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We did what you are supposed to do:  We tried to win.

Kallin Khan, Dan Santino, Andy Weber, and John Lennon put themselves in the lead pack at the Niles West sectional and tried to win the race.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Kallin Khan, Dan Santino, Andy Weber, and John Lennon put themselves in the lead pack at the Niles West sectional and tried to win the race. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

I am sitting in the Embassy Suites hotel in East Peoria, in the early morning before the IHSA state cross country championships.  Our Saint Ignatius boys’ cross country team races at 2:00 today.

We almost didn’t make it here.

Last Saturday our team qualified—just barely—for the IHSA 3A state meet for the second consecutive year, finishing in a tie for fifth place (140 points) with York High School at the Niles West sectional.

York qualified for the state meet for the 50th consecutive year.  They have won 31 sectional titles–and 27 state titles.

Our Saint Ignatius boys have never won a sectional title.  We thought the 2014 Niles West Sectional was our chance to do so.

The close call in our favor was a welcome reprieve.  Niles West has some ghosts for us.

It could have been three times in a row.  Two years ago, results were posted at the Niles West sectional that placed us in the fifth qualifying position.  We had not run as well as we hoped that day, but it appeared that we had qualified.  Our team celebrated somewhat raucously.  Then rumors circulated that there had been an error in those results, and the rumors were confirmed when a frustrated Niles West meet worker tore the posted results off the wall.  Officials had not reviewed the full video of the finish.  A Lane Tech runner had not been scored because of a chip error.  When he was reinserted into the results, we were relegated to sixth.  Our only consolation was that Jack Keelan and Chris Korabik advanced as individual qualifiers, and Keelan went on to win the state individual championship in Peoria.

This year, interestingly, our team was subdued, even almost seemingly disappointed, when the news came that we had finished in a tie for fifth, even though we had survived and advanced through the sectional.  Perhaps they were just relieved.

The good news came first in a Dyestat Illinois tweet.

The good news came first in a Dyestat Illinois tweet.

We got the news first when someone read a tweet from Dyestat Illinois listing the top six finishers as qualifiers.  There was some nervousness from those who were not sure that both teams would advance from a sectional when there is a tie for fifth; according to the tie-breaker, we were actually sixth.  Some of those nervous people had been there in 2012.

When we saw official results on the Edgetiming.com web site, by mobile phone, there were a few questions about whether those results could still change.  Then they went up on the wall of the Niles West field house.

When it was clear we had advanced, there was no celebration.  We went to the awards ceremony.  Dan Santino got his medal for tenth place.  When they announced the team awards, New Trier got a first-place plaque.  It is almost amusing that at the sectional meet the other qualifying teams—Glenbard West, Loyola, Maine South, and York–simply get parking passes for the state meet.  There were only five of them, as it turned out.  As the sixth place team, technically, we were told we would have to email Ron McGraw at the IHSA office to get ours.

Our only celebration, really, was to take some photographs of the group.  We even had to remind them to smile.

We had not run our best rest.  We had, in fact, wanted to win the race.  We thought we would win the race.

We had raced to win.  Our plan was to be aggressive from the start, putting our top four runners in the lead pack.  Assuming the pace was reasonable, not too fast and not too slow, our guys would try to move and push the pace just after the mile when the runners turned south in the long corridor from one end of the Niles West athletic field to the other.  From that point they would try to make it hard.  We wanted to put our team at the front of the race with a dwindling number of competitors.  If we could execute the race this way, we thought, it would mean low numbers for our top four runners—and a low team score.

Our team had been lurking at the front of some of the top Illinois meets through the fall.  We were fifth at First to the Finish, just behind New Trier, and at Palatine we were sixth, behind New Trier, once again, but just twenty points from winning.  At the Chicago Catholic League meet we had tied Loyola, 29-29, and then lost on the sixth-runner tie breaker.  It was time for us to cross the gap between being a good team and being a team that should try to win a big race.

The early part of the race seemed to go the way we had hoped.  From box position number two on the far outside of the starting line, we moved through open ground at one end of the starting line to the front of the race before the sweeping first turn to the left 300 or so meters from the start.  It was important to get to the front of the race at Niles West because at 500 meters the race moves through a narrowing gate which takes the runners to a small wooded area and a narrow trail.  Going through that gate the first time, our top four were up towards the front of the race and moved through easily.  I saw our second group of three runners get through, also, well toward the front of the race.

At the half-mile mark outside the return gate to the field, where I was watching, the race leader was Irwin Loud of Oak Park-River Forest in about 2:22.  Our top four—Dan Santino, Kallin Khan, John Lennon, and Andy Weber—trailed him in a big pack of 20 to 30 runners.  They were not running together, really, but were kind of strung one behind the other, with Santino leading in around 2:25.  Our second group of runners—Vince Lewis, Patrick Hogan, and Brian Santino—would be important for us, too, of course, because from among them would come our fifth scoring runner.  Santino and Lewis came through the half-mile in around 2:32, with Hogan right behind them.

The lead group ran away from me at my position on the south end of the Niles West field, but I’m told at the mile Loud went through in 4:52 and the lead group was at 4:55.  When they returned to my end of the field our guys had not taken the race lead, but they were in good position.  Our four—Santino, Khan, Lennon, and Weber–were very close to the front in the top 15.   At the half-way mark of the race, as Santino and Khan passed together with Weber and Lennon just behind, I yelled out 7:35.  Then I continued to count back to our number five.  Lewis was now 64th at the half-way mark.  That was a concern.  Our plan for winning, targeting around 90 points, probably required Lewis to finish at around 50th.

The race ran south again.  Loud continued to lead all the way to the two-mile mark, I am told, which they passed in 10:10.  In video before the 2-mile that I viewed after the race, Lennon had fallen back out of the lead pack.  Weber was holding on at the back.  But Khan and Santino were still way up front.

After the 2-mile mark, as the runners prepared to go through the gate for a third time, the attackers had begun to amass behind Loud—including Khan and Santino.  But that lead group clearly did not include Andy Weber, who had faded to 19th, and John Lennon, who had fallen back to around 30th.  Lewis went by in about the same spot, as well, in 64th.

With 1000 meters to go, Khan pushed to the lead, with Santino following.  But going into the back wooded loop through the gate, our team fortunes were declining.

Coming out of that loop Santino pushed into the lead, and Khan got swallowed up by a group of trailers that included members of teams that we were racing for the team win and for the top five team places to go to the state meet.  From New Trier there was Josh Rosenkrantz, from Glenbard West Chris Buechner and Eric Neumann, from York Charlie Kern, and from Maine South Henry Mierzwa.  Following that group of ten or so, loping by five meters behind, was Loyola’s Jack Carroll.  Carroll had run by Santino in the final 200 meters at the Chicago Catholic League meet for the win, after Santino had opened up a ten meter gap.  That one point swing had given Loyola its tie—and then its win on the sixth-runner tiebreaker.

With 400 meters or so to go, the chasers were going by Santino.  Carroll quickly took the race lead at about the same time.  He did it convincingly, with only York’s freshmen Charlie Kern able to challenge him.  The race ended at the end of the Niles West stadium on the track after running the full straightaway.  Carroll was the winner, with Kern second, and then Buechner third.

Santino would fade all the way to tenth.  Khan was chasing him to the finish, but he was passed by two runners in the last meters to finish 13th.  Lennon caught Weber, who had continued to fade, to finish 28th, with Weber right behind in 29th.  As Weber crossed the line, two more runners flashed past him.  If there had been two more meters  in the race, Weber would have been 31st.    Lewis finished in 63rd overall, but three individuals without teams were ahead of him to make him 60th in the team race.

After the race, Weber was disoriented—and probably dehydrated.  Santino was frustrated to have had the lead and then get passed by nine runners.  None of our runners seemed happy.  But six out of the seven—Weber had most notably struggled just to finish—ran faster times in the sectional than they had run in the Pat Savage Invitational four weeks before on the same course.

We wouldn’t know for another hour or so how close we were to not even qualifying for the state meet.  But we had, in fact, simply tried to win the race—like you are supposed to do.

The final standings gave New Trier the victory with 81 points, Glenbard West second with 88, Loyola third with 103, a surprising Maine South with 138, and then York and Ignatius with 140.  Like they say about the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, “survive and move on.”

Today at the IHSA state championship, our team is no longer in the conversation really as one of the top teams competing for a trophy.  There are no polls or rankings this week, but we would undoubtedly have fallen from our perch as number five in the Milesplit rankings and our number seven in the Dyestat Illinois rankings and the ITCCCA coaches’ poll.   We probably would have fallen right out of the top ten.

But today there are no polls—just head to head racing.  It is a different kind of race, and probably not a race that we can win.  Our strategy will be a little bit different—but also the same.

Our top four runners need to finish the race with as low a number as possible—with perhaps all four in the top 30.  We think Weber, Khan, and Santino can compete for all-state honors, and Lennon could be close behind.  Our number five runner—either Lewis, Hogan (just a freshman), or Brian Santino—must finish no lower than 70th.

In 1982 York won the state championship with 79 points.  But with 167 points, the highest points total ever in the state meet for second place, Saint Ignatius was second, the only trophy in our team’s history.

Carl Sandburg High School looks like the front runner today, with the defending champion Hinsdale Central chasing them.  Perennial state meet trophy hunter Neuqua Valley is chasing them, along with last year’s fourth place team Lyons Township and last year’s second place team Downers Grove North.  Then there are the four top finishers from our sectional—along with York, whom many had written off earlier in the season as unlikely even to qualify for the state meet.  There are strong teams from the other sectionals, as well.

Mike Newman from Dyestat Illinois yesterday told me that he expected there could be a high points total in the race—especially for the second and third place trophy positions.  The higher the totals for all the teams, the better our chances might be, like in 1982.

We ran the Niles West sectional expecting it to be our breakthrough race for the year—and for our program.  It didn’t happen.

We’ll run the state meet hoping for the same thing to happen.  We still think the big race is in us.  We just have to run it.

It was a nail-biter, but the Wolfpack qualified to run the IHSA state meet with a fifth plae tie finish.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

It was a nail-biter, but the Wolfpack qualified to run the IHSA state meet with a fifth- place-tie finish. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

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Not quite a time trial—and not quite a city championship

The Wolfpack Howl kicks off the cross country season for four Chicago city teams.

Defending Chicago Catholic League champion Dan Santino was the obvious first choice when the captains drafted their teams for the 2014 Wolfpack Howl.  But who would go number two?

Defending Chicago Catholic League champion Dan Santino was the obvious first choice when the captains drafted their teams for the 2014 Wolfpack Howl. But who would go number two?  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Last year, in preparation for our start-of-the-season practice meet, we did not let the boys draft their own teams for our annual Wolfpack Howl.  It was simply an oversight—and we ran short of time with our preparations.

This year senior Kallin Khan sent us an email fully two weeks before the event as a reminder.  The opportunity to pick their own teams, Khan was suggesting politely as a senior leader, is an important part of the event for the athletes.  Lesson learned.

We begin our season with a practice meet we call the Wolfpack Howl.  We break our boys up into color teams, White, Black, Gold, and Maroon, our Saint Ignatius College Prep school colors.  Initially we ran this meet on our own.  But when the Illinois High School Association added a week to the beginning of the interscholastic competition season a number of years ago, we invited a few other schools to join us.  This year Jones College Prep, University High, and St. Patrick’s came along.   We ask them to do the same—break their teams up into intersquad teams– but only Jones has the numbers to do so.

We gather in Chicago’s South Side Washington Park, which would have been the location for the Olympic Stadium in the city’s ill-fated bid to be the 2016 host.   It’s probably not a cross country race proper because while we run on the grass for some of the race, most of the race follows the 1.4 mile crushed limestone jogging path around the northern side of the park.  That way, we figure, no one can get lost.  As a starter race—and to help make sure no one takes it too seriously—we only run two miles.

But we do have a cross country-style start across an open field.  We do have a finish chute to teach the newcomers to keep moving after they finish—and to collect finish cards at the end of the chute.

We do have results, which we compile old-style with envelopes.  We give them to the team captains of the color teams from each school, and we stick a golf pencil in the envelope and ask them to record the names and finish places for their teams on the envelopes.   It’s a way to be sure all the athletes understand how to score a cross country race—and that all the members of the team are important.

The color team captains collect finish cards and write the names on the envelopes, to compile the results old school.

The color team captains collect finish cards and write the names on the envelopes to compile the results old school.

As a concession to modernity, the watch is a Nielsen-Kellerman Interval 2000xc.  We record all the times on one watch, which we give to a parent to click at the finish line.  Then we import the times from the watch directly into the computer.

We made an attempt this year to collect team rosters at Athletic.net so that we could use our Hytek.  It didn’t really work.  So when it came time for results, like other years we just copied the names off the envelopes and typed them into Excel.

We pointedly do not share our official unofficial results with Dyestat or Milesplit.

We call it a two-mile race, and we compare results for our boys year-to-year.  But we’re never quite sure of the course, as simple as we try to be by using the jogging path.  Some years we have arrived in the park to discover the Universal Soul Circus has set up in the park, blocking part of the jogging trail.  This year I checked the schedule for the Soul Circus, and they aren’t coming until October.  But on Friday night when I visited the park it was the African Festival of the Arts blocking the path with an enclosed chain link fence.  So we improvised the course, cutting through the grassy outfield of some softball diamonds.  A quick bike tour with the Garmin GPS showed the course to be a little bit short, so we extended  the start to the edge of the field and then we moved the finish line back.

Even the start , approximately 400 meters across the grassy park, can be tricky.  We negotiate with the University of Chicago Ultimate Frisbee team and ask them to stop their practice for 30 seconds each time for our two races as we run through the cones that mark their field.  We also had to run around two cricket circles this year.

The grass is long and unmowed.  The field, if it has been raining, can be a little bit sloppy in spots.

We moved the race schedule up 15 minutes or so at the last minute when Jones College Prep told us that they had some kids who had to get to a school concert performance later in the morning .  We aimed for 9:30, and we were more or less on time.

But at 9:15, as our assistant coach Nate McPherson told the story, he looked up where the finish chute was supposed to be—and there was no finish chute.

It was ready in plenty of time by 9:25.  We sprayed a 15 foot long white line at the front of the chute, and stuck some soccer corner flags into the ground.  We ran 30 feet of yellow caution tape down each row of poles to make the chute.

Gun violence is a terrible problem in Chicago, especially on the South Side.  As a gesture of understanding, we started the race with a whistle.

We paint a line for the start—and we even have some boxes, which the runners basically ignore.  We run girls from University High and Jones as teams with the frosh-soph boy runners.    There were a lot of runners in this group who had never run a race.  I gave clear instructions:  “I will blow the whistle three times to get you ready.  Then I will blow it once a long time to start.”

I paused and moved into position.  One whistle—half the 70 runners started off the line.  I blew the whistle a bunch of times and told everyone to stop.

“Let’s try that again.  I will blow the whistle three times to get you ready.  Then I will blow it one a long time to start.”

The second time it worked.  Only one or two stepped forward on the first whistle, and we let them step back quickly before we started the race.

The only other mishap in the frosh soph race occurred when the race leader, our sophomore Lyndon Vickrey, ran off what we thought was a very simple course.  He was following a bike ridden by assistant coach Steven Bugarin, but Bugarin had stopped to close the gate of a giant dumpster which had opened and was a little bit of a hazard on the course.  Vickrey ran right by him toward the chain link fence blocking the path instead of turning across the ball fields.  Bugarin quickly called him back and he had such a big lead no one else really followed him or lost much time.  And Vickrey won going away, anyway.  We probably should have put him in the varsity race.

When the varsity boys started, there was no problem at the start or on the course.  As low key as we try to make it, they still take it pretty seriously.

Jones and Ignatius have become pretty serious rivals in recent years, competing with only Lane Tech, perhaps, for the title of the best team in the city of Chicago.

Our Saint Ignatius students are drawn from all over the Chicago metropolitan area, including near and distant suburbs, but about half come from the city itself.  Both teams train on the Chicago lake front, and our staging areas are a block apart on either side of the Grant Monument on the top of the hill at the south end of Grant Park along Michigan Ave.  We both run across the same bridge and through the same tunnels to get to the Lakefront running and biking path.  Last week they practiced on Bobsled Hill near Soldier Field on Tuesday.  We were there on Wednesday.

When our groups pass each other on the path coming and going, we nod politely.

As it happens, this year the teams will actually race six times—maybe seven if both teams qualify for the state meet.  Jones moved into a new building last year and enrollment will double in the next few years from 900 to 1800.  We sit at about 1400.  Jones was state champion in the 2A state division in 2012, but the increase in enrollment has moved them into the large school 3A division with us now.  We will fight each other in the same sectional for one of five team state qualifying spots in early November.

Apparently unable to get enough of a good thing, Jones coach Andrew Adelmann this summer proposed that we race each other in a late season old-fashioned dual meet.  Both of us withdrew from our invitationals the weekend of October 11 to make it happen.  We don’t have a site yet, but we have a date:  Thursday, October 9.

So the race at the Wolfpack Howl was like a good preview for a season of drama ahead.

Our official but unofficial results score the meet as a multi-team meet between the color teams.  On those results, two Jones teams—the Jones White and Jones Blue teams—battled for the win, with the White team scoring 81 to the Blue’s 85.  Our Ignatius Black team was third with 90 points—and all they really cared about was winning the Ignatius color team battle.  The Black team earned a visit to our team treasure chest with their win.

It wasn’t hard to notice with just a glance, however, the outcome of this first Jones versus Ignatius meeting, even if it was just a skirmish.  Junior Dan Santino, the 2013 Chicago Catholic League champion, won the race, with two more Ignatius seniors—Andy Weber and Kallin Khan—close behind.  Mark Protsiv of Jones was fourth, with Jacob Meyer of University High fifth.  But then Ignatius senior John Lennon was sixth, junior Vince Lewis was 10th, and freshman Patrick Hogan came close behind in 13th , with another freshman Brett Haffner 15th–for an even more unofficial score of 22 for the Wolfpack.  Jones scored 38.

But no one was keeping score, of course.

The Ignatius color teams did, in fact, care mainly about their own competition and their own teams.  Each color team came up with their own uniforms.  They warmed up together,  and they made their own team strategies.

The teams had been created in a draft.  On Tuesday before the Saturday race, after a workout run on the lakefront, the four junior captains, who had been chosen by their coach, gathered on the picnic tables near the Saint Ignatius track.  We had given them a team roster of juniors and seniors, plus the names of a few sophomores and freshmen.  The list, in fact, ranked the runners in roughly rank order in terms of expected performance.

Chris Jeske went first, and he made the obvious choice—Dan Santino.  Then it was Andrius Blekys’s turn.

“I pick Vince,” he said.  And everyone laughed.  Vince Lewis was a new runner on the cross country team, coming over from soccer.  He ran track as a freshmen and sophomore and has lots of potential.  But he was not the runner anyone expected to go number two in the draft.

Jack Morgan quickly picked Kallin Khan.  Then Colin Hogan took Andy Weber.  In the snake draft order the boys had established, Hogan chose again and grabbed John Lennon as the fourth pick.  Morgan took senior Brian Santino at five.

Then it was Blekys’s turn again: He took Dante Domenella—another surprising choice.  On his next turn, he chose AnthonyImburgia, once again, probably not the runner you would choose if you were picking according to the rank order.

What had become clear to everyone was that Blekys wasn’t picking runners by their abilities.  He was choosing friends that he wanted on his team.

Blekys, as it turned out, was not able to run in the race when Saturday came around.  He was shut down from running by our trainers, because of severe shin splints with point tenderness, sometimes a precursor for stress fracture.  The White team finished fourth among the four Wolfpack teams.  Even with Blekys in the lineup, they probably would have been fourth.

Interestingly, Vince Lewis had one of the best runs on the team, finishing as number five for Ignatius.  The confidence of his friend and captain Andrius Blekys maybe helped to spur him on.  He ran like a number one pick.

And perhaps the White team were the real winners, just because they seemed to have the most fun.

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He Prefontaine-ed it, as we still like to say

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Chris Korabik moves to the lead of the 1600-meter run at the 3A IHSA state meet with just over 400 meters to go. Korabik is about the take the race lead from Patrick Perrier and Zack Smith.  Jake Hoffert, Jessie Reiser, and Ryan Clevenger are in the mix.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

I started my coaching life in what must have been a spring season in the early 1990s when I was an assistant for my daughter’s one season on a tee ball team.  Not long afterwards I began a longer career as an American Youth Soccer Organization coach, rising up the ranks to become a clinic instructor and head of all the coaches for our Region 751 in Hyde Park.

As a tee ball and  soccer coach, I watched one very successful coach for many years.  From his sideline position—and with a loud voice—he carefully directed the actions of his tee ball and soccer players, play by play.  His kids listened carefully and performed well.  They did what he told them to do.

But it never seemed like the right way to teach kids how to play on their own.  It always seemed to me that you have to let kids make some mistakes so that they learn the right way to do things.

We have some rules that we teach our distance runners.  Run in lane one.  Don’t waste energy in a race; sit still if you can.  When you decide to pass someone, do it convincingly—and keep going.  We prefer even pacing—and negative splitting.  It takes a lot of energy to lead a race for a long time; it is better to have the lead at the end.  Make sure you run all the way through the finish line.

We have race plans that we talk about with our boys.  We ask them to participate in making those plans.

But we know that the boys are not going to learn our rules without making mistakes and breaking them.  And we know that on the track, the boys have to learn how to make their own decisions.  They have to be their own race strategists, too.

Our kids are smart.  They learn their lessons—and they run their own races.

On Saturday his coaches sent Wolfpack runner Chris Korabik onto the race track at Eastern Illinois University for the 3A IHSA state championship 1600-meters with three different race plans.  But it was up to Korabik to make his own decisions and execute the race as he thought best.

Korabik was one of just four runners in the race who had not run an earlier race that day—along with York’s Alex Bashqawi, Yorkville’s Jake Hoffert, and Downers Grove North’s Ryan Clevenger.  So race plan number one was to make sure the race was fast enough from the start.  A tactical race would allow the runners doubling back from the 4×800, 3200, or 800 a chance to conserve energy for a big finish—particularly dangerous, it would seem, in the case of Danville’s Johnny Leverenz, who had run 1 minute and 52.0 seconds to win the 800.    Korabik would push on the first turn to put himself in position near the front of the race, and he was prepared to take the lead on the first lap if necessary to make the pace honest.  He would give it up once the race was rolling.

As it turned out, Hoffert seemed to have an even more aggressive race plan—and he took the lead and pushed the pace right away, opening a significant ten-meter gap on the field from the start.  Korabik slid easily into second place at the front of the chasers.  Hoffert reached 200 meters in 28 seconds, with Korabik at 30.4.  In fact, just after the 200, first O’Fallon’s Patrick Perrier and then more aggressively Downers Grove North’s Zack Smith stepped into the space between Korabik and Hoffert—and closed the gap down quickly.  The race, it seemed clear already, would not be slow and tactical.

Smith, in fact, kept running right past Hoffert and into the lead as the runners came past the 400-meter mark.  Korabik, running in lane one, had already slid back to sixth, with 3200-meter winner Jessie Reiser from McHenry  pushing past him in chase of Smith and then Clevenger, too,  passing him outside his shoulder on the straightaway.  Korabik’s split was 62.4.

Korabik never left his position in lane one, and he never accelerated.  He patiently kept his spot in the line.  Around the curve, Reiser pushed back into lane one as Korabik gave way, but Clevenger stayed outside in lane 2.  On the straightaway and then around the turn the group was still in a line behind Smith—Perrier, Hoffert, Reiser, Korabik, with Clevenger still on Korabik’s shoulder outside.  Korabik was 1:33.6 at 600 meters.

Race plan number two was my plan.  It was not going to be a slow tactical race.  But Korabik, we knew, was not the fastest sprint finisher in the field.  In fact, he had been beaten in a sprint finish—off a slow tactical pace—just two weeks before in the Chicago Catholic League championship 1600-meter run by Fenwick’s Sal Flight, who had a personal best almost ten seconds slower.  Korabik knew he would have to run 60-seconds on the final lap of the state race.   But off an honest but not fast pace, he would also have to take the finishing kick out of some of the others—or have a lead he could hold onto.  The plan was the one Hicham El Guerrouj used to beat Bernard Lagat in the 2004 Athens Olympics 1500.  From about 800 meters out, Korabik would take the lead—and then carefully wind up the race.  He would apply more and more pressure at the front of the race, never pushing too far into the red, but never letting anyone pass him, either.  It would be Korabik’s decision, though, to decide if it was developing into a kicker’s race in which he would have to wind up the pace.

Coming into the home straightaway, Korabik positioned himself for a move off the curve.  Then down the straightaway he moved from lane one into lane two and was in position to move all the way around the group now bunching behind Smith.  He went smoothly by Reiser, then Clevenger.  He pulled up along side Hoffert.  Smith and Perrier were side by side in the lead just another step away.

Here was a moment of decision.  Before the race, in the EIU indoor track, we had laid out all Korabik’s options.  He is a 4.0 student at Ignatius.  He is a senior who has run many races.  He could understand complicated options.  With 800 to go, he would have to assess the race.  Was it fast enough?  Who was still in it?  Could he get to the lead efficiently and easily enough without anyone fighting him?  What did he have in his tank?

He had moved to put himself in position to try the El Guerrouj.  But then he made his choice.  He would wait.  His split at 800-meters was 2:06.3.  The race was moving fast enough; the kickers would be tired at the end, too.  He was still close to the front.

Korabik pushed his way back into lane one around the curve, in front of Clevenger and behind Hoffert, in fourth.  Reiser responded by moving around Korabik again on the outside.  Clevenger pulled up on his shoulder again.    At 1000-meters he was in sixth again at 2:38.4.  For a third lap it was still an honest and even fast pace.  He had made a good decision.

Around the curve, Smith was still in the lead, with Perrier on his shoulder.  Then Hoffert held on behind Smith, with Reiser behind him on the outside.  Then Korabik, with Clevenger beside him.

Boxed in with just over 500 meters to go, Korabik patiently waited for his opening on the straightaway--and then he moved to the lead.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Boxed in with just over 500 meters to go, Korabik patiently waited for his opening on the straightaway–and then he moved to the lead. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Plan number three came from our assistant coach Steven Bugarin, with an assist from assistant coach Nate McPherson.  They had worried the El Guerrouj plan would force Korabik to move too early and drain him for the last lap.  He should wait until 500 to go, they thought—and then move to the lead.

As the runners neared the 500-meter mark, we watched carefully, waiting to see what Korabik would do.  There might be a problem.  We weren’t sitting together, but talking after the race, we had all noticed the same thing:  Korabik looked like he was boxed in.

But the other runners no doubt had last lap plans, as well.  Off the main grandstand curve the front group was moving quickly.  Down the straightaway Reiser moved closer to Perrier on the outside.  It was not quite three abreast—Smith, Perrier, Reiser, with Hoffert crowding behind Smith looking for a place to go.

Korabik inched forward as Reiser did so—and Clevenger, perhaps thinking Reiser would move out to Perrier’s shoulder, moved out a bit wider out to lane three.

And then Korabik struck.  He went past Clevenger on the inside, with perhaps a brush of arms between the two.  He moved past Reiser to his inside.  And then he accelerated past Perrier and Smith.

Perrier made his own move a split second later to step ahead of Smith.  The others followed—Hoffert still chasing, then Reiser, then Clevenger, with Conant’s Zach Dale following and Smith fading quickly.

But Korabik had the jump, and he got to the lead and back into lane one all on the straightaway.  He went by 1200 in first at 3:10.4.  Perrier and the others were sorting things out behind him.  Korabik accelerated around the curve.   Perrier still followed closely, but a gap opened behind Perrier back to Hoffert.  Three meters, four meters, five meters—the gap widened as Korabik accelerated, Perrier chasing close and the others falling back.

Later another coach told us that Korabik’s courageous move had brought tears to his eyes.  It was the kind of move coaches want their boys to make–and train them to make.  As we sometimes still say, he was Prefontaine-ing  the race.  He didn’t hold back and try to run for second or third.  He made a move to win the race.  If it cost him in the end, so be it.  He was trying to win the race with a long 400-meter dash to the finish.

Korabik covered the 200 meters in right about 30 seconds.  He had dropped the pack, but he couldn’t drop Perrier.  At the 200 mark, which comes early on the EIU track with another 15 meters to the curve, Perrier accelerated into the lead.

Korabik chases Perrier and leads Dale, Hoffert, and Clevenger in a race to the finish.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Korabik chases Perrier and leads Dale, Hoffert, and Clevenger in a race to the finish. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

But Korabik did not give up.  He doggedly took up the chase.    Around the curve, Perrier’s lead grew to a second step, then a third.  Korabik was losing ground, but he was still moving quickly.  The wheels were still moving.

Behind Korabik, the others had begun to chase.  Conant’s Zach Dale was catching up.  With 90 meters to go, Perrier was well ahead, but Korabik seemed to find another burst of energy.  Perrier was no longer gaining, and Korabik was holding Dale off down the straightaway.  From behind Dale, then, came Clevenger moving faster than all the others.

Perrier won with his arms upraised.  Then the next three reached the finish line almost simultaneously, three across the track.  Korabik leaned in lane one.  Dale was beside him, more upright.  Clevenger actually seemed ready to go by them both, but he eased up at the finish line, standing straight upright.

Clevenger’s leg may have crossed in front of Korabik’s, but with his lean Korabik’s shoulder had beaten Clevenger’s chest to the line.

Officially Perrier was timed in 4:10.34.  Korabik’s time was 4:11.194—more than a three-second personal best–with Clevenger third in 4:11.199.  Dale fourth in 4:11.28, and then Hoffert made it four runners in the 4:11s, 4:11.71.

Korabik’s last lap had been a tick over 60 seconds.  If he had run 59 seconds, he might have been closer to winning the race.  But it had been a really smart final lap—and he won second place by running the fastest last 500 meters of the race.

He had run virtually the entire race in lane one.  He had stayed calm and still in the pack, moving only to take position when he needed to do so.  When he made his move, he did it with conviction and commitment.

He also won second place with his lean.

The night before Korabik and his teammates Chris Hawkins and Conor Dunham visited the O’Brien track dressed in caps and gowns, while junior teammate Andy Weber followed them with an Ipad and a speaker playing the “Pomp and Circumstance” graduation march.  Back in Chicago, their classmates were graduating in the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum.

“They’re up to the P-s,” Dunham informed me, looking at his mobile phone.  Apparently he was getting alert texts from the seniors in Chicago.

The boys took some photos on the awards stand.  They took photos in front of the IHSA banner.  And then they took some photos running in their caps and gowns—finish line photos.

Korabik practices his lean.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Korabik practices his lean. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

The evening light was challenging for photographs, and it took several tries for assistant coach and team photographer Bugarin to get a focused version of the group.  Once, twice, three times—the boys ran past the finish line.  You can see one photo on the previous blog post; here’s another.

Korabik leaned every time.

It turned out to be good practice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Long time, no blog post:  A hurdlers tale for spring

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North Lawndale’s Imani Payton and the Wolfpack’s Conor Dunham race in the 300 intermediate hurdle preliminaries at the 2014 state track meet. Payton won the heat with the day’s fastest time of 37.85 seconds; Dunham had the second fastest time of 38.14. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

It has been a busy spring.  We’re at the IHSA state track meet already.  I haven’t written a blog post all spring.  Before I write about the state meet, here’s a post I began but didn’t finish.  It should catch us up a little bit.

In early April at Lane Tech’s stadium track, our Wolfpack boys track  team began its outdoor season with an annual event that has taken on a great personality—our home and home dual meet series between the Saint Ignatius and Lane Tech boys and girls teams.

Tuesday, April 15 was our fourth installment, the second Ignatius visit to Lane Tech.  It was, as I remember it, one of the first nice weather days of the spring after a cold and snowy winter.  The artificial turf was green, the track was black, and the old Lane stadium was historic.

On the sunny infield I talked with Tony Jones, who in addition to managing his Illinois Milesplit web site, of course, coaches the Lane Tech distance boys.  “This has really become a pretty nice event,” he agreed.  “You should blog about this.”

Two teams, two schools, boys and girls.  The Lane Tech boys and girls are the perennial champion of the Chicago Public League, with some time out for Whitney Young’s teams; our girls have a catalog of Girls Catholic Athletic Conference titles.  Our Ignatius boys are not quite as prolific, but we won the Chicago Catholic League last year.  It is the best of the city public schools against the best of the city Catholic schools.

It is really just an early-season meet—our first on the outdoor track, even a rust-buster, I suppose, after a few weeks off from competition following the indoor season.   Ignatius even took a one-week school vacation—no practice even.  None of the teams stack the lineups trying to win, and the results this year repeated those of past years:  the Ignatius girls won– and the Lane Tech boys.  Both wins were convincing, but not dominant.  And there were several interesting moments of competition.

Lane Tech senior Maciej Markiewicz and Conor Dunham race the 300 hurdles at the Lane Tech-Ignatius Dual meet in April.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Lane Tech senior Maciej Markiewicz and Conor Dunham race the 300 hurdles at the Lane Tech-Ignatius Dual meet in April. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

An email earlier in the week from Lane Tech head coach Kris Roof had asked me politely to confirm whether our senior hurdler Conor Dunham, top returning performer from the 2013 3A state meet where he was third last year in 38.63, would be running in the dual meet.  When the gun went off, the motivation for the email was clear.  Lane Tech’s senior Maciej Markiewicz ran a strong race, stride for stride—even a step ahead—until the last two hurdles.  Dunham, a strong finisher, closed with a burst for the win.  But the two runners’ times—40.19  and 40.76—were quite good for the first time out.

It was our first outdoor meet and the events and logistics outdoors are a little bit different from indoors. The boys range a little bit far and wide on the outdoor track.   Our coaches spent quite a bit of time finding and then hustling our younger runners to their events.  There were a few close calls getting boys on the track in time.  The relays were a little bit ragged.    It was clear during the meet which boys had skipped some training during spring break and which had trained seriously.

The season’s first outdoor meet inaugurates a clean slate, putting the winter indoor season behind us.  The weather cooperated for this meet, at least, although we had some cold weather to follow.  All the athletes begin the new season as a season of hope and excitement for big things to come.

*****

Two-and-a-half months later, I talked once again with Lane Tech coaches Kris Roof and Tony Jones on another infield at the conclusion of another meet:  the 3A IHSA Saint Ignatius Sectional held at Concordia University’s track in River Forest.

In both conversations we remembered back to the meet in early April.    Both the Ignatius team and the Lane Tech team had competed well at the sectional, finishing just a few points apart behind Oak Park-River Forest’s winning team effort.

There were, of course, a few disappointments, and I felt the Ignatius disappointments quite painfully.

But there was also good news, and once again it included the same two hurdlers who had raced so well in early April.

Maciej Markiewicz had achieved the goal he had set out to achieve as a freshman, qualifying for the IHSA state championship meet by finishing third in 39.63 but meeting the state-qualifying time of 39.84 seconds:  “He’s been working for this for four years,” Roof told me.

Conor Dunham, meanwhile, had returned from a hip flexor injury that had kept him out of the Chicago Catholic League conference championship meet the week before.  It had been a painful day of watching for Dunham, as his team fell just short of winning a second consecutive team title, losing to Loyola 124-117.  A win by Dunham in either hurdle race would have swung the win to Ignatius.  But the school trainers had evaluated him and determined he was not physically ready to compete.

But three days later, he was given the thumbs up to practice.  And at the sectional meet on Concordia University’s stadium track, Dunham exploded.  After running conservatively in the 110 high hurdle preliminary heat, Dunham ran 14.15 seconds in the final, beating rival Imani Payton of North Lawndale College Prep by almost half a second—and improving his own personal best by that margin.  It was also at that moment the second fastest time in the state of Illinois this year.  An added piece of good news:  Our second Ignatius high hurdler, senior Chris Hawkins, also ran a personal best of 14.74 to meet the IHSA standard.  He, too, qualified to run in Charleston.

Conor  Dunham wins 300 hurdles at the Saint Ignatius 3A IHSA sectional championship at Concordia University.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Conor Dunham wins 300 hurdles at the Saint Ignatius 3A IHSA sectional championship at Concordia University, his fourth sectional championship in that event. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Then, later in the meet, Dunham raced Payton again.  Payton held the year’s fastest time in the state  for 300-meter hurdles, 37.42 seconds.   Dunham had been sectional champion in this same meet for the three previous years, starting as a freshman.  He was the top returning hurdler in class 3A this year after his third place medal in 2013.

In the 2014 sectional, Dunham ran the year’s second fastest time in the state of 37.85 seconds, beating Payton (38.99) easily.  Later we learned that Payton was suffering from an injury.   But the two would meet again on the track at the state championship.

 

******

Indeed, they raced in the same heat at the state championship preliminaries today.

In that race Payton held on to beat Dunham, 37.87-38.14.  The two Chicago rivals had the two fastest times of the preliminaries, and they will race side by side in lanes 3 (Dunham) and 4 (Payton) tomorrow in the final.

Dunham and Payton have been racing for years.  North Lawndale ran at the 2A level last year, so Dunham and Payton did not race at sectionals or state.  But they have competed in summer track for years, always, I think, on separate clubs.  They have followed that path together all the way to Junior Olympics nationals.  They have competed, I remember, on our Ignatius track in small weekday meets.  I don’t recall too many occasions where they have raced in invitationals; our teams run different schedules.

Now they race for the first place medal at the state championship as seniors–although there are a couple others, like Edwardsville’s Craig James, who might battle them, as well.

As Dunham told Chicago Suntimes reporter Mike Clark after the sectional race:  “I’m really thankful for him,” Dunham said, “because he really pushes me to my potential. He’s a great competitor.”

*******

End of the story:  This blog post originally ended above.  If you were in Charleston, you know the outcome of the 300-meter hurdles race between Dunham and Payton.  And it was the kind of race, of course, that you are likely to remember when you watch the 300s again in the years to come.

I made a decision to watch the race from the starting straightaway, which is where I had watched Dunham run to his third-place medal last year.  Like last year, as well, Dunham drew lane three.  Payton, it turns out, was in five, not four, as I had originally supposed.

I was watching him on the first straightaway—and as I discussed with his father later, I watched him misstep on the first hurdle.  I cringed.  Later, Dunham himself wasn’t sure what had happened.

But it was also my impression that once awkwardly but safely over that hurdle, Dunham set to work with a serious resolve.  He seemed to recognize instantly that he had lost a step and needed to recover, and he would do so.  Over the second hurdle, he swung a little bit wide toward the fourth lane, which, because of the stagger, of course, was clear.  He was moving really, really fast–too fast to stay in the center of his lane, even.

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Conor Dunham took the lead off the curve–and then he accelerated to the finish. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Around the curve, he clearly made up a lot of ground.  He was stepping smoothly over the hurdles and the stagger spacing disappeared quickly.  Over the last hurdle on the curve, he had taken the lead.

And on the straightaway, as the stadium crowd gasped, he accelerated.  Imani Payton, also moving fast, drifted back.  He would finish in a personal best time of 37.33 seconds, a fast second-place finisher.

Dunham rocketed to the finish in 36.90 seconds.  He was moving so quickly that people looked at the clock expectantly.  The state record was 36.77 by Jon Schweighardt of Wheaton Warrenville South in 1999.  It was clear that Dunham had finished under 37 seconds.

The meet announcer was watching, too, and he called it out when posted:  36.90, just .13 seconds off the record.  On the all-time Illinois list, it puts Dunham fourth overall.  The missed first hurdle had cost him the record, perhaps, but maybe it had boosted him to victory, as well.

IMG_2383Later Dunham and I debriefed and talked about the race—and about the difficulties of planning and executing a race plan.  He had missed the first hurdle, presumably, because he had reached the hurdle so quickly in the adrenaline rush and excitement of the big state meet.  It is not really something you can practice.  You can never get that same level of energy in practice.  As we noted often, every step he could eliminate from the race between hurdles would mean a faster race.  He should make that rush work for him.  To plan for it, we had talked about cheating the hurdles a little bit closer in practice to develop a step pattern that Dunham could duplicate in the race.  But we had never really tried it.

Instead, Dunham had worked hard at getting comfortable hurdling with both legs, even though he preferred to lead with his right leg.  We did a lot of fast running, at least once a week, over the 300 hurdles in practice—250s, 150s, 100s.  And it is important to note that he had been racing the 300s for four years—a lot of races, finally.   He had learned, it seems, to know by feeling and anticipation when he would have to switch legs hurdling.

“I just told myself to be confident hurdling with either leg,” Dunham said.  “I tried not to think and just let my body do what it needed to do.”

Photo by Steven Bugarin

Photo by Steven Bugarin

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A meet to remember—and forget

Conor Dunham was third and Chris Hawkins second behind Eric Walker of St. Rita in the 55-meter high hurdles, as the Wolfpack moved out to an early lead at the Chicago Catholic League Indoor Championships.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Conor Dunham was third and Chris Hawkins second behind Eric Walker of St. Rita in the 55-meter high hurdles, as the Wolfpack moved out to an early lead at the Chicago Catholic League Indoor Championships. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Less than an hour after leaving the University of Chicago’s Henry Crown Field House following the Chicago Catholic League Indoor Track and Field Championship meet, my family was on its way over the Skyway and the interstate to a Florida spring break road trip. The prospect of 18 hours of driving with two 7-year-olds supplied plenty of necessary distraction.

It was probably also just a good thing to leave the meet in the rear view mirror.

Our Saint Ignatius Wolfpack boys track team  competed well at the 2014 CCL Indoor meet, but the result was disappointing as our team came up just short in defending its 2013 title, finishing second to Loyola Academy, 121 points to 112.

For the second time this 2013-14 school year, our Saint Ignatius boys had the early lead in a  contest only to have Loyola’s team close with a rush for the win.  Back in October our cross country boys had a lead going into the last mile before losing 31-35 (low score wins).  At the CCL indoor meet on Saturday, March 22, as I tweeted after six events, it was Ignatius 57 and Loyola 49.  But Loyola took a lead 73-70 after the ninth event, and then pulled out to a bigger 19-point lead before the 1600-meter run.

Chris Korabik finished second in the 800-meter run, and then won the 1600-meters for the Wolfpack.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Chris Korabik finished second in the 800-meter run, and then won the 1600-meters for the Wolfpack. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Seniors Chris Korabik and Taylor Dugas then stepped onto the track and executed a perfect race plan, with Korabik setting a strong pace up front and Dugas biding his team behind the chasers, which included Loyola’s Matt Randolph and Christian Swenson, along with Fenwick’s Sal Flight.  All the runners had competed in earlier events.  Korabik (2:01.49) and Dugas (2:03.81) had finished second and third in the 800, as Flight (2:01.46) nipped Korabik at the tape for first.  But in the 1600 Korabik was in the lead almost wire to wire, winning in 4:27.83—and Dugas made a strong move in the second half-mile to take second in 4:30.61, a personal best on a big meet stage.  But Loyola still scored important points as Randolph and Swenson held on behind them for fourth and fifth place.  That left the Wolfpack ten points behind.

Meanwhile results came in from the triple jump, as well, in the Wolfpack’s favor.  Early in the event senior Sheldon Pierce matched his personal best from last year’s outdoor season with a jump of 44 feet and 7 inches, which would hold up for the win.  But our second 44-foot jumper, senior Chris Hawkins, who had earlier finished second in the 55-meter hurdles, was struggling with a hip flexor injury that had begun bothering him in the long jump.  Hawkins managed one legal jump at 40-01.00 for fifth place.  Loyola’s Josh Word finished two inches and one place in front of him.

Going into the 200 meters, with two events left, the Wolfpack was two points behind.  But it was advantage Loyola.

In the 200, senior Conor Dunham, who had climbed out of a sick bed this week to finish third (6.87) in the 55-meter hurdles earlier in the meet, gutted out a fast closing race to finish in a virtual tie with Loyola’s John Miller in 23.54.  But the Fully Automated Timing system photo gave the literal photo finish to Word in fourth.  Dunham got fifth place points—and Loyola’s Javier Shelly finished seventh.

With only the 4×400 relay left, Loyola had a five point lead.  The Wolfpack would have to win the 4×400—and Loyola would have to finish fifth.  Dan Santino, who earlier had finished second in the 3200-meter (9:40.07) behind Swenson (9:33.04), went to the start line for Ignatius, with senior Nick Beltran, Dugas, and Korabik to follow.  It was a team that we figured, on their best day, each athlete could run 54-second 400s and finish as fast as 3:36—and it turned out not to be their best day as they ran 3:41.44 for third place.  Loyola countered with a team that included Josh Word, second- place finisher in the individual 400.  The race was over after the first leg, as Loyola moved out to a big lead right away, going on to win in 3:34..67.

In the end, Loyola had simply had more scoring athletes than our Ignatius team, which had depended upon scoring big points from fewer athletes—Pierce, Hawkins, Dunham, Dugas, Korabik, all seniors, most notably.  They had indeed scored big points—but not quite big enough.   The distance runners scored 43 points against a maximum possible 54 points—a strong effort.  There had been a few other good efforts.  Senior Mickey Smith cleared a personal best of 12 feet and 6 inches in the pole vault for second place, with junior Josiah Simmons, who had not had a chance to vault in a pit all season, in seventh place after clearing 9-06.  Junior Andy Weber was fourth in the 3200-meter in a strong time of 9:47.72.  The 4×800 relay team of juniors Kallin Khan, Sean Freeman, John Lennon, and Brian Santino finished second in 8:37.95.

But Loyola’s larger team effort had made the difference, with wins in all three relays—4×800, 4×200, and 4×400.  Loyola’s individual sprinters Word, Miller, and Shelly had scored important points in the 400 and 200, placing two in each event.

Our very realistic pre-meet calculations had scored Ignatius with 113 points, and we scored 112—so we weren’t really very far off our game.  We competed hard in the face of some adversity.

But Loyola simply outscored its seeded projections—outscoring even optimistic projections, perhaps.  To win we would have had to do that, as well.  Injuries and illness probably made our efforts realistic , as opposed to outstanding.

It has been a long indoor season—made longer by the snow which has only this week melted from our outdoor track.  We are used to practicing on the outdoor track sporadically all winter in recent years, and even in “bad” winters we have usually been able to practice on a clear track at least by early March.  We have been afflicted with the track and field version of “cabin fever” as we watched the snow continue to pile up in early March when it should have been melting.

Our team will have to improve—and get healthy—if we want to defend our CCL outdoor and IHSA sectional titles at the end of May.  Without the 20 points that Jack Keelan scored for us last year at the state meet, it will be hard to match our fourth place finish and 28 points there.  But our team still has a chance to do so.  We return Conor Dunham as the top returning finisher in the 300-meter hurdles, and Pierce, Hawkins, Korabik, and even Santino and Dugas are potential state meet points scorers, as well.

As disappointing as it was to lose the indoor CCL meet, we will hope to be at our best at the end of May, as opposed to the middle of March.  The next two and a half months will tell a different story, we hope.

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Team touch across some generations

The Wolfpack track team takes a team photo on the National Mall in Washington, DC, with guests Tom and Joan O'Hara.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

The Wolfpack track team takes a team photo on the National Mall in Washington, DC, with guests Tom and Joan O’Hara. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Tom O'Hara, Track and Field,Before the start of the Jesuit Invite at Georgetown Preparatory School outside of Washington, DC, on Friday, February 21, sophomore Dan Santino approached Saint Ignatius alumnus Tom O’Hara, class of 1960, near the small grandstand beside the main straightaway.  After they had been introduced, Santino politely asked O’Hara a question:  “What did it feel like to set a world record?”

Fifty years ago, almost to the day, O’Hara twice set world indoor track records in the mile run, first running 3 minutes 56.6 seconds in New York on February 13, 1964, and then 3:56.4 on a small 11-laps-to-the-mile track in the Chicago Stadium on March 6.  More than 18,000 spectators were in attendance for the Chicago Daily News Relays, a hometown crowd for Chicagoan Thomas Martin Ignatius O’Hara, who was running for Loyola University in his senior year.  O’Hara, one of the greatest collegiate distance runners in NCAA history, would go on to make the United States Olympic team in the 1500-meters that summer.   Touted as America’s best hope to win a medal in the distance races in Tokyo, his portrait made the cover of Sports Illustrated, with a long profile story of a shy, small, red-headed young man from an Irish Chicago family.  O’Hara was hit with a strength-sapping illness before the games–likely a result of an even heavier training load than what produced the records, O’Hara admits, as he probably overdid it preparing for the big Olympic test.  He reached the Olympic semi-finals, but he didn’t qualify for the final.

In the amateur track days of the 1960s, it was difficult to sustain a running career after college.  After graduating from Loyola, O’Hara went on to become a life insurance salesman, based in Villa Park, IL—and a good one, it seems.  It is an asset to a salesman, I would assume, when people know you as a former world record holder.

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A three-hour delay at O’Hare before flying to DC gave the team plenty of time to take a photograph with the O’Haras.

At Georgetown Prep, O’Hara and his wife, Joan, were guests of the generous benefactor who for the second year had funded the Saint Ignatius track team on its trip to the Jesuit Invite.  They flew with the team from O’Hare, enduring a three-and-a-half hour flight delay and a 1:30 am arrival at the Bethesda Residence Inn.  We had originally planned a tour of the U.S. Capitol the next morning, but we emailed a cancellation to let the boys—and the O’Haras—catch up on their sleep before the big meet that day.

On the night before he flew from Chicago with us, Loyola University honored the 50th anniversary of O’Hara’s 1964 records with a half-time ceremony that included showing the Loyola basketball crowd a video of the Daily News Relays race.  Available on Youtube, it was originally aired live on ABC’s Wide World of Sports television show.  In attendance at the 50th anniversary event were members of the 1963 Loyola NCAA national championship basketball team.  O’Hara himself was an NCAA champion–in the mile and in cross country.

Dan Santino and his Ignatius teammates had watched that Youtube video in a classroom at Ignatius that same week.  Santino’s track fan father, Bill, had also gone on E-Bay to purchase copies of the Sports Illustrated magazine with O’Hara on the cover.  Santino, one of the top runners in Illinois and just a sophomore, would later present O’Hara with the magazines, which O’Hara autographed.

But their first conversation began with that simple question.  “How did it feel to set the world record?”

O’Hara thought a bit before he gave his answer.  Then he looked Santino in the eye and said, very simply, “Well, it felt pretty good.”

Santino’s coach, standing with the pair, sought a more complicated answer:  The first time he set the record, had O’Hara expected to do it?  Did he know he could run that fast?

Once again, the now grey-haired O’Hara gave a simple answer: “I knew that I was running pretty well at the time, yes.  My training was pretty good.”

Tom O’Hara’s two days traveling with Santino and the Ignatius team didn’t really include any profound moments of advice or encouragement.  He talked with the boys simply and directly, answering their questions–and telling some stories.

He struck the boys, most of all, as simply a very nice man, notably modest about his tremendous accomplishments as a runner.  At Jesuit schools we have a mantra that applies to a simple ethical idea:  “Men and women for others.”  Taking a couple days to travel with them, the O’Haras showed the boys what that means.

Two great milers: Ray Mayer, Ignatius class of 1951, and Tom O’Hara, class of 1960.

Most notably, perhaps, the boys watched O’Hara and his wife find small ways to attend and assist another Ignatius alumnus at the meet, Ray Mayer, class of 1951.  Mayer, in fact, was the benefactor for the trip–and it had been his idea to invite the O’Haras along for the ride.  A former Army career officer and then a successful real estate dealer in Northern Virginia, Mayer suffers from Parkinson’s.  O’Hara had recently had his own bout with medical issues; he has recuperated remarkably from a quintuple bypass last October.

The pair had met at a lunch gathering that afternoon, organized by Mayer’s friend and Ignatius teammate Tom Coyne, who had made the drive from Kalamazoo, MI, just for the lunch and the track meet.

Mayer had been a star runner at Ignatius fewer than ten years before O’Hara.

Among other things, of course, Mayer and O’Hara shared the tutelage of famed Ignatius coach Dr. Ralph Mailliard.  Both agreed that while they loved Mailliard like a father, for all his success Mailliard was not an expert coach when it came to the training of distance runners.

As it happened, O’Hara and Mayer had also shared a second coach, Jerry Weiland, at Loyola.  Mayer had gone from Ignatius to Marquette on a track scholarship, but, he said directly, “It didn’t work out there.  I was terribly unhappy.”  So he had transferred to Loyola, where his running still did not develop as well as he hoped under Weiland—although he did run a 4:12 mile.  Like Mailliard, O’Hara and Mayer agreed without any disrespect, Weiland might not have been the most knowledgeable coach for distance runners.

O’Hara had fared better at Loyola, he thought, partly because during his time at Loyola Weiland had taken on an assistant, Don Amidei.   Amidei had been the coach of phenom Tom Sullivan at Evanston’s St. George High School.  Weiland had hired Amidei, it seems, expecting he could recruit Sullivan to Loyola; Sullivan, at the last minute, chose Villanova, instead.  A 4:03.5 miler in high school, the fastest high school miler in history before Jim Ryun broke the 4-minute barrier in 1964, Sullivan never matched that time as a collegian; he did, however, become a doctor, a pediatric neurologist, in fact.  Sullivan’s loss was O’Hara’s gain.  Amidei left Loyola to coach at DePaul after a year, but it was Amidei’s training program, O’Hara said, that he followed through the glory years of his college career, with Weiland holding the watch for the workouts and providing motivation.

(As an aside and to complete the circle, in a way, Amidei went on to be the head track coach at Northwestern.  He was, in fact, my coach there when I ran track and cross country my freshman year.  But Amidei also returned to high school coaching after he left Northwestern, and he coached at Saint Ignatius from 1983 to 1985.  At Saint Ignatius Amidei coached Karamath Khan ’84, father of junior Kallin Khan.)

O’Hara said he really believed that Weiland had developed his own ideas as a track coach from his experience and interest in race horses.  He told a story to prove his point.  When the runners at Loyola complained about shin splints, Weiland showed up at practice one day holding a bottle with a strange chemical name on the label.  “It was horse liniment!” O’Hara laughed.  O’Hara didn’t let the coach anywhere near his legs with his horse liniment wraps.

Mayer, listening intently, didn’t miss a beat.  “Coach,” he whinnied to O’Hara, “we’re running as fast as we can.”

It was an entertaining lunch.

Senior Wil Hughes and sophomore Dan Santino visit with trip benefactor Ray Mayer.

Later, at the meet, Joan O’Hara procured an office chair for Mayer, which she thought would be more comfortable than his combination walker-chair.  O’Hara supplied him with water and candy as they watched the meet together.

The Ignatius boys, when they were not busy with the meet, stopped in for short conversations.

A year ago the Ignatius team had fallen behind early in the meet and then rallied to win at the end.  They had made Mayer very happy when he hoisted their trophy.

The meet features East Coast Jesuit school teams from New York City (Regis, Xavier, and Fordham Prep), Baltimore (Loyola-Blakefield), and the DC-area (Georgetown Prep and Gonzaga).  The New York teams were clearly resting some of their best runners, looking ahead to the big Eastern States meet closer to home in the Armory the following week.

In the 2014 edition of the meet, Ignatius fell behind once again but could not rally all the way to victory, as Fordham tallied 122 points to our 112.  Mayer said he was not disappointed with the outcome.  We noted that we still had a second-place trophy to take home on the plane to Chicago.

We also had some outstanding performances.  Senior Conor Dunham won the 55-meter hurdles in a time of 7.60 seconds, which at the time was the top performance for an Illinois high school runner in 2014; it was also a new meet record for the Jesuit Invite.  Senior Chris Hawkins, close behind Dunham, ran 7.77 seconds, at the time the number two performance for Illinois.  Dunham later won the 300-meter dash in 36.64.  Hawkins won the long jump with a distance of 20 feet and 5.25 inches.

Senior Chris Korabik won the 1600-meter run with a furious finish, as he closed a ten-meter gap with a 62-second final 400 to run 4:23.94.  His time beat the meet record set the previous year by Ignatius’s Jack Keelan.  Korabik now has the number two performance at 1600 meters for an Illinois runner in 2014.

The O’Haras had five children, who did some track and cross country running of their own.  Joan O’Hara described Tom running around the cross country course exhorting the runners—and especially his own kids.  He was more subdued at our meet.

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Junior Kallin Khan and senior Chris Korabik enjoyed playing Frisbee on a sunny 64-degree day on the National Mall after a cold Chicago February.

On Saturday morning, after the Friday night meet, Tom and Joan O’Hara joined the team after we checked out of the Residence Inn in Bethesda and traveled by Metro to the National Mall for some sightseeing.   After the terrible cold of a hard Chicago winter, the boys and the O’Haras all seemed to enjoy the sun and 64-degrees of Washington, DC, as much as they did the Smithsonian museums they visited.  The boys spent more time playing Frisbee near our park bench “baggage camp” than they did sightseeing.  They did manage, however, to take some photos of their trophy in some interesting locations.

At the airport, after passing through the TSA with the trophy, Dan and his teammate brother Brian Santino approached Tom O’Hara with the Sports Illustrated magazines purchased by their father.  O’Hara graciously signed them.

The Santinos then presented one of their magazines to their coach.  O’Hara later told me, “I signed yours in gold.”

His inscription:  “Dear Ed, My best wishes.  Thank you so much for inviting me to the track meet.  I enjoyed it so much.  Tom O’Hara.”

Later, as they left the plane after arrival at O’Hare, O’Hara shook hands with each of the boys.

My friend and colleague Patrick McHugh, track coach and athletic director at North Shore Country Day School, has written in his own blog about an idea that he calls “team touch.”  It is important, he says, for teammates to make physical contact with each other during the day of a big meet—shaking hands, patting each other on the back, team huddles.

For a weekend, Tom O’Hara generously joined our Ignatius team—and touched our team.  We will be a better team because of it.

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A new season of fits and starts

The 2014 track season begins with a winter warm-up run for Saint Ignatius sprinters and jumpers, a one-mile "Halsted loop" on some snowy University of Illinois-Chicago sidewalks.

The 2014 track season begins with a winter warm-up run for Saint Ignatius sprinters and jumpers, a one-mile “Halsted loop” on some snowy University of Illinois-Chicago sidewalks.

Track season started at Saint Ignatius last Tuesday, with a team meeting and our first practice.  It will end, we hope, on Saturday, May 31, in Charleston, IL, at the IHSA state track meet.

The first week of indoor track is always a challenging one.  We have to deal with the vexing problem of paperwork as boys who did not compete in fall sports turn in IHSA physical forms—or quickly schedule exams so that they can get the forms completed and get back to practice.   They have had almost six months of the school year to complete that paperwork, but they wait until the day practice starts to remember it.  Our rules require that we turn them away from practice until the paperwork is complete.

Just finding a place to practice is always a challenge in the winter.  Our winter practice facilities have never been good, and it is always a battle to re-claim a few previously open spaces around the school—on the edge of the wrestling gym, in stair wells, and in school lobby areas—from the other teams that have been using them.  As an in-season team, we get dibs on the space, now, but last week other teams who are out of season but doing conditioning—lacrosse, soccer, and football, for example—were using those spaces.  We sometimes literally have to move them out.  There are other headaches:  Our athletes also do not have lockers, yet, and so we have to find secure places for their backpacks, coats, and bags.

Our practice space challenges this year were complicated by another factor.  Our distance runners generally run outside every day, but they need space to meet and stretch before running, and to meet and do core work afterwards.  Our sprinters generally warm up with a run outdoors, but then they need indoor space to drill and condition.  For ten years our boys and girls track teams have used a wide hallway in our oldest classroom building as a practice space.  This year that space got new plush carpeting—and we got the order to stay away.  Our initial consternation has ended with smiling faces.  The practice space emergency prompted our athletic director to request the use of some space over at the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago Physical Education Building (PEB); settled into our old routines, we had not even considered that option for many years.  We will actually have use of the indoor jogging track there now for a short period each day—but valuable time for us.  In addition, we are making arrangements to rent some space at the Mercy Home indoor soccer facility, about a mile from Ignatius, for three days a week.

We have never actually had an indoor practice space where our sprinters can run even a 30-meter fly in the winter.   We have always done our conditioning running up stairs—and then drilling in the short school hallway space.  Now our boys will be able to sprint before we get to the first meet.  Access to the PEB jogging track means we  also have a place where our distance runners can get in some miles when the weather won’t allow them to run.  Our policy is to start exercising some caution when the temperature dips below 20 degrees, especially when combined with wind chill.  At that point we keep the boys nearer to school, running loops close to campus around city blocks; the University of Illinois-Chicago usually does a pretty good job of snow removal on its sidewalks around campus.   On alternate days we have some treadmills we share with our girls team.   Now in a snow or cold emergency we can at least get 40 minutes of running done indoors on the PEB track.

All things considered, last week was a pretty good start for the first days of practice.  We had a large turn-out of over 60 boys.  After four days during the week, we had a smaller turn-out for an 8:00 AM Saturday morning practice when we had access to gym space—something we never get during the school week in the winter, when basketball teams take all the gyms.  Butwith in the first week of practice, on Saturday morning,  we taught all our new sprinter boys how to use starting blocks, we got new and old boys over some hurdles, and we’ve already got some routines and basic programs established for our sprinters, our distance boys, and our throwers.

That productive first week was, of course, too good to be true.  I’m writing on a Tuesday morning while comfortable at home, because we have had two days of frigid cold temperatures which cancelled school.  No school, no practice.  Assuming we have school tomorrow, it will likely be a little bit like starting over again—but without having to send boys away because they don’t have their paperwork complete.

Missing two days shouldn’t really be a big problem.  We have always conceived of our winter track season as a preparation season for the spring competitions, when things get really serious.  Our distance runners are generally doing base training in the winter, putting in lots of miles and slogging along in the snow-covered city.   Our weekend indoor races give them a little bit of opportunity to run harder and faster—and keep them interested.  We will do a little bit of up-tempo training, “Phase two” work in our Daniels-based program, in early March before our indoor conference championship meet.  Our sprinters spend a lot of their time running up what we call the “Iron Stairs,” doing basic conditioning that will be their base for more speed training once we get outside in the spring.

But last year we added an event in February that kind of jump-started our competition season a little bit earlier than in past years.  A benefactor named Ray Meyer, Ignatius class of 1951, offered to fly the team to Washington, D.C., so that we could compete at the Jesuit Invitational track meet which brings East Coast Jesuit schools from New York City, Baltimore, and the D.C. area together at Georgetown Prep, located in North Bethesda, Maryland.    We had six weeks of practice, and three weeks of early season meets to get ready—and we were just barely ready.  Falling behind early in the meet, we stormed back by piling up points in the distance events to narrowly win the meet, 101.5 points to 97, over second place Fordham Prep from New York City.

This year we will make the trip again, February 20-22.  The second time around the task of booking flights and hotels, as well as planning local transportation and meals in a distant city, was a lot easier.   We’ve made a few improvements in our planning.  As a special treat, we will be travelling with a special guest.  At Ray Meyer’s suggestion, we invited former Olympian and indoor world record holder for the mile, Tom O’Hara, Ignatius class of 1960, to join us on the trip.  O’Hara and his wife, Joan, will help chaperone and squire our 25 boys on United airlines and around D.C.

But we will make the trip this year with only five weeks of practice preparation–and with just two meets under our belts.   Now, because of the current Arctic blast,  that will be five weeks minus these two missed school days and practices.

We have been excited for the season to get underway.  More than other years, it seems, I have been perusing indoor track results—at the pro, college, and high school levels.   The Nike Oregon Project team have been featured on Flotrack the last two weekends, as Galen Rupp and Mary Cain took aim on records.    On the East Coast, the high school winter track season starts in December.  Our competitors at the Jesuit Invitational have been competing in earnest already, while we don’t start until February 8.  Last week Fordham Prep and Xavier posted two of the fastest 4×800 relay times in the country (7:57.79 and 7:57.89) while running in a qualifying meet for the New York Roadrunner Club’s Millrose Games.  I actually watched that race live on the internet.

Senior hurdlers Chris Hawkins and Conor Dunham, state qualifiers in the 110 high hurdles last year, return to lead the Wolfpack track team in 2014.  Dunham won 3rd place in the IHSA state meet in the 300-meter hurdles, and Hawkins also qualified in the long jump, narrolwy missing in the triple jump, as well.  Photo by Steven Burgarin.

Seniors Chris Hawkins and Conor Dunham, state qualifiers in the 110 high hurdles last year, return to lead the Wolfpack track team in 2014. Dunham won 3rd place in the IHSA state meet in the 300-meter hurdles, and Hawkins also qualified in the long jump, narrowly missing in the triple jump, as well. Photo by Steven Burgarin.

Our team will be a good one, after a historic  2013 season in which we won the Chicago Catholic League championship for the first time since 1991, repeated as IHSA sectional champion, and then finished fourth in the IHSA 3A (big school) state championship meet.  We will lose our big point scorer at that meet, Jack Keelan, state champion in the 3200- and 1600-meter runs.  But we return the 3rd place finisher in the 300-meter hurdles, now senior Conor Dunham.  We think we have some state-level  talented boys on the team who might be able to make up at least some of Keelan’s lost 20 points from last year—senior jumper/hurdler Chris Hawkins, senior jumper Sheldon Pierce, senior distance runners Chris Korabik and Taylor Dugas, and sophomore distance runner Dan Santino.   We surprised people last year with our strong performance at the state meet; we surprised many people again last fall with our state-qualifying cross country team.  We think we can do it again.

Let’s hope that we have school tomorrow so that we can practice.

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