The 2012 Illinois High School Association 3A cross country champion Jack Keelan admitted afterwards that he had been very, very nervous before the race. And it had been a while, I think, since a race had made him nervous—not even the state track meet back in May.
That admission wouldn’t be a big surprise to those who spent any time with him on Saturday while he and teammate Chris Korabik huddled in our Saint Ignatius school van, parked on Bus Drive at Detweiller right by the finish line at the IHSA state cross country championships. We had made a concerted effort to keep the bus empty. Only Patrick Santino, our co-captain from last year, one of Keelan’s best friends, and now a runner at Miami of Ohio, got an extended stay. Other teammates–more than 40 Ignatius boy and girl runners had made the trip to Peoria–were told by their coach pretty directly that they could poke their heads in to wish Keelan and Korabik luck, but then they should leave the bus.
The nervous Keelan wasn’t a great conversationalist at that point, anyway.
Both Keelan and his coach thought he was ready. His workouts all season have been right on target. He completed a six-week session of phase III workouts at the end of October. On Mondays the workout was basically at race pace—1000s in 3:00 or 800s in 2:22 with a few minutes of rest, sometimes on the grass, sometimes on the track. Wednesdays was a tempo workout, often 5 x a mile, sometimes on the lakefront path, sometimes on the grass at 41st Street beach, with a minute rest. Saturday races in September and October were really a third workout, and then Sunday was a long run—12 miles or so. With some easy running on the other days, his mileage total amounted to around 60 miles a week. He had never pushed too hard in the workouts, just running the pace. Races were the same way. He had run comfortably for the most part, losing only to Grant Nykaza of Beecher at the Palatine Invitational in September in a closing sprint. In mid-October Keelan had tested himself a little bit at the Chicago Catholic League conference meet, where he had set a new course record of 14:29 running by himself at Turtlehead Lake. Scott Milling of York had pushed him a little bit at the Niles West Sectional, where he ran 14:45 on a soft track.
Keelan wanted to win the individual state title, but he also wanted to run a fast time. As it turned out, he had to run fast to win.
On Friday afternoon at the course, Mike Newman of Illinois Prep Harrier and Dyestat.com had told me that he was predicting a winning time of about 14:20—and it was a reasonable prediction. Last year Garret Sweatt, Leland Later, Malachy Schrobilgen, Erik Peterson, Todd Ford, and Jereme Atchison had posted Detweiller times of better than 14:27 in September and then only Later was able to go faster to run 14:17 and win the 3A state meet. No one had matched those fast times this year. Keelan had run only 14:35 winning the First to the Finish meet in September.
On Friday Keelan was still talking about running 14:00.
To think you can go from 14:35 in September down to 14:00 in November–even on a fast day at Detweiller–requires some serious belief. Keelan hadn’t even nibbled at it with a 14:20 along the way.
I suspect this was partly why Keelan was nervous. He believed he was ready, but he didn’t know absolutely for sure that when he reached down for what he needed that it would be there. He hadn’t run a race like that since last June.
Keelan said later that he had had one small moment in his head while he waited before the race where he had said, “Well, if it doesn’t go well today I still have NXN and Footlocker.” But then he kind of gave himself a big shake and said, “No, this is the state meet!” It was the race he really wanted to win.
Just before the start, one of his Ignatius teammates put his own special mark on the day. York brought the school band. Junior Mickey Smith had brought his bagpipes, and he began to play them five minutes before the race started.
Keelan’s plan was to start in the pack, but then go early at the mile, before the triangle. With O’Fallon’s Alex Riba and York’s Scott Milling out in front of him a few steps after the 4:39 first mile, Keelan didn’t actually take the lead until they were into the triangle itself, and obviously Riba was there ready to go with him.
In the morning, back at breakfast at the Embassy Suites, I was eating with my family at the same time that the O’Fallon team and coaches were in the breakfast area. While waiting in the waffle line, I had a quick hello and shook hands with Coach Jon Burnett as he passed by. “Our guys are gunning for Jack,” he had told me.
What a courageous race Alex Riba ran. As one of our captains, Tim Hatzopolous said later, Riba had already been second once. He wasn’t going to just run for second place again. He was running to win.
Keelan and Riba came out of the triangle together, with the others behind, and it was clearly a two man race. They started up the hill and passed through the two mile in 9:23. They were running fast.
Talking about the race later, Keelan said that Riba had put in a surge going across the top of the course after the turn around the tree. Keelan had to fight a little bit to stay with him. But then going down the hill along the highway, Keelan had picked up confidence.
I was actually at the bottom of the course at the turn just past the mile clock, with 800 meters to go. They were still together. I had a video camera out. I caught them going by together and watched them stride away. Then I looked back toward the mile clock to where the other runners were coming, looking for our second runner Chris Korabik, who had been running around 50th. It must have been about 20 seconds that I took my eyes off the front of the race.
And then I looked back to Keelan and Riba, and Keelan had made his strong move and opened a gap that just kept getting bigger. Keelan said later that he had started pushing a little bit, but that Riba had also started to fall off a little.
As I had imagined the race, it was going to take a double move by Keelan to win. He would have to move after the mile in the triangle to make a selection. But then he would have to run the last 800 to beat whoever came with him.
We knew from last spring that he could run that last 800 fast, like he did at the Arcadia Invite in April when he ran 8:55 for 3200 and closed in 2:05. But there was maybe a small sliver of doubt after Nykaza had outrun him at the Palatine finish. I did mention to Jack before the race Saturday that the finish at Palatine had been downhill. It is a lot different, I suggested, to sprint that incline uphill to the finish at Detweiller. If it came down to that, I told him, a sprint there would suit him a lot better.
Keelan was sprinting coming up the last incline, but the race was already in hand. He built close to a ten second lead. His teammates, it was reported to me later, were going crazy; there were reports of lost voices the next day. Keelan’s father later admitted to thinking, don’t fall down.
He finished in 14:05–an evenly paced race with miles of 4:40, 4:43, and 4:42. Our co-captain Ray Lewis said it was perfectly executed race plan.
Riba faded to fourth in 14:15 after his courageous effort, passed in the last 400 meters by Quentin Shaffer of Prospect (14:14), who took second, and teammate Patrick Perrier, third in 14:15.
So finally, even if he was a little bit nervous, when Keelan went into the tank to find what he needed, he found it.
Keelan had started the race nervous, but with a belief that he had that bigger race in him. He really had been waiting all season for November and the chance to open it up all the way.
We’ve been planning for a final phase of the cross country season in November through December, with the state meet as the first big racing week of five. We hope he has some more big races in him.
I don’t think he will be quite as nervous next week at the NXN Midwest race at Terra Haute.