It ain’t over until it is over

Saint Ignatius senior Jack Keelan finished 26th at the Nike Cross Nationals on Saturday, December 1, running the muddy five kilometer course at Portland Meadows in 17 minutes and 45 seconds. Photo by Tim Keelan.

Saint Ignatius senior Jack Keelan finished 26th at the Nike Cross Nationals on Saturday, December 1, running the muddy five kilometer course at Portland Meadows in 17 minutes and 45 seconds. Photo by Tim Keelan.

The cross country season is (dare I say, finally) over as all the members of our team have finished their post-season races.

These races—the Nike Cross Nationals series which crowns a national team champion, as well as an individual winner, and the older Foot Locker series which crowns an individual national champ—present some special problems for Illinois high school cross country coaches, including the simple problem that according to a complicated set of Illinois High School Association rules we are not able to coach our runners in these races.

A round-up of the Saint Ignatius results:  With his 26th place finish at NXN on Saturday, December 1 in a time of 17 minutes and 45 seconds on a muddy five kilometer course in Portland, Saint Ignatius senior and 2012 Illinois 3A state champion Jack Keelan has run his last high school cross country race. (Complete results here.)

The Saint Ignatius boys ran in the NXN Midwest qualifier as the Pack-Men, and paid homage in their team design to their love of video games.

The Saint Ignatius boys ran in the NXN Midwest qualifier as the Pack-Men, and paid homage in their team design to their love of video games.

Keelan had qualified for NXN with a fifth place finish at the NXN Midwest regional qualifier at the windy and winding Lavern Gibson Championship course in Terra Haute, IN, on Sunday, November 11.  Our Ignatius team ran there as a club called the Pack-Men, finishing 20th out of 37 top Midwest high school teams.   Keelan ran 15 minutes and 34 seconds, a personal best for five kilometers and 44 seconds better than last year.  Freshman Dan Santino ran 16:49, 155th out of 346 finishers.  Junior Chris Korabik was close behind in 175th, running 16:55—more than 1:30 better than last year.  Sophomore Andrew Weber ran 17:09 for 218th—another 1:30 improvement,  sophomore Brian Santino 18:15 for 323rd—one minute faster,  and senior Ray Lewis 19:06 for 338th.

Keelan, Dan Santino, and Brian Santino also raced at the Foot Locker Midwest qualifier held at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside on Saturday, November 20.  Dan Santino finished fourth, as the top freshman, in the frosh-soph race with a time of 16:24 for five kilometers—a personal best, and brother Brian Santino ran 18:50 for 104th out of 193.  In the seeded race, Keelan finished a disappointing 84th, running 16:05–more on that race below.

The Pack-Men at NXN Midwest in Terra Haute, IN.  Photo by Tim Keelan.

The Pack-Men at NXN Midwest in Terra Haute, IN. Photo by Tim Keelan.

Technically and honestly, I am not coaching the team in this post-season period.  The Illinois High School Association rules are a little bit confusing and murky about whether I could be the coach of the club team or the individual performers in these post season races.  I did go to Terra Haute and to Wisconsin-Parkside to watch them run—and at Parkside, I went to run a race on the same course myself.  But I did not go to Portland to watch Keelan run—and perhaps I missed a once in a lifetime event, even if I would have been an outsider at the event.

Keelan and his teammates have been essentially training on their own since the November 3 Illinois state meet.  He and the team did train for the post-season following an outline of workouts that I gave Keelan back in August, spelling out a 24-week plan that ran through to December.

We had planned the workouts so that Keelan would train hard until just before the state meet, when he would begin a competition phase of training—what coaches call a peak.

For the six weeks previously in September and October, the hard workouts of the week presumably left Keelan a little bit tired when it came time to race on the weekends.  He took very few days off during this time.  He ran about 60 miles each week, with a long run of 12 or even a few more miles on Sundays.  Mondays was a workout in which he ran 1000-meter or 800-meter repeats at about his goal race pace—3:00 for 1000, 2:22 for 800—with a rest about equal to the length of the interval.  On Wednesdays he ran mile repeats, usually about five, at a tempo pace of between 5:00 and 5:10 per mile, with a one-minute rest between.

But for the last month of his season, from a week before the state meet through to December, the number of miles he ran decreased a little bit and the workouts were less demanding.   Mondays were a combination of intervals, including some faster 200-meter sprints; Wednesdays were fewer tempo miles, with some 200s.  He took a few days off.  It was clear that some of these big races and big efforts took a lot out of him.

One key to Keelan’s success this fall—and a lesson we have tried to convey to his teammates—is that we identified manageable pacing goals for the workouts that tested him but did not deplete him.  He has avoided the common mistake of over-training—or what might be called “racing in practice.”  Especially at the end of the season, the emphasis has been on the weekend races, not the training sessions.

It was the first time as a coach that I have had to plan for an extended post-season schedule.  It was a tricky thing to do,  because the event that was most important, really—the Illinois state meet—came before the qualifying and national events for NXN and the Foot Locker cross country championship.  Although for the future I will look at this again and think it through after evaluating the results of the last month, I really do think we planned the workout schedule correctly, in terms of Keelan’s physical preparation.

What we hadn’t thought about very carefully, however, was the mental challenge that Keelan would face this last month.  After winning the Illinois state meet and running a spectacular time of 14 minutes and 5 seconds on November 3, it seems likely to me that he found it a little bit difficult to find the motivation to dig as deep and push himself as hard in the qualifying races at the NXN Midwest and at the Foot Locker Midwest.   He might disagree, perhaps.

Outside of Illinois—and perhaps even among the college coaches doing their recruiting—these national meets seem most important.  But here in Illinois, winning the state meet was a big deal.  At a school like Ignatius, where we have seldom even had runners qualify for the state meet, it was even a bigger deal.  And if you followed Keelan’s bigger story, with its disappointing chapter last year when he did not even qualify for the state meet after having been touted among the favorites to win when he was a junior, then you can probably understand how much his win on November 3 meant to him.

At the NXN Midwest race, it was a windy day on the challenging inclined course at the Lavern Gibson facility.  Keelan was touted as one of the clear race favorites after winning the Illinois state meet the week before.  He sat in the pack for the first half of the race, and then at about the half-way point—an uphill stretch with the wind behind him—he moved to the front of the race and began to push.  It was more or less the same strategy he had followed the week before in the Illinois state meet.

But this time, it seemed, Keelan didn’t have the same big engine.  I likened it to the moment in Star Wars when Han Solo hits the button to send the Millenium Falcon into the hyperdrive jump to light speed—and it doesn’t work.  Keelan did regroup, however, and did a good job of race management.  He settled into the small chase pack that followed a successful separation move by Sam Wharton of Ohio, who countered Keelan’s push and then kept moving after Keelan’s effort stalled.  Wharton’s move created a selection in the bigger field, and in the last half mile of the race seven runners were fighting for the five qualifying spots.  Keelan would have to rely on a finishing kick strategy.  Alex Riba of O’Fallon High School in Illinois, who had challenged Keelan for more than two and a half miles at Detweiller Park the previous week, finally ran Wharton down to win the NXN Midwest with a strong finish over the last 200 meters, but Keelan qualified a few steps behind in fifth to go to Portland.  Quentin Shaffer of Prospect High School, runner up to Keelan at the Illinois state meet, was a third Illinois qualifier with his fourth-place finish.

Two weeks later at the Foot Locker Midwest qualifier, Keelan’s result was not as good.  Parkside was a much more challenging course in terms of its hills.  The first 600 meters or so of the race, in fact, are a long uphill—much more severely than anything at Terra Haute, even.  But after coasting downhill on grass toward the mile mark, the rest of the course is run on a rolling, hard-packed trail with some pretty severe uphills and fast downhills.  Keelan made a visit to the course with teammates—freshman Dan Santino and junior Taylor Dugas—the week before on his one free weekend of the last month, and he ran some tempo miles on the hills.   For a few weeks he also did part of his workout on Bobsled Hill near Soldier Field on the Chicago lakefront—a grassy, steep incline of 100-meters or so.  But in retrospect it probably wasn’t enough preparation for the pounding of the Parkside course.

Keelan sat back in the pack for the first mile.  When Riba, Wharton, and Jake Leingang of North Dakota made a separating push at the front of the race, Keelan did not keep up—but he moved up in the pack and he was running in fifth place at the two-mile point.  But after a hard and fast downhill, the course went vertical again—and Keelan later said he just couldn’t get his legs to go up the big hill.  He jogged into the finish line in 60th place.  Riba cracked a little bit later in the race, falling back to 30th.

Whether it was a physical or mental lack of readiness remains a good question.  Keelan trained for the FLMW with freshman Santino, who ran the frosh soph race at Parkside.  Santino sat back in his race through the mile.  He was in about twelfth place as the pack strung out over the next mile.  And then over the same hills that had been too much for Keelan, Santino surged to finish fourth in 16 minutes and 24 seconds for five kilometers—a great outcome for a freshman on that challenging course.  The same training on Bobsled Hill seemed to have adequately prepared Santino for the hilly Parkside course.

Keelan went to Portland, therefore, with something to prove.  A preview for the NXN race by Steve Underwood for listed Keelan as an honorable mention among the star-studded field but not among the 13 favorites who held top 25 rankings according to Underwood’s list, with the note that he needed to save his post-season with a good race:  “Trying now to salvage a disappointing post-season.”   Another national ranking, the Bill Meylan index, tries to measure the difficulty of different courses and different race performances against each other; this list had Keelan’s combined efforts at the Illinois state meet and the NXN Midwest race ranked at number 13 among the contenders at NXN.

The epic sloppiness of the already notoriously muddy and wet course in Portland, with hay bales to jump and the so-called woop-de-dos speed bump hills late in the race, presented Keelan with another kind of entirely different cross country challenge from anything he had ever experienced before.

Keelan eats lunch after NXN with Illinois Olympian Evan Jager and race winner and Midwest teammate Sam Wharton.  Photo by Tony Jones.

Keelan eats lunch after NXN with Illinois Olympian Evan Jager and race winner and Midwest teammate Sam Wharton. Photo by Tony Jones.

Reports from Portland say that Keelan became friends there with Ohio’s Sam Wharton, who turned out to be the surprise winner of the race.  They were members of the Midwest individuals team, who were chaperoned by Chicago’s Lane Tech assistant coach Tony Jones.  Jones posted on Twitter photos of Keelan and Wharton eating lunch together after the race with Illinois Olympian Evan Jager.  (Jones’s Twitter posts here.)  Wharton was the only one of the five member Midwest group to have run at NXN the year before, and Jones dubbed him the team captain.  Jones posted other photos of Keelan and the team, obviously having a great time together.

Nike broadcast the race over the internet on a special Facebook page.  There were some pre-race segments with videos and photos of the participants from the festivities on Friday.  Keelan’s smiling face showed up a couple of times, including a shot of the Midwest individuals running on the course.

It was hard to pick him out of the crowded field once the race began.  The internet broadcast site did allow you to type in a name, and it produced the chip timing splits at one, two, three, and four kilometers.  So we did get to see Keelan’s race develop.  He was 32nd at the one kilometer, in a fast time of 2:32, a couple seconds or so at that point behind the leaders.  The subsequent kilometer splits slowed dramatically, as the runners hit the muddy and puddle sections of the course.  But Keelan stayed near the lead for kilometers two and three, and moved up slowly, reaching 22nd .   At four kilometers he had fallen farther off the pace of the leaders, as Sam Wharton made his strong move to win the race, but he kept his place.  Over the last kilometer he lost a few spots at the end.  The broadcast did show him crossing the finish line, with a bunch of runners just in front and just behind him.  It had apparently been a frantic closing kilometer.

Keelan’s 26th place finish was a perfectly respectable performance on an extreme day in terms of both its competitive pressure and the course conditions.  The elite high school board has been rocking with complaints about the course conditions, with the focus on the disruption of form in the individual race, where the top four favorites going into the race all finished outside of the top 10—New York’s Nick Ryan finished 17th after a fall at the start, Arizona’s Bernie Montoya 22nd, West Virginia’s Jacob Burcham 84th, and North Dakota’s Jake Leingang 59th.   Comments after the race sounded like horse race handicappers—the course is built on the infield of the Portland Meadows race track—with its discussion of mudders and not-mudders.   Quentin Shaffer of Illinois and another of Keelan’s Midwest teammates was clearly a mudder, finishing 12th overall, a great finish to his breakthrough year as a runner.

But while I might be wrong, you also have to guess that Shaffer would swap his two wins over Keelan in the NXN races for the state meet victory.  After winning the state meet, Keelan was never in a position where he had to salvage his season, whatever Steve U thinks.

We can expect some epic battles in the spring when all these runners take their talents to the track.


1 Comment

Filed under coaching, cross country running, IHSA, running

One response to “It ain’t over until it is over

  1. Patrick

    By far the best sentence in here: “I likened it to the moment in Star Wars when Han Solo hits the button to send the Millenium Falcon into the hyperdrive jump to light speed—and it doesn’t work.”

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