1.2 seconds apart. Keelan beat Erik Peterson of Barrington by six seconds; last week Peterson, along with Ford and William Hague from Loyola, ran 23 seconds faster at the Peoria Notre Dame meet at Detweiller than Keelan had ran at Woodruff. Later beat Keelan by 23 seconds at Woodruff; at Palatine, Keelan lost by a second. Keelan was happy after the race, despite losing the final sprint. He was just happy that he was part of the final sprint finish this time. His time of 14:36 matched his state meet time last year at Detweiller, and Palatine is considered to be the slower course. The Palatine result arguably puts Keelan in a group of five or six runners at the top of the list for candidates to win the state championship race in November.
[I just came across a series of photos on the Tribune sports pages which gives a snap shot of Keelan’s position at a few points in the race–with another photo of Jack in his full sprint at the end: http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/highschool/crosscountry/ct-spt-0925-prep-xc-palatine-photo,0,7678204.photogallery]
It had been a challenging week of practice. Because Keelan had not run as well as he hoped in his first races and because our varsity team has not kept pace with teams from schools like Lane Tech, Niles West, Maine South, and Niles North who have already taken big steps forward this year, our hardest working boys have had a few questions about even the small changes we have made in our program. Why did we change anything this year that had apparently worked for us last year? It is a reasonable question from our intelligent boys.
But they have strangely translated the tweaks and changes in our standard workouts and schedule of past years into something more significant. They had gotten it into their heads, somehow, that we weren’t working as hard. I actually sat down with them to compare our workouts from last year with the workouts from this year. Last year in week seven we had run a workout with 2×2 miles on the lake path; this year in week five before the Woodruff meet, we had run 3×2 miles, running just as fast with just two minutes rest, but we had called it a tempo workout. We also ran 8×800 meters that same week before Woodruff. (No wonder we seemed tired?) In past years, we had run 8×800 meters only once, and it was much later in the season–perhaps too late, in fact. Our boys handled that workout much better this year. What’s more, that’s ten miles of quality running in practice this year for week five, if you are keeping score. That’s a lot–and a lot more than previous years. My point to the boys: They are working very hard, much harder, in fact, than past years. That work has got to pay off in the end.
But are we maybe working too hard? Only time will tell. Our goal for this week is to have the boys hit their workout pace more exactly–and without running harder than they should be running. There has been a tendency to run faster than the pace they have been assigned for many of our workouts.
Teams already mentioned above have begun the season running times that are remarkably faster than they ran a year ago. Our varsity group—with the exception of Keelan—are not doing so. They are somewhat better, race for race, than a year ago, but they have not taken such a quantum leap forward. We are also missing our number two runner, Patrick Santino, who is recovering from a stress facture in his foot. Some comments on the blog posts at CPSfan.com are even asking the question, what happened to the runners at St. Iggy, as they like to call us?
Keelan answered any critics and doubters on Saturday at Palatine, and he seems more confident in our training plan after his big race. We hope that the rest of our boys also give their critics an answer in the weeks to come—and we hope for success soon that helps them to set aside their own doubts.
It is still early in the season, and what counts is what happens in October and November. But next week, we race on October 1. October is almost here.