Book a track. Hire an FAT timer. Advertise the event to reach the best high school distance runners in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Get the steeplechase barriers out of storage. Hand out hip numbers (my job!). Fire the starting gun and start the clock. Then get out of the way.
The kids will provide the magic.
It was just over a month ago that the organizer of the Midwest Distance Gala, Scott Bush, announced that he would not be organizing the event for 2012. Among the first to get the news, the Illinois ESPN High School/Dyestat team of Mike Newman, Bob Geiger, and Tony Jones, organizers of the Illinois Prep Top Times indoor meet in March, announced the next day that they would replace the Gala with their own event.
What they understood, it seems, is that something pretty basic is missing at the end of the high school track season in Illinois–and the Midwest. The high school runners in the different Midwest states are talented and fast, but they don’t get to race each other very often. In Illinois, in fact, the top runners are split between three classes and multiple events at the state meet, so that top runners like Michael Clevenger don’t even get to race other top runners like Malachy Schrobilgen at the Illinois state championships.
If you simply give these kids a venue that puts them on the track against each other, there’s bound to be some magic and excitement. They don’t need fancy uniforms; many of them wore makeshift and mismatching shorts and tops. They don’t need IHSA oversight; they warmed up on the track wearing their Ipods. All they really need is each other.
Newman, Geiger, and Jones would no doubt tell you that somewhat more is required. But piggybacking on the Senior Spotlight meet that would take place the next day on Saturday, June 9, they booked Joliet’s Memorial Stadium for the night before; it is a fast track with a new Mondo surface. They enlisted a sponsor, First to the Finish, and got some help from St. Francis College. They had some last minute emergencies—like finding rabbits to lead out the races for the early stages. They had some disappointments: They did not get many takers for the distance medley relay event they wanted to add to the meet, so they had to cancel it. And they didn’t get a lot of girl entries.
But on Friday, June 8, the first Midwest Distance Festival set off some fireworks on the track.
The meet program more or less duplicated the old Gala program. It included an open 5000-meter run, a freshman mile, and a 2000-meter steeplechase—warm up acts, really. Andy Weber, our freshman from Saint Ignatius, matched the qualifying standard of 4:45 in the 1600 for the freshman mile in the nighttime Race at State event in Charleston, and he ran 4:52.41 at the MDF race, which was won by David Rodriguez of Hersey in 4:29.76. Marcello Burbano of Lane Tech won the steeple in 6:19.32; it was his first time over the water jumps.
Only four girls in each event entered the 800 and the mile—but those girls ran fast. Molly Hanson of Dodgeville, WI, ran 2:11.48 to beat Dhia Dean of Kenwood Academy in Chicago (2:12.74) in the 800. Brittany Neely of Greenwood, IN, won the girls mile in 5:01.54 over Brooke Wolfe of Prospect (5:03.38).
But it was the boys in the 800, two-mile, and one mile races who generated the real heat.
In the slow section of the 800, the fastest seed time was 1:55. Heat winner Trenton Daniels of Brookfield East, IN, had a seed time of 1:57; he ran 1:53.59. In the fast section, two out of state juniors fought it out; Amos Bartelsmeyer of Mary Institute Country Day in Missouri ran 1:51.07 to edge Brad Johnson of Brookfield East, WI (1:51.43), big personal bests for both runners.
The two-mile came down to a battle between Wisconsin and Illinois. Coming through the mile in 4:29 there was still a group of ten runners, out of 18 starters, in the lead pack. In the last two laps, Russ Sandvold of Arrowhead, WI and Will Brewster of Grays Lake pulled away to duel to the finish. Nearing the finish line, Sandvold, who had lead the entire second mile of the race, raised his arms in celebration—and Brewster nearly dipped under them for the win. Sandvold ran 9:04.87 for two miles, 9:01.82 for 3200 meters; Brewster was 9:04.89 and 9:02.07.
Finally, in the mile, a group of five separated from the starting group of 13 behind the pacesetter who took them through the 800 in 2:04, as planned. Then the followers closed the gap on the third lap to make a bigger finishing mob. At the front it was Michael Clevenger of Decatur MacArthur, Jacob Poyner of Warsaw, WI, Todd Ford of Loyola Academy, Mark Derrick of Nequa Valley, Connor Mora of Cedar Springs, MI, Malachy Schrobilgen of Oak Par-River Forest, Garret Lee of Belvedere North—and Jack Keelan of Saint Ignatius. Clevenger blasted off with his big move with about 300 to go, and ran away with the win in 4:09.01 (4:07.55 for 1600). Mora was a surprise second in 4:10.72. But Keelan came from the farthest back with 200 meters to go, passing a handful of runners with a remarkable finish, to run 4:11.15 for third.
My rooting interest, of course, was with Keelan. It was just the second time this year he had beaten Todd Ford from our arch rival Loyola in a race; Ford had won the Chicago Catholic League title in cross country over Keelan, and then Ford beat him in the 1600 final at the Illinois state meet. It was also the first time Keelan had ever finished ahead of Schrobilgen in a race.
We hadn’t even spoken, I think, since we said goodbye after the state meet at the Steak ’n Shake in Champaign, our usual team dinner stop on the return trip home from Charleston. We talked briefly before the race, and Keelan volunteered that he had not trained hard for the last two weeks; he had taken two days off right away, then he had run every day since—but with only one hard tempo run that counted as a real work out.
So much for coaching or for training.
We couldn’t talk too much, in fact, because I was helping at the meet. A few days before I had volunteered my services to Newman in an email; he had emailed back quickly to take me up on the offer. With many stalwart Illinois coaches occupied with the Senior Spotlight meet the next day, volunteers for the MDF were apparently scarce. When I arrived on Friday evening, Newman and Geiger did seem happy to see me. I spent a little while handing out bib numbers to arriving athletes, and then I took on the job of checking in the athletes before their races.
Check in was pretty simple for such a small meet. All I had to do, really, was hand out hip numbers to help with the FAT timing. But it was also fun to line the runners up before each race, and then send them up the track to the starting line as their names were called for each race over the public address system.
By the mile, the last race of the night, my job was over and I got to watch from the infield.
Watching Keelan run his 4:11 mile—and a new school record of 4:09.64 for 1600—was worth the night of work handing out those hip numbers.