I went for a run on Friday afternoon at practice with Patrick Santino, our senior co-captain for track and cross country. This is a somewhat remarkable occurrence because it means 1) that I am running enough that I can run with our boys and 2) that Santino was not running with junior Jack Keelan and seniors Clifford Vickrey and Peter Devitt, plus anyone else feeling good that day, our normal “Bannister” training group.
We were doing one of our drive-aways, basically a drop-off and pick-up run. It was our first one this year. At Ignatius we loaded about half our boys into a school mini-bus—about 16 boys or so, the Viren and Prefontaine groups (we also call them our Shortys)— and I drove them about six plus miles up the lakefront to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum on Cannon Drive in Lincoln Park. I dropped them off there,and they ran back down the lakefront to the museum campus, then west on Roosevelt back to Saint Ignatius. Meanwhile, our top guys—the “Bannister” group minus Santino—set out from Ignatius on a run to the lakefront, then up the lakefront path, past Navy Pier, North Avenue beach, the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Notebaert Museum, and Belmont Harbor to the Waveland golf course and its totem pole, more or less the end destination of the run. It is eight miles or so.
After we dropped off the crew at the Notebaert Museum, Santino drove with me farther north up Lake Shore Drive to the totem pole. We parked at the Waveland tennis courts, and then we set out running south on the lakefront jogging path past Belmont Harbor, expecting at some point to bump into the Bannister boys running north.
Santino was running with me because for him it was a pre-meet day. He was our lone entry for the Illinois Prep Top Times meet at Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington the next day, Saturday.
Keelan had qualified to run, as well, in both the 1600 and the 3200. We had a few other boys and relays who were close; I noticed a few teams, close like us, seemed to have bargained their way into the meet even after the entry lists were posted as “final.”
But it has been our policy for a number of years to turn down invitations to Top Times. Our indoor conference meet is a big deal, and it generally brings top level performances from our guys—often qualifying performances for Top Times. That level of intensity at the conference meet, however, is about as serious as we want to get in March, because performances in May are the ones that really count. We literally don’t want to be too good in March.
Billed for many years as the “unofficial state indoor championship meet,” Top Times is not a state championship meet. It is not a conference championship meet. It is, without a doubt, a meet that brings together many of the state’s top competitors for head to head match-ups that usually result in fast times, big jumps and throws, and, in general, the top indoor performances of the year.
Other teams seem to agree with us that it is too much, too soon in the season. The York boys never run at Top Times. Paul Vandersteen has, in the past, brought Neuqua Valley to run, but in a post on Tracktalk.net he explained why he had turned down invitations this year: “Simply put, after assessing last year, we are literally exhausted with spring break starting and did not feel we had the focused energy to justify the travel and time away on that date.” Other teams routinely skip Top Times.
I have suggested to our runners that they compare the Top Times results with the IHSA state championship results in May. Although you can weigh it and explain it in different ways, it is not uncommon for the results in March to be very, very different from those at the end of May. Winners in March do not often repeat as winners in May.
In particular, for a team like ours which generally has strengths in its distance team, it seems like a few weeks off from competition at the end of March before the outdoor season gets under way is a good idea.
But obviously, for Patrick Santino, we made a different decision this year. Touted as an all-state contender in cross country, Santino missed eight weeks in August and September with a stress reaction in his foot. This came after a spring track season in which he ran 9:29.62 at the IHSA sectional—less than half a second off the qualifying time for the state meet. He was the fastest 3200 runner in the state not to qualify, and he had ran faster than almost half the qualifiers.
Hoping to run in college, Santino had missed those chances to make colleges take notice. We made a decision several weeks ago that Top Times would not be another missed chance. We had a few anxious moments when he ran 9:33 for 3200 meters twice; the Top Times automatic qualifying time was set at 9:30. We didn’t want a repeat of last spring’s near miss at the sectional. But official word came last Monday that Santino would run, and we had already adjusted his workouts for the week, putting him on a different schedule from his teammates.
On our run together on Friday, Santino and I talked about those missed chances. I allowed as how his big race coming up had made me really face the fact of how disappointing the cross country season had been—presumably for both of us. Keelan and Santino could have been among the top runners in the state in the fall. But as it worked out, neither even ran at the state meet.
We made some plans for his race. He was confident that he could run with William Hague from Loyola Academy, whom he had beaten at Catholic League with a strong finish. He was expecting Malachy Schrobilgen of Oak Park River Forest to run, and Schrobilgen would be the big man to beat. Tyler Yunk from Belvidere North had a great cross country season, and he was running strongly in track already; he is also a notorious front runner who likes to lead races and set a strong pace. We assumed Yunk would do so, and Santino could follow along.
Santino and I bumped into his teammates just before we turned around on the path near the Notebaert Museum and returned to the totem pole—a 3.5 mile run at about 8:00 minutes per mile pace, as I calculated it for my logbook. We loaded the mini-bus when the rest of the Bannisters straggled in—there had been some confusion about the route, and a few detours on the way, apparently—and made our way through the 5:00 PM Lake Shore Drive traffic back to Saint Ignatius. The boys enjoyed the Gatorade I had stashed on the mini-bus for them, along with some chewy granola bars.
On the bus the boys ran through a repertoire of what seems to be their standard conversational material. They reported some online trashtalking from a Loyola boy, a common nemesis, suggesting that we had been lucky to win the CCL championship last week; well, I told the boys, we were lucky–big deal. Who cares how we won? They reviewed some of the recent discussion on Tracktalk.net, with some predictions about the Top Times meet. These are the same boys who, presumably in a conversation like this one, developed a fantasy cross country game last fall; Alan Sutton had even talked to Santino about their fantasy game on his cross-country blog. The boys have developed a point system for their predictions at Top Times, as well.
Santino, the biggest running geek among these running geeks, was at the center of these conversations about running. Keelan and Vickrey competed on the school’s Worldwide Youth Science and Engineering competition team last week; Devitt and Tim Hatzopolous, among others, are Model UN members. Santino basically just runs. His main interest outside of running is a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (but don’t forget The Hobbit, too, Santino would advise, as he anxiously awaits the new Peter Jackson movie).
To be fair, there was also some conversation among the boys about getting a junior girl date for freshman Andy Weber, so that he could attend junior prom and they could all hang out together.
I did not make the trip to Bloomington with Santino. He went with his father and with Jack Keelan, who went to watch the meet—and to support his teammate. Instead, I watched the live web cast.
There were only five runners in the race, as it turned out. Schrobilgen had opted to run the 4×800 relay with his Oak Park teammates, and then the 1600. When I saw the runners start, I laughed to myself as I put myself in Santino’s place: “I bet he thinks he can win this race.”
Yunk, as expected, took the lead early after a few laps, and he basically lead the race for 10 or so of the 16 200-meter laps. The splits were very honest—3:28 at 1200, 4:38 at 1600. Five runners ran in a line for the first few laps. Then Yunk and Hague began to pull away; a gap opened. Santino took his time closing the gap, and then for the last mile it was three runners in the lead.
Hague passed Yunk with 800 to go, leading for a couple laps. Santino remained close, but not quite close enough. He probably missed his chance to win when Yunk moved aggressively past Hague with about 350 meters left. Santino responded a little bit too slowly, making a final push with 150 meters to go, and while he closed on Yunk, he couldn’t make up the gap.
But the finishing time was enough reward for Santino: Yunk won with a personal best 9:16.62, but Santino was second in 9:17.94—an 11-second personal record.
It was the race Santino had been waiting to run for four years. My phone rang about ten minutes later, and I missed the call. I listened to the message from Bill Santino, with the time and some details about the race. I called them back, told them I’d seen the race on the webcast, and gave both Santinos a big congratulations.
That night, I sent some emails to college coaches, just to make sure they had caught the race results. Santino’s college decision is still up in the air. He might have some better options now than he did last week. The new ESPN High School/Dyestat leaderboard for Illinois lists Patrick Santino number four for the state in the 3200—and he is listed as US #18.