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#fill the lanes: the Palatine proposal to boost participation at the state track meet


There often comes a moment at the coaches meetings before sectional or conference meets when a conversation takes place that highlights a telling disagreement.  It usually happens when setting the opening height for pole vault or high jump.

Coaches with “developing” athletes ask for a lower height to give their athletes a chance to clear a height and enter the results:  “Give all the kids a chance.”    Coaches with more elite jumpers want the height set higher:  “This is a championship meet,” they are likely to say.

The coaches officiating the event often want the opening height higher because that makes the event go faster.

Both sides of the argument have good points.  But the basic question becomes, why are we holding the track meet?  Is it simply to qualify the best athletes for the state meet or to declare a conference champion?  Or are we trying to give athletes a chance to compete—and to grow as competitors so they can compete better the next year?

Our Chicago Catholic League outdoor track championships are notable because we allow four entries for all individual events.  We also hold separate-day competitions for frosh-soph and varsity championships, which allows younger athletes to compete in both meets.

That arrangement is clearly a nod to the “developmental” approach.  The four entry slots also nods toward “participation.”  Those extra slots allow a coach to enter a senior who might never have qualified for the meet on a performance basis, but who might have earned a spot in the varsity meet in other ways—like showing up for practice every day for four years.

Perhaps the argument could be made that these are “first-world” track program problems.  Some teams have problems filling their slots.  Bigger teams have the luxury of using slots for developmental purposes.

This long preamble sets down some philosophical groundwork for a discussion of a proposal put forward by Chris Quick and the Palatine High School track coaches for some tweaks to the qualification system for the IHSA state track meet.

The current system pushes the first two places at the sectional meets into the state championship.  Then there are time standard qualifiers.  Those time standards are calculated mathematically, averaging qualifiers from previous years.

But the results of that qualifying process have created a meet that, as many have noticed, leave a lot of empty lanes on the track during the preliminary races on Thursday and Friday.  This is especially notable in the 2A and 3A races.  Many heats are run with lanes empty on Eastern Illinois’ nine-lane track.

The Palatine proposal basically asks for the state meet organizers to fill the empty lanes.  Top two places at the sectional races will still qualify.  The time standards stay in place, as well, so athletes know that if they meet these standards they will qualify.  But then the meet should “fill the lanes” using the performance list generated by the sectional meets so that a total of 36 athletes race in each event.   It would also fill all field events up to 36 athletes, three flights of 12.

Filling the lanes of heats that are already scheduled for the meet will add very little extra time to the preliminaries.  It will simply allow more athletes to compete.

The Palatine proposal offers various observations about the meet, including arguments about the relative fairness of the current qualifying standards for the 1A, 2A, and 3A meets.

But the basic philosophical argument is that more athletes deserve a chance to compete at the state meet if there are lanes available for them to compete.

This is particularly pressing at the 2A and 3A levels—arguably the teams with “first-world” problems.  Filling the heats would mean younger athletes on the margins of qualification might get a chance to gain experience at the state meet that would result in future development and success.  It would also allow some older athletes on the margins of qualification finally to get the chance to compete at the state meet.

More qualifying athletes probably means more people in the stands at the meet during preliminaries and the finals.  It means a larger buy-in from more athletes and schools—a bigger “buzz,” in other words.  It would make the state meet a bigger culmination event for top athletes in the state who have been competing against each other all season—and for long four-year careers.

The Palatine proposal spells out details and arguments in careful detail.

But the basic idea is that more kids would get the chance to compete in the state’s championship meet, and it would not crowd the meet with extra competitors and extra heats to extend the meet.  It would simply “fill the lanes” with deserving athletes.


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What we do in Peoria


Junior Michael OBroin finished 18th at the 2016 First to the Finish race on the state course  at Detweiller Park–a dry run for the state meet for our team every year.  OBroin will run as an individual qualifier in the 3A race today after finishing 6th at the Niles West Sectional.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.


In 2010, when our Saint Ignatius team qualified to run at the IHSA 3A cross country championships for the first time since 1986, it is my memory that our team got lost as I was driving the mini-bus to dinner at Avanti’s in East Peoria.

What struck me at that time–and as I have observed to myself many times thereafter:  the teams that qualify for state every year have a big advantage over those that don’t.  Those every-year teams don’t lose time by getting lost on the way to dinner, for example.

And then there are other logistics and considerations.  They know when to make a hotel room reservation so the team has a place to stay in Peoria.  They know what time to leave school for the Peoria drive in order to have the right amount of time at the course, for hotel check in, and then for dinner the day before.  They have routines and a productive set of activities–not too much, not too little–to follow the night before the race.  They have a race morning routine that might or might not include an early morning shakeout run.  They know what the boys should eat for breakfast.  They know what time to leave the hotel on race morning.   They know what the boys should do as they wait for their race at Detweiler Park.

None of this is brain surgery.  Most of it is common sense–and just good coaching sense.  Some of it depends upon the team and its culture, as well as the individual make-up of the boys.  But all of that, really, comes from experience.

The teams that qualify for state every year have a big advantage over those that don’t.

I’m finishing this blog post in Peoria, actually, and we are on a streak here of a sort.  In 2010, 2013, and 2014 we qualified teams to the state meet; in 2012, 2015, and 2016 we brought individuals.  We missed only in 2011.  But even on those years when we did not qualify as a team, we brought a team, more or less as practice for the years we come as a team.

What follows is an account of some of the things we have learned about travelling to Peoria over the last seven years.

One way to gain some Peoria experience, we learned, is to go to the big early season invites in September:  the race that is now known as First to the Finish on the season’s second weekend, or the Peoria Notre Dame Richard Spring Invite on the third weekend.  These are massive meets.  FTTF runs multiple races at the IHSA class levels; Richard Spring puts all the school classes together, but it runs big varsity, fresh-soph, and open events.  The competition at each meet includes about half the ranked teams in the state–more or less the pool that supplies the state qualifiers at the end of the year.  The logistics also mimic the state meet.   Hotel rooms for a big group require reservations far in advance.  It is hard to get an Avanti’s reservation the night before, too, as we learned the hard way.

2016 was our seventh trip to FTTF.  Our first one was in 2010, and two months later we ran at Detweiler again at the state meet.  While it is hard to remember exactly, we consciously arranged what was then called the Woodruff in anticipation of fielding a team that might run at state.  That 2010 team looked to be the best team that I had ever coached.  We brought only our top ten boys to the Woodruff, in a mini bus that went down the morning of the race.  We sent the rest of the team–another 25 boys–to a small meet in Chicago.  The big meet experience arguably paid off.  It was the first time on the Peoria course for sophomore Jack Keelan, who finished ninth and ran 15 minutes and 1 seconds.  Our team finished ninth, with three runners in the top 35, and that success–along with a few other wins that year including the Chicago Catholic League championship–gave us some confidence and helped propel us to a fifth place finish at the Niles West sectional and qualification for the state meet.  2010 was the first time since 1982 that an Ignatius team ran at the state meet.

That formula–success in September in Peoria equals success in the postseason–sold us on the September Peoria trip.  We stuck with Woodruff, later FTTF.  We brought the whole team the following year, with most of the team coming down by bus on Saturday morning.  The late start for the 3A race–12:40–even means a fairly gracious bus departure at 8:00 am.  But a few of the boys–mainly our top runners–travelled the night before with their parents.  That split team arrangement–some boys going on their own, the others traveling by yellow school bus on Saturday–became the standard for four more years.

Those were successful years for our program, with some of that success riding on the back of Jack Keelan, of course.  In 2011 we did not run well at Woodruff, actually, finishing 22nd. Keelan was fourth overall in 14:48, but he was dropped in the last mile by the leaders who ran away from him.  Now running at Stanford as his teammate, Edwardsville’s Garrett Sweatt won in 14:20.  We subsequently lost to Loyola in the Chicago Catholic League championship, although we did finish second, and then we were eighth at our sectional.  Keelan famously did not even qualify as an individual out of Niles West.

But we came back strong in 2012.  At FTTF we surprised Mike Newman when, as an unranked team, Keelan’s low stick as individual winner helped us to fifth place and a trophy.  We went on to win the Catholic League again.  Then, at the Niles West sectional, the first posted results gave us fifth place, until a scoring error was discovered–a missing chip for a Lane Tech runner resulted in a lost scorer–which relegated us to seventh.  Our boys cried, but they cheered happily at Detweiller the next week when Keelan won the 3A state championship.

In 2013 we nabbed fourth place at FTTF.  We lost the CCL crown to Loyola, but we came back to beat them at the Lake Park sectional with a third-place finish and a return to Detweiller as a team qualifier.  In 2014 we were fifth again at FTTF for another trophy, and we squeaked into the state meet by tying York for fifth place at Niles West.

We had become a team that returned to the state meet, but it still seemed like we had a lot to learn.  In 2013 we let the boys cut their hair the night before, and then we felt they underperformed the following day with a 16th-place finish.

In 2014 we had our best team, perhaps.  At FTTF in September we placed fifth again, our third trophy in a row; we placed two runners—Dan Santino (15:03) and Andy Weber (15:05) in the top 20, with a third runner Kallin Khan (15:10) at 28th.  We were ranked late in the season as high as sixth place on Dyestat, and we were in the top ten in the ITCCCA coaches poll.  We had heard about different kind of thoughtful team activities practiced by other teams the night before the state meet (activities that did not involve hair clippers).

On our trip down to Peoria at the International House of Pancakes off of I80 south of Yorkville we put the names of our twelve runners in a hat, and each boy picked a name.  My son Luc’s kindergarten teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, Lisa Kuzell, had introduced me to what she called class “put ups”–the opposite of put downs.  We proposed that at our team meeting that night, like the kindergarten class, each member of our team would get a put-up from the team, delivered by the person with the name that came out of my hat.

That night was one of the most remarkable nights of my coaching life.  Our 12 runners, with a couple other senior boys who made the trip with us, assembled in the front living suite of an Embassy Suites Hotel room–by 2014, obviously, our hotel of choice.  We sat in close quarters. around the room on chairs, a couch, the couch and chair arms, and the room table.  We called on the first “put up.”  And when that boy had finished delivering his sincere positive comment about his teammate, four more hands went into the air.  Each of them wanted to add another story or comment about that same teammate.  Then others chimed in until everyone in the room had weighed in.  It took fifteen minutes.  There were 13 more boys

We finished at 10:30 pm, much later than our appointed bedtime.  We brought the boys together again for a 7:30 am shakeout run, a couple miles only along the river to the giant Bass Pro Shop outdoors store.  We had big hopes for the day–but we finished 14th.  Senior Andy Weber, who ran a personal best of 15:02 for 41st place.  Senior John Lennon, who had developed as our number three, lost a shoe in the first mile and still ran a personal best 15:22.  But our top runner all season, junior Dan Santino, did not run well, finishing 64th in 15:13, slower than his FTTF race; senior Kallin Khan likewise ran 15:27.  After struggling all year without a strong fifth runner, we wasted a breakthrough effort by senior Brian Santino, who ran under 16:00 minutes for the first time as our number five in 15:42.    Overall, the team had the best three-mile average ever for an Ignatius team at the state meet–better than the 1982 team that had finished second.  But we still felt that they had just run flat.

Our diagnosis:  our emotional put-up session had been a bit too much of an emotional energy-Sapper.


We brought a busload of more than 50 boys to First to the Finish in 2016 on an overnight stay at the Embassy Suites.  Ten ran the varsity race, and 40 ran the open.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

In 2015 we did something new at FTTF:  we brought our whole team of 50 boys down the night before, and we took them all to the course, to Avanti’s, and then to the Embassy Suites.  We probably left school a little bit later than we should have, and we didn’t get to the course in Peoria until 6:00.  After a quick stop at the hotel, we didn’t get to Avanti’s until 8:00, and then we waited to get seated.  We returned to the hotel very late, around 9:30.  No time for any meeting.  We put the boys to bed.  We did not run well at FTTF 2016, finishing 15th.   Dan Santino had had a breakthrough season in track winning a state medal and running 4:14 for 1600 meters.  But at FTTF he finished 22nd in 15:04, another failed effort to break 15:00 at Detweiller.  The experiment of bringing the whole team seemed like a failure.

Later in the season we would be fourth at the CCL meet, then seventh at the Hinsdale Central sectional; our FTTF effort mirrored the struggles of our season.  We brought our top 12 team to Peoria for the state meet anyway, to support Dan Santino, who had reversed his FTTF fortunes to come on strong, winning the CCL championship and qualifying for state as an individual qualifier.  We had booked the hotel rooms, after all, and it would be good practice for the team and for the underclass boys especially.  Santino finished 24th, posting his best time ever at Peoria in 14:45, for his first cross country state medal.

All of this is a long preamble for our 2016 trip to Peoria for First to the Finish.

Our second trip with over 50 boys went much better.  We left school at 1:30, taking an early dismissal from classes.  We were on the course at 4:30, and even though we were running in the rain, our runners were happy and positive.  We arrived at the Embassy Suites a bit muddy at 6:45.  At 7:00 Avanti’s delivered dinner to the hotel for us–spaghetti, marinara sauce, salad, and bread, with plates and plastic utensils.  We ordered for 65 when our group was 55; next year we’ll order for 75.  The plastic utensils to serve the spaghetti snapped and broke; next year we will bring our own serving utensils.  But the boys got the food they needed and we were done eating by 7:45.  And needless to say, the price was right–about half the cost of eating in the restaurant.

We hadn’t made careful plans for our evening meeting, being unsure how the schedule would unfold.  Although we had been a team for a month, we knew that almost half the boys on the team, between freshmen and new upperclass runners, were new to the team.  A lot of boys, it seemed, didn’t even know their teammates names.

In a quick conversation with assistant coach Nate McPherson, I proposed that we do something that I’d seen him do in class as a teacher.  We set up the Embassy Suites dining area, which we had used for our dinner, with 26 sets of facing chairs.  We sat our 26 juniors and seniors separately in the chairs.  We told 26 freshmen and sophomores to choose a partner, ideally someone they didn’t know, and take the leftover seats.  Coach McPherson proposed a topic for conversation:  “Why do you run?”  We told the boys to introduce themselves, then talk for two minutes.  Two minutes later we told the freshmen and sophomores to stand up and find another partner.  The next topic:  “What makes you weird?”

We likened it to speed dating, and afterwards, we gave our activity a name:  Getting to know you.  We continued with “Getting to Know You” for 45 minutes, and the energy was as strong at the end as it was when we began.

We moved the boys from the dining area in the big hotel atrium to the conference area–actually just grabbing a quiet walkway spot that could fit our big group in a close corridor.  They moved cooperatively and happily.  We sat them down and proposed a second activity.  Each Thursday at Saint Ignatius, our entire school engages in what is called the Ignatian Examen.  It is part of Ignatian spirituality, a program of introspection, self-examination, and prayer.      The boiler-plate Examen asks participants to begin by appreciating the gifts of God in one’s life.  Then one considers the trials of the day, and reflects on its challenges.  Then one considers how one might have performed better–more soulfully.  Finally, one makes resolutions for the future–and for specific behavior in the future.

I told the boys the story of the specific Examen script that I would use that day, one drafted for me by a Jesuit novice who was teaching for a couple years at Ignatius, a man many of them had known as a teacher, Andrij Llabse.  Originally we had drafted it for our track team.  I had been thinking for a few years that an Examen might be a good way for boys to prepare to run a big race.  I suggested to our boys in Peoria that the Examen was the closest thing that Catholics have to a Buddahist meditation tradition, a kind of rational mysticism.  The Examen was a way to focus the mind, to identify what was important, and to think clearly and directly with a purpose or a goal in mind.  I had told these things to Andrij Llabse, and he had smiled.  “But Ed,” he had then cautioned me (I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something like this, “You have to remember that this is all about Jesus and honoring him.”

I hammed it up a bit for the boys in Peoria:  “Sure, sure, sure—but it can also help boys think about trying to run faster, right?”

After that introduction, our Examen in Peoria was nonetheless properly respectful and prayerful.  In particular it emphasized discernment in the boys.  They were invited to think about what kind of a teammate each boy would like to be for the other boys on the team.  It asked them to be thoughtful not about running fast times and performing well on the course, but about doing all things that involve being a good teammate.  For Ignatius discernment was about sorting through the conflicting feelings that motivate us.  Some behaviors that give us satisfaction and pleasure are short-lived; others provide satisfactions that continue.  It is the latter behaviors that we should recognize as gifts from God.  Those are the behaviors that we should build upon.

We sent the boys to bed by 10:00 PM, and we did not hear any stirrings in the hotel runways of the Embassy Suites that night.

Our trip to the 2016 state meet, similarly, has run efficiently.  The Cubs World Series win and the parade in Chicago on Friday was both a gift and a complication.  We qualified only an individual, junior Michael OBroin was sixth at the Niles West Invitational as our team had a disappointing day, finishing 10th overall when we thought we had a genuine chance to qualify.  Only OBroin and a roommate would have gotten permission to miss school on Friday to make an early trip to Peoria to scout the course and so we could meet obligations like attending the coaches meeting with officials.  The rest of our varsity team would come down after school—after all, we had booked the hotel rooms long ago and we need the practice of attending the state meet.  The prospect of 5 million fans on the trains, busses, and roads that would bring our students to a from school that day, however, gave our school administrators a legitimate reason to cancel classes.  So we scheduled our school van for departure for the whole team that morning.

We did basically fill the 14-seater van, but there were a few boys—just a few–who opted to come down later as a carpool after the Cubs parade.

We stopped at the International House of Pancakes in Morris, Illinois, as we always do, for breakfast.  We arrived at the course around 1:15.  Our boys jumped off and went for a jog in Detweiller Park.  I attended the 2:00 coaches meeting, and had short conversations on the course with Sandburg’s John O’Malley, Fenwick’s Dave Rill, Hinsdale Central’s Noah Lawrene and Jim Westphal, and OFallon’s Jon Burnett.  We were back in our van at 2:30, and we were checked into our rooms at the Embassy Suites by 3:15.  I went for a short run myself.  We loaded the van again at 4:45, and we were early for our 5:00 dinner reservation at Avanti’s.  Then we were back at the hotel by 6:30.

At our teaming gathering at 7:30, we had some time to kill because the carpool after the Cubs parade had not yet arrived.  So we played a few rounds of “Mafia,” a game the boys had enjoyed at our summer team camp at Western Michigan University back in July; OBroin opted out, preferring some quiet time with a book in his room.  When the Cubs parade carpool arrived around 8:30, we re-convened as a team.

We talked over logistics for the following day.  We did one round of put-ups, as each boy gave a memory of their time with Michael OBroin.  There were memories of first practices and races together in the winter and spring of 2014.  Senior Lyndon Vickrey thanked Michael for talking with him about calculus and physics on their runs this fall.

Then we broke up, after setting a 10:00 curfew.  A few boys wanted to grab a dip in the pool, something we only allow when the boys are not running.

It is 7:00 AM now at the Embassy Suites, and I am going to get a cup of coffee before joining the team on a short 7:30 run before breakfast.  We have a team breakfast at 8:30.  Then we check out and head to the course at 10:15.  Our boys want to watch our girls team run in the 2A race at 11:00.  OBroin will come to the course later, because it has been our experience that spending too much time in the van waiting to run makes our runners too nervous.

And we noticed a couple years ago that Hinsdale Central leaves the Embassy Suites much later than we do and pulls into the parking area behind the awards stand at Detweiller just an hour or so before they race.  They have been here for a lot more years than we have.





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Pack it up


Sophomore John Walls, senior Lyndon Vickrey, junior Patrick Hogan, and senior Chad Larry race in pack formation at the 2016 Chicago Catholic League Championships .  Behind Vickrey is junior Trey Johnson.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

At the Palatine Invite in September, our team had a subpar race for the second year in a row.  In 2015 we finished 17th, after three years in a row when we had been in the top seven, once just 20 points from winning, and it was probably the day that our 2015 season stalled.  It really never got started again.  We ended the year with a fourth place finish at the Chicago Catholic League meet, after five consecutive years when we had finished first or second, and then a seventh-place finish at the Hinsdale Central Sectional sent us home instead of going to the state meet as we had done in 2010, 2013, and 2014.

We actually had better feelings after our 19th -place finish at Palatine this year.  Our boys had shown some improvement.  Our number one, junior Michael OBroin, had run a personal best 15:08 to finish 21st; he was emerging as a true number one.  Sophomore John Walls had run 15:52, his first race under 16:00 for three miles.  Senior Lyndon Vickrey, who had been slowed by a sore hamstring early in the season, ran 15:59.9, his season best.  Junior Trey Johnson dropped his personal best from earlier in the season by 22 seconds, running 16:05.  In the open race, junior Patrick Hogan had started slowly in fifteenth place at the mile, then motored to the race lead a mile later, and finally finished second in 15:56.5.  But in the top-level competition at Palatine, 16:00 still puts you around 100th.

The team wasn’t stalled, like last year, but they weren’t running on all the cylinders, either.  Four of them had finished within 25 seconds of each other, but they had not really run together as a group or in tandem at any point during the race.

For years we have paid lip service to “pack running.”  “You guys should try to run together more,” we have encouraged them time and time again.  At First to the Finish this year, we even had a plan.  They were supposed to go out aggressively but separately, and then they would  try and find each other around the half mile.  Then they could run together.  They never did find each other in the giant race crowd of 50 teams, and we finished 14th with 445 points.

We were talking about pack running, but we didn’t really know how to do it.

Our coaching staff had some conversations after the Palatine race.  This could be a turning point in the season—and for our program, which also seemed to be stalling.  Assistant Coach Steven Bugarin has always talked to the boys about pacing themselves more evenly.  A more conservative start, he felt, would allow them to race harder in the middle and at the end of the race.  Assistant Coach Nate McPherson said he thought we should think more about how to get the boys to run as a pack.

The group we are coaching now is cooperative and smart, and they do listen to us.  They are all good friends, and they run for each other.  They are similar in ability and in results, even if they were getting there by running separate races.  A pack-running approach seemed like something that would fit this team.

As it happened, there had been some twitter conversation about pack running the week before, after Neuqua Valley’s dominant performance at the Richard Spring Invite at Detweiller.  It had been a display of pack running by the team many identified as the master practitioners of the pack approach.  Late in the day after Palatine, McPherson emailed our team members a link to the Running Times articles of 2009 that followed Neuqua Valley through their championship season—and which put a lot of emphasis on the “pack” approach that they employed that year.

Our team needed something to kick it into gear, so that we could avoid another stall.  Maybe we should get more serious about pack running. So I wrote an email to Neuqua Valley coach Paul Vandersteen:


We’re talking lots about pack running with our guys, and, like so many things, feel like we are not getting through.

But it is not like we are re-inventing the wheel.

We’re just not doing it right, we assume.  It is also just something we need to get better at to have it as part of our coaching repertoire.

It is something that would fit our team this year, certainly.

  1. I tweeted at you when an old Running Times article was referenced.  All we can find is the 2009 series on the team?  Did you write something else, yourself, and if so, can we get a copy somehow?
  1. Basic questions:

We use a rough VDOT chart to establish pace guidelines in workouts.  In our hard training period, now, we have a long Tempo or repeat Tempo miles on Mondays, and then pace intervals 8×800 or 6x1000s on Wednesdays.  These would be the workouts that we use to teach them to run together, right?

Do we tell the faster guys to slow down a little bit and ask the slower guys to speed up a little bit, and  then that brings them together?  Or does everyone slow down for the slower guys?  Or go faster to stay with the faster guys?

The basic thing that we have gleaned:  We have to practice this all the time in practice.  But again, that means slowing down the pace for some guys, and speeding it up for others?

How matched do the guys have to be to make this work?  We’ve got a group of 6 guys who are racing now within 30 or so seconds.  Is that matched enough?

We’ve got a number one way ahead of the other guys–almost a minute.  Does he freelance?  Does he run the workout on his own?  Or do we slow him down to practice with the other guys?

We are literally looking at video of your guys running together.  Is there a formation?  Is it two by two?  Or do we teach them to run four or five across?

I am happy to take a quick reference to something else if it is a pain to answer our silly questions!  Don’t mean to stick you with them.

But we are in a dogfight this year–we are probably number 7 right now in our Niles West sectional–and desperate to get to Peoria again.  It’s what our program really needs.

Happy to treat this as something private and off-the-record!  But actually, as a Q and A, or some kind of collaboration, we could also work on this as something we could use on our blogs!  I’m getting motivated enough to start back in on mine after a hiatus.

Thanks for your help if you think you have the time.

To be honest, just writing the email helped me to figure out a lot.  Paul’s reply was helpful, if short.  But the team celebrated as the “Pack Team,” it would seem if you believe Vandersteen, isn’t really a pack team.


You are a man of many questions 🙂

Brian Newman was referring to the RW article series in 2009.  I never wrote anything myself.  In fact, our meet recaps are written mainly by my two assistant coaches, Mike Rossi and Jaime Janota.  Both are English teachers.

You might not like to hear my response….we don’t focus on pack running.  If you recall, my 2007 team never ran as a pack.  The only reason we ran as a pack in 2009 was I was trying to slow down Luke Verbus who always went out too fast and died.  You might recall that Aaron Beattie always ran by himself in front of that pack.  This was the case in workouts too.

Our guys pack up now because they are so close in ability level.  I think when it is all said and done, they will be within 15 seconds of one another.  Our ‘pack running’ is especially evident when the conditions are hot.  We run more conservatively the first two miles and then tell them to take off.

I do think our pack running is facilitated by running together in practice in ability groups.  When race time comes, they simply feel more comfortable working together.

I hope this helps!  Good luck closing this season out.


The team celebrated as the “Pack Team” doesn’t work at it that hard.  But they do work on it.  Here is a helpful video we found from the 2010 season:

videoAs the video shows Neuqua runners in busy motion going left and right across the screen with a hard driving guitar riff providing some energy, Vandersteen talks about pack running:

“We really just encourage our guys to run together in practice,” Vandersteen says. “I refer to it as organized chaos.  I remember the first time I watched York run a workout, I got the same impressions.  It works.  I mean, we put them in groups, and some guys fall off, but you can’t worry about them.  You just gotta go with the guys who are feeling good that day, and let them work together and see what they can accomplish in terms of their goals for that day.”

The team leaders weigh in next.  First Taylor Soltys, who would help Neuqua to state trophies in 2010 and 2011 before moving on to run for Iowa:   “Pack running keeps everyone together, and  in a race situation, it is a lot harder to fall off the pace or wanna drop back when you have your teammates right there supporting you.  With pack running everyone wants to stick up and no one wants to be the guy who breaks off and ruins the pack, and so it is definitely a big motivator and keeps everyone up together and helps you to win races.  So we try to mimic that in practice.”

Vandersteen elaborates:  “There’s a definite translation.  If you let the guys—we used to do that.  We used to have the guys run the workout really hard and not work together.  Now we have them hold back a little bit and run together in practice because it translates to the meets.”

Josh Ferguson, an understudy for the state champion team in 2009 and then a top guy for the second place trophy team in 2010, also weighs in:  “We really like last year started using the pack running style, and it really like helped the team because they were all very close in times.   It helped us really just to stay together from the start of it and really kept everyone together and more at the right pace and ready to go and attack the last mile.  And we are really trying to use that again this year, and it really kind of keeps our team together.  It keeps everyone focused.  It lets people take the lead. and people stay behind, if they need to draft off someone else.  And so it helps everybody out.”

On Monday after Palatine, we called a team meeting.  We told the boys, quite simply, that we needed to do more work on learning how to run as a pack.  We showed them the Neuqua video from 2010.  We found some Dyestat and Illinois Milesplit video of the Richard Spring race this year.  Neuqua went right to the front of the pack at the start of the race coming down the hill at Detweiller.  At the half mile going round the pine trees along bus row, they had all seven runners in the top twenty.  But video from after the mile before going into the triangle showed them much farther back.  They had run hard to the front in order to stay together, it seemed, and then they had relaxed.  In fact, two other packs—including Mahomet Seymour, who finished second—had clearly moved past them as the Neuqua pack held back.  Coming out of the triangle, the Neuqua boys seemed to be back in forward motion, having moved up a bit.  At the two mile, the Neuqua pack is still together, and they have moved up into 2oth place.  Then the group is split up at the finish—but they had moved forward aggressively over the last mile:  Josh Mollway finished sixth in 14:59.9  with Jackson Jett seventh (15:02.4) and Jake McEneaney ninth (15:04.6).  Zach Kinne was 19th (15:12.9) and Matt Milostan 27th (15:21.5).

We told the boys our plan:  Number one runner Michael OBroin was going to freelance in our races and practices, running up in front.  But the rest of the team—as many as ten of them in practice—would be running the workouts together in a close group.  We put almost all of them at 63 on our VDOT pace chart.  That would be a step backwards for the top of the group, but it would be a challenge for the guys at the back to keep pace.  But their job, in practice and in meets, was to stay together!  We even looked at formations; Neuqua, it seemed, just ran two by two, side by side..

They were to take formation during our interval training.  They would run in formation during their long runs.  They would even run in formation during their sprints on the track after their long runs; this would be practice for the start of races, where the boys would run in formation from the gun.

A few boys asked some questions—good ones.  Then we went out to practice, and all week long during our training they did everything we had told them to do.

We debuted our new pack approach at the Pat Savage Invite at Niles West the next Saturday.  There were a few anxious moments.  Three-hundred meters into the race, on the left turn, our pack was pinched on the inside among 600 runners, having failed to get to the outside on the turn.  They were probably as far back as 60th place.  But there were sixof our runners together.  They came through the half-mile in a slow 2:45, probably in 50th place.

The mile was slow, 5:20, but the pack was moving up.  At the halfway point they were still in formation—and now they were up to 30th place.  OBroin was running with a group of six leaders at the front of the race.  Whitney Young had two in that group, as did Loyola, always our rival.  But everyone had noticed our pack chasing from behind.  “You guys are looking good,” said Billy Poole-Harris, the Whitney Young coach.  Whitney Young was running that day without one of their best runners, Clayton Mendez.  It would still mean something to beat them; they had beaten us by more than 200 points at First to the Finish, where they were fourth.

The lead group went through the two-mile mark in 10:16; our pack came through in10:44.  Our pack was running even pace, and they continued moving up as other runners slowed.  With a half-mile to go, we were winning the meet.  Four runners were still together—sophomore John Walls leading the group, with seniors Lyndon Vickrey and Chad Larry and junior Patrick Hogan following.    The Savage Invite runs two race divisions together and then sorts them out in the computer results—600 runners, big 3A schools in one division, 1A and 2A in another.  But the big schools dominate the front of the race.  Our pack of four had surged into the top 20, with four  Whitney Young and Loyola runners behind them.


The Wolfpack enters the Niles West stadium.  Patrick Hogan runs with one shoe.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

The race didn’t finish as well as we hoped.  Whitney Young’s Charlie Nevins and Anthony Tuman both sprinted past our pack as the runners ran the last 300 meters on the Niles West track.  We calculated that as a sixteen-point swing—and the final score gave Whitney Young a win, 70 points to 84.  Loyola finished third with 128.  The previous week, at Palatine, Loyola had beaten us by 25 points.

Our experiment, based on our first week of practice and competition, had been a success.  “It just felt so easy,” said Chad Larry.

“It is so much easier to run in a group,” said Vickrey.

As it happened, the team had also dealt with adversity together.  Hogan had lost his shoe in the first mile of the race.  The pack had fallen apart briefly when Larry retrieved the shoe; he was worried it was the shoe with Hogan’s chip.  We explained for future reference that Hogan would still count in the results with or without a chip.  We thought Hogan might have simply stopped himself and fixed his half-flatted shoe, rather than kick it off as he had done.  After all, Larry had rejoined the pack successfully after retrieving the shoe.  But it seemed like the whole group had helped Hogan manage his difficulty—and they had kept him going.  He ran more than two miles with one shoe, but he had stayed with the pack.  The pack had actually almost fallen apart then, but they had pulled it back together.

Our concern with the pack approach was that as a group they had probably run a little bit too conservatively.  OBroin had run well at the front to finish third in 15:25, and then we finished 18th, 19th, 21st, and 23rd, with a four second split off Wall’s 16:09 to lead the group.  The even pacing had been good.  The soggy course had been a little bit slow, much slower than Palatine, but the boys hadn’t really run that fast.

We adjusted our training plan a little bit the next week.  We bused the boys to Washington Park, a 20-minute trip from Ignatius, to do some tempo running on what will be our IHSA regional course at the end of Octobor.  It would also be the site for our next race, our annual dual meet with our neighborhood rival, the team we see almost every day on the Chicago lakefront, Jones College Prep.  On the line at that race would be ownership for the year of the Sears Tower Trophy.

The Washington Park course is basically two laps around a 1.5 mile loop.  Our workout would run the boys around the loop three times, with a short break of a couple minutes between each loop.  We pushed the boys a little bit up on the VDOT chart, making the pace this week more demanding than the week before.

As an exercise in pack running, the day was a failure.  Too many guys fell off with the more aggressive pacing.  But actually, compared to other similar workouts of the past, the boys had still focused harder on running together.  They were disappointed that the pack had not held together.  They vowed to do better.

On Tuesday, for their long run, they reformed the pack.  Then before our interval work on the track on Wednesday, we held a team meeting—a pack-running refresher course.  On the track that day, nine boys ran 8×800 meters together, chasing OBroin in front of them.  The workout on the track posed some different issues.  We considered shifting the boys inside and outside each interval because they were running on the curves of the track; they rejected the idea.  They all had their spots, and they liked their spots.  They knew the person who was running next to them and in front of them and behind them.

The dual meet with Jones posed some special issues for the pack approach.  What if the Jones runners went out hard?  Do we keep the pack together and let them go?  How much of a gap can we let them get on our pack?  We made the decision to stick with the pack.  Our plan was to put our pack of four—any four– in front of the third Jones runner to win the meet.  Jones was a ranked team—number 22 on Dyestat Illinois, and they had been ranked higher earlier in the season.  But we had a plan and we were confident.


Michael OBroin and Jeremy Adams took the race lead from the start at the annual Jones vs. Ignatius dual meet.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

We also made a decision to send OBroin into the front of the race a little bit aggressively.  He wanted to challenge Jeremy Adams, the Jones number one runner.  Almost from the gun, the two of them pulled away—first a little, then a little more.  They were closer, probably, to the pack then they would be in an invitational.  Adams won the race in 15:30, with OBroin trailing in 15:35.

Behind them, Jones formed a pack, and our pack closely trailed theirs.  The pace was conservative, 5:20 at the mile.  Midway through the race the Jones pack broke up as their number two runner Christian Reyes set off on his own toward Adams and OBroin.  Senior Joe Amoruso set out after him, pulling our group behind him, and a half mile later the two packs were together again.  Our pack, it seemed, could respond to an attack.

And with a half mile to go, our pack had the advantage.  We had four in the chase group behind Adams and OBroin, and they only had three.  In a final close sprint to the finish, and with a little bit of jostling, Walls and Vickrey finished third (15:56) and fourth (15:57), with Jones freshman Ian Bacon fifth (15:57).  Hogan (15:59) held off Reyes (15:59) for sixth.  Even though Jones senior Arthur Santoro (16:02) pushed past Amoruso (16:02) on the very last stride, Ignatius had won the race, 24-31.


Senior Lyndon Vickrey with the travelling Sears Tower Trophy.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

The Wolfpack, literally, as a pack, had won back the Sears Tower Trophy.  Four runners had raced together through the entire race and had finished within five seconds.

On Saturday, Otober 22, we raced at the Chicago Catholic League Championships.  After a solid week of practice—the pack ran mile after mile together, and they ran race pace intervals on the Lewis University course on Columbus Day Monday and in a cold rain on the Chicago lakefront at 39th Street on Wednesday—our Wolfpack was the underdog in a match up with Marmion Academy, number 11 in the state according to Mike Newman’s Dyestat Illinois ranking.  We were unranked.  Pre-race we figured the score would be 50-58, in Marmion’s favor.  We would have to figure out how to overcome an eight-point deficit out on the course.

We figured that Marmion’s Michael Ronzone and Charlie Zimmer would race Loyola’s Paolo Tiongson and OBroin at the front of the race.  Marmion’s Sean Galle would finish in the top ten.  That meant we would have to put a pack of four in front of Marmion’s fourth runner, Andrew Lifka.  Our pack would run together for two miles, pulling all of them into the top fifteen or so.  Then the runners who were feeling the best would set off for the top ten.  At least one of them, we figured, needed to be in the top ten if we were going to win.

Our boys ran well—but we lost 45-54.  Fittingly, we lost because every member of the team ended up just a little bit short of what we needed.   OBroin was fourth, failing to split the Marmion lead runners Ronzone and Zimmer, who finished behind the winner Tiongson.  The Ignatius pack split up just a little bit before the two mile mark, but they had put five runners in strong finishing positions.  Sophomore Walls finished tenth in 15:35, a personal best.  Vickrey had moved with him over the last mile to finish 12th in 15:37, another personal best.  Senior Chad Larry ran a 30-second personal best (15:40) for 13th, and Hogan was 15th (15:52) as our fifth scorer.  Junior Trey Johnson was 20th (16:07) as our number six, but he beat Marmion’s fifth runner Jimmy Milder (22nd, 16:14), adding a point to their score.  Amoruso (24th , 16:20) was not able to stay with the pack, but he was close to Milder throughout the race.  At the end, though, he could not get past him .  We were chasing every point, and at every spot, it seemed, we let one get away.

Marmion won, in part, because of the great run by their number three, Sean Galle.  He wasn’t just in the top ten; he was fifth (15:25).  Marmion went second, third, and fifth, virtually unbeatable; it is actually remarkable that our Wolfpack still got close.  Another key was Andrew Lfka, who finished 14th (15:51), as Marmion’s number four.  We needed to put five runners in front of him; we only put four.  We also needed a little more help from the other teams, putting more points on Marmion.  Ignatius and Marmion took thirteen out of the top 24 spots in the meet.  We had six in the top 20, earning all-conference honors in the Chicago Catholic League; Marmion only had four all-conference.  They won.

But we are now a team committed to pack running.  We have figured it out a little bit.  It has made our team stronger.  It has given our team an identity.

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Magis Miles are Magical


Photo by Steven Bugarin

Jake Campbell runs fastest time in Chicago for many years but not a 4:00 mile, as Hope Schmelzle wins women’s race.  High schoolers Sean Torpy and Kelly O’Brien run state leading times.

June 3, 2016

Chicago, IL—On a night described by track and field reporter Mike Newman of Dyestat Illinois as “magical,” the second Saint Ignatius College Prep Magis Miles set new meet records in every event.

Organized in part to bring younger runners together with heroes of yesteryear, the 2016 Magis Miles put high schoolers right into the Elite Mile men’s and women’s events up against professionals and collegiates.  The results brought state leading high school times for Sean Torpy, Sandburg High School’s Illinois 3A state champion for 1600 meters—and  for Palatine High School’s Kelly O’Brien, who followed up her 3A state champion 1600-meter run two weeks ago with the second fastest all-time high school time ever for an Illinois high school girl.

The headliner men’s Elite Mile came closer to breaking the storied sub 4:00-minute mark than last year when Polish national champion Greg Kalinowski ran 4 minutes and 4.5 seconds on a chilly and windy June night.

This year, with temperatures in the 70s and still winds, NCAA Division III national 1500-meter champion Jake Campbell, a recent graduate of St. Olaf College, set a personal best of 4 minutes and 2.05 seconds to win the men’s Elite Mile.


Hope Schmelzle wins the women’s Elite Mile in 4:43.96. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

In the women’s Elite Mile, Hope Schmelzle of Northern Illinois University and Wheaton Warrenville South High School ran a personal best outdoor mile of 4:43.96 for the win.

Chasing the pacer through a 2:00 half-mile, Campbell did his own work in the lead over the final two laps, reaching 1200 meters in 3:01.  Behind him second-place finisher Eric Delvo, a Bradley University graduate who ran the previous week at the NCAA west regional in the steeplechase, closed to within a few meters as Campbell  reached 200 meters to go in 3:32.

Campbell, who will get another collegiate season to break the 4:00-minute barrier because he will run at the University of Minnesota next year as a fifth-year eligible graduate student, pulled away again for the win over the last 200 meters.  Delvo, who attended Sacred Heart Griffin in Springfield,  was second in 4:03.39 as he held off a hard-charging Anthony Wondaal of Hillsdale College and Illiana Christian High School, who was timed in 4:03.89.   It was a remarkable 12-second personal best for Wondaal.

In the women’s race, Eric’s sister and Bradley teammate Emily Delvo took the lead over from the pacer with 800 meters to go in 2:25, with Schmelzle sitting comfortably on her shoulder, and they stayed that way for a lap.   Schmelzle made her move with just over 200 meters to go and pulled away for the win.

Delvo, like her brother, finished second in 4:45.98, with Emily Gapinski, a recent St. Thomas College (WI) graduate, third in 4:47.51.

But in fourth place, close behind Gapinski, came Palatine’s O’Brien, still a high school senior, in 4:48.01.  She had sat at the back of the close, fast-moving pack for most of the race, and then, just as in many of her high school races, she closed fast over the last 400 meters.  At the Illinois state meet 1600-meters, she ran 63 seconds for the last 400 meters to win in 4:56.  At the Magis Miles she passed 1600 in 4:46.30.  According to the list posted on, her 1600-meter time trails only Kayla Beattie of Woodstock who in 2011 ran 4:43.65 to win the state championship.

Behind O’Brien was a second Illinois high school girl, Mackenzie Altmayer of Geneva, who finished sixth in 4:53.18.  Her 1600-meter time of 4:51.39 was a personal best by eight seconds—and a new school record at Geneva.

In the men’s race, high schoolers Sean and twin brother Chris Torpy aggressively slipped into second and third place behind Campbell on the third lap of the race, as the crowd roared.  Both struggled a bit in the last lap coming off the fast pace, but Sean Torpy finished fourth in 4:05.10 with Chris fifth in 4:07.13.  At 1600 meters, the distance at which Sean won the Illinois state championship the previous week in 4:15.13, their times were 4:03.42 and 4:05.40.  At both the mile and 1600 distances, Sean Torpy ranks number one in Illinois for the 2016 season with Chris number three.

The plan to run the high-schoolers in the Elite race was hatched by meet co-director Nate McPherson and coaches John O’Malley of Sandburg and Joe Parks of Palatine.

“We wanted to give these great high school runners the best chance possible to run really, really fast,” said McPherson.  “They took full advantage of that chance.”

Released from the responsibility of leading the race, the high school runners all talked afterwards about genuine feelings of disorientation and strangeness as they settled into big packs of runners and tried to hold on to a pace faster than they had ever tried before.

“It was such a weird race because when I got out I did not get out in front. It was just like a solid pack of people going around the track,” O’Brien told Dyestat’s Newman after the race. “I did not know what I was doing. It was a good distraction. I just wanted to stay with them (the front pack). I kept telling myself to go with them, go with them.”

“It felt a lot smoother in the pack than taking the pace up front all the way,” Chris Torpy told Newman. “We were just ready to get into the mix tonight. Whatever happens would happen.”

The Elite Mile races capped an evening of running that saw many more great performances—and a number of new local high school records.

In the boys high school mile, senior Connor Madell of Lyons Township ran 4:13.52 (4:11.88) to win with a big seven second personal best.  Lyons teammate sophomore Danny Kilrea was second in 4:16.15, with another school sophomore Dylan Jacobs of Sandburg third in 4:17.21.

In the girls high school mile, York freshman Sarah May won in 5:01.35 with a strong finish over the last 400 meters to defeat second place senior Madison Romig of Grant (5:04.87) and third place freshman Christina Ryzhov of DeKalb (5:06.07).

The boys freshman race produced the closest finish of the night as Palatine’s Jorge Corona took a narrow lead with 100 meters to go on the final straightaway and then held off Eddie Slack of Marist to win, 4:35.02 to 4:35.32.  Christian Knowlton of Plainfield South was third in 4:40.71.

The girls freshman mile was won by Gillian Fiene of Illiana Christian in 5:17.53, with sisters Kate and Liz Lechowicz of Palatine second and third in 5:23.40 and 5:23.88.

In the boys middle school mile, 8th-grader Jacob Kluckhohn of Hubble middle school won in 4:43.52, with Richard Jacobo of Palatine’s Winston second in 4:45.47 and Vladys Slokenbergs of Geneve Middle School South third in 4:47.58.

The girls middle school mile was won by Josie Bond of Naperville Jefferson in 5:38.14, with Ella VanderMolen of Timothy Christian second in 5:57.40 and Ellie Roy of Winston third in 5:59.54.

Kelly O’Brien’s Palatine coach Joe Parks started the evening with a meet record in the coaches mile, taking the lead after two laps to run 4:24.94.  Saint Ignatius alumni also competed in the event, and Grinnell College’s John Lennon set a new alumni mile record of 4:44.24.

Finally, a special event of the night is the “Flight Mile” event.  A three-man team from Lyons Township—Dan Palmer (4:25.45), Matt Begeman (4:29.7), and Tim McCarthly (4:36.37)—finished first, second, and fifth overall for a cross-country-style score of eight points for the win.

Many of the graduating high schoolers will take their talents to college programs next year.  The Torpys will attend Miami University of Ohio.  Altmayer will go to Syracuse University and O’Brien will attend Northwestern University.  Connor Madell will go to the University of Illinois.

“The Magis Miles” expects be an annual night of one-mile races in a spectacular setting, under the lights of the newly renovated Mailliard Track and Fornelli ‘51 Field and against the backdrop of a Chicago skyline just a mile away.  Spectators watched the races “gauntlet-style,” standing right on the track.  Save the date for the 2017 Magis Miles, tentatively scheduled for Friday, June 2.

Magis (pronounced ”MAH-jis’) is a Latin word that means “more” or “better.”   It is related to Ad majorem Dei gloriam, a Latin phrase meaning “for the greater glory of God.”

“At Saint Ignatius College Prep, we use the word Magis as an inspiration for doing more for others and our community,” says Nate McPherson. “We hope this meet can be an expression of Magis for the running community.”

“We think everyone needs more track and field in their lives, and we don’t get enough of it in Chicago, especially,” said Saint Ignatius boys track coach Ed Ernst, one of the Magis Miles organizers.

“We are high school track coaches, first.  So one big goal for this event is to put elite level runners in front of our high school kids so they can see what’s possible.

“When our high school hero runners graduate and move on to the college ranks, sometimes we never get to see them run again.  This is an event where we bring the old heros back to run in front of the new heros.

“We have this beautiful facility in a beautiful city.  We are excited to invite people in for this event.”

And, finally, said Ernst:  “When they put up light towers around our beautiful track two summers ago, the idea popped into our heads, just like in the movie ‘Field of Dreams.  ‘A night of mile races in Chicago.’  That’s our basic idea:  We want to build this event.  If we host it, they will come.”

This year’s event built upon a successful first year in 2015.  The total crowd, runners included, grew from 300 in attendance to over 400.  The meet ran on a tight schedule, with the National Anthem at 7:00 PM and the final race concluded by 9:40 PM.

Billy Poole Harris, head boys cross country coach at Whitney Young High School and an announcer at the IHSA state meet, and Anthony Curran handled the announcing duties.  Kenric Bond, father of the girls middle school mile winner, was the official meet starter.

Dick Pond Athletics and Saucony Running Shoes gave sponsor support for the event.

FAT timing services were supplied by Dave Behof of LA Timing and Bob Geiger of Illinois Prep Top Timing.  Results are posted on the meet web site and here:

The Magis Miles track meet has an information web site:

There are additional meet recaps posted by Dyestat Illinois ( )   and at Illinois Milesplit ( ).

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Bringing back the Mag Miles!


Above:  Greg Kalinowski, who ran at Eastern Michigan and then trained with Nick Willis in Ann Arbor as part of Ron Warhurst’s group, wins the 2015 Mag Miles at Saint Ignatius College Prep.  Loyola’s Sam Penzenstadler and St. Olaf’s Paul Escher, NCAA Division III 1500 champion, chase him through the guantlet finish.  Kalinowski went on to win the Polish national 1500 championship last summer.

The following story appeared in the latest and, sadly, final edition of the Cross Country Journal.  Thank you to Knowles Dougherty for his labor of love on that publication and for his encouragement and support in writing this story!  It has been a while since I have written anything I could use on this blog.

Saint Ignatius College Prep is located just southwest of downtown Chicago, blocks from where the O’Leary cow kicked over the lantern,  in a building so ornate inside and out that students sometimes call it “Hogwarts.”  We have a regular 1.5 mile run each way to the Sears Tower, officially the Willis Tower, of course, and that building and the city skyline tower above a row of tall trees on the east end of the campus—and our track.  The black track and green field-turf athletic field nestle into what is actually a grove of trees behind two blocks of buildings along Taylor Street and Chicago’s Little Italy.

It is a spectacular spot, which we sometimes forget because we practice there every day.

In the summer of 2014 the school administration decided that Friday night home football games would provide a boost to school spirit and a sagging program, and so they added towering light poles at the four corners of the newly renovated Mailliard Track and Fornelli ’51 Field.

We embellished the next part of the story just a little bit in a press release announcing our new event:

“When they put up light towers around our track last summer, the idea popped into my head, just like in the movie ‘Field of Dreams,’” said Saint Ignatius boys track coach Ed Ernst, one of the Magnificent Miles race organizers.  “Imagine a full night of mile races in Chicago under the lights!”

On Friday night, June 5, 2015, Saint Ignatius College Prep inaugurated a new event in the post-season high school and collegiate distance runner track season for the Chicago area—and a new event to kick off the elite summer professional calendar.   We organized a night of one-mile races in our spectacular setting, under the lights and against the backdrop of a Chicago skyline just a mile away.  Spectators watched the races “gauntlet-style,” standing right on the track.

Our event followed just a day after the much more established St. Louis event, the Nike-sponsored Festival of Miles, where Grant Fisher ran 3:59.38 to become the seventh high school runner to run a sub four-minute.

It was actually a surprise when we realized that we could bill our Chicago event as an assault on the first-ever outdoor four-minute mile in Chicago history.

Loyola University’s Sam Penzenstadler had ran 3 minutes and 58.21 seconds at Notre Dame’s indoor Meyo Mile in 2014, a Chicago runner breaking the barrier in nearby South Bend.  Loyola’s Tom O’Hara, also a Saint Ignatius alumnus, set his world record indoor mile of 3:56.4 at the Chicago Stadium on March 6, 1964.  Jim Spivey ran 3:59.4 outdoors in the nearby Chicago suburb of Naperville in 1994 at a North Central College meet.

But our research did not turn up a single official mile under four minutes outdoors run in the borders of the Second City.

We also conceived the event as something that would bring youth, high school, collegiate, and professional runners together in one venue—something that seldom ever happens.  Illinois has strong collegiate track and field traditions at Loyola, the University of Chicago, North Central College, and the University of Illinois, to name a few.  The Illinois High School Athletics state championship meet at the end of May at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston is one of the best high school meets in the country, year in and year out.  Many of the stars of that meet go on to collegiate careers, and some go on to professional success.

But once the high school state meet stars go to college, their younger high school teammates and their fans almost never get to see them run again, especially if they go to college out of state.

Working with assistant track and cross country coach Nate McPherson, co-director of the meet, we began our planning with what we know best—assembling a high school field.  We wanted it to be an elite meet, with top runners—but we also wanted some numbers, which we thought would bring fans, friends, and family as spectators.  Assistant coach Steven Bugarin came up with the idea of a flight mile.   We would recruit three-runner teams from ten to fifteen schools and have them race in flights—number ones against number ones, twos against twos, threes against threes.  Then we would score the flights cross country style—low score wins.

We successfully ran the meet with twelve boys’ flight teams—but no girls’ teams.  We felt badly about this, but part of the problem is that we coach boys and we know boys teams and coaches.  Note for next year:  Recruit a girls coach to build the girls field.

We also recruited a high school freshman mile, which has been a successful event in other area post-season meets.

Finally, we assembled a post-season elite mile, with top high school runners, boys and girls.  We ended up with two heats of boy runners, one for the girls.

Building professional and collegiate races proved more difficult.  We had hoped to run multiple heats.  In the end we ended up with one heat for collegiate and professional men and one for the women.

We sent out a batch of emails to college coaches in March, and we got one enthusiastic response from the University of Illinois coach Jake Stewart.  His ace runner Bryce Basting had run 4:02 indoors for a mile when an injury sidelined him.  He was redshirting in the spring, and he might be looking for a fast race right around NCAA championship week.  Stewart figured he might also have a few other Chicago-area runners who would not qualify for NCAAs but would want one more race.

So we started shopping  Bryce Basting’s name to a list of runners that included Lex Williams, former Michigan runner who was coaching at Illinois State University.  Williams had run 4:01 at Nick Willis’s Michigan Mile the previous summer, and he was looking for a race to start his summer, yes.  And Williams was looking for a race for red-shirting Illinois State runner Kelly McShea.  So we recruited two elite runners with one email.

Once we got our web site up and running,, and started recruiting by word of mouth at track meets, some more names came in:  Andrew Nelson, back in Geneva after completing college at Syracuse, where he ran close to 4:00 in the mile, signed up online.

A friend and Ignatius alumnus named Tom Coyne, formerly an administrator at Western Michigan University, had to remind me several times to get in contact with Nick Willis, whose Michigan Mile run was a little bit like the event we were constructing.  Coyne provided me with email addresses and phone numbers for Willis and Ron Warhurst.   I finally got an email off to Willis, and his response was supportive and polite.  His training and competition schedule was pretty tight; he was aiming, of course, at the World Championships 1500 in August.   “Congrats on getting this event off the ground!!!” he wrote.  “At this stage my plan is to race sparingly in this world championship year, and will start my racing on June 13th in NYC.  If I talk to anyone looking for a race, I will be sure to let them know about your event.”

Two weeks before our event, Willis came through.  He training partner Greg Kalinowski was looking for one more race before returning home to Poland after five years in the United States.  Kalinowski , formerly junior national 1500 champ in Poland, ran at Eastern Michigan before joining Ron Warhurst’s training group in Ann Arbor.  Willis figured he was ready to break 4:00 in the mile.  By the way, were we offering any prize money?

We did have prize money–$500 for first, $300 for second, $100 for third.  More to the point, however, we could send Kalinowski a train ticket to bring him in from Ann Arbor and book him a room in Chicago for the night.  He would be leaving just a few days later for Poland, and a race in Chicago, a big Polish town, after all, seemed like a good fit.

We had one more difficult group to recruit.  One goal of our race was put some of our local collegiate stars on the track for the current high schoolers to watch.  Our list of possible runners included Saint Ignatius alumnus and Stanford runner Jack Keelan, who was Illinois cross country, 1600, and 3200 state champ in 2012-13; 2011-12 Illinois cross country champ and 1600 champ Leland Later, from New Trier High School and now from the University of California-Berkeley; Will Crocker of Belvidere North and the University of Missouri; and Michael Clevenger, 2011-12 state champ at the 2A level in Illinois in cross country, 1600, and 3200, from MacArthur High School, now at Notre Dame.  We also thought it would be great to recruit Sam Penzenstadler from Loyola, who hails from Wisconsin—close enough to Chicago.

But recruiting these guys in early May was a sensitive project:  They all had big hopes for NCAA qualification.  We had to invite them to run in Chicago in early June, while wishing them the best at NCAA regionals in mid-May.  But they could only run our race if they failed at the regional.

From the group, only Clevenger, as it turned out, made it through to NCAA nationals.  Keelan, who missed qualifying in the 5000 by just one spot, still had to decline because Stanford was still in school; he would be taking his finals.  But Later, Crocker, and Penzenstadler signed on quickly after they missed out at regionals.

Finally, on a lark, we made one more pitch, sending an email to St. Olaf coach Phil Lundin.  I had interviewed Lundin for another article in Cross Country Journal.  His team featured four of the top ten NCAA Division III 1500 meter runners in the country.  D III nationals took place two weeks before our event in May.  Maybe one of his guys would be interested in coming to Chicago for another race?

It was a big surprise when I got a return email from Paul Escher, D III national champion at 1500, asking for a spot in our meet.  No, he assured me, we could not help him with transportation or housing costs.  D III rules don’t allow that kind of support, even in the summer.  But we would see him on the starting line on June 5th.

The night of June 5th turned out to be a little bit cold for the season—and Chicago winds were blowing a little bit hard.

Performances weren’t quite as fast as we hoped in any of events.

But as race organizers, we felt a tremendous response from the runners in terms of positive energy.  Our announcer, Billy Poole-Harris who coaches at nearby Whitney Young High School, introduced our elite high school milers one by one before their races, as they ran up the track from the 100-meter start to the finish.  The spectators in the gauntlet crowd on the track cheered wildly.

The winner of the high school boys mile was Sean Torpy of Sandburg in 4:18.35.  Conner Madell of Lyons Township finished second in 4:19.99. Brooke Wilson of Prospect (5:03.56) outran Audrey Ernst of St. Charles (5:07.22) in the girls high school mile. In the women’s collegiate and professional mile, Jessica Watychowicz of the Wisconsin Runners won the women’s race in 4:54.88.  She overtook second-place finisher Alyvia Clark (4:56.71), running unattached after a career at Loyola, with a strong kick over the last 200 meters.  “The crowd support was amazing,” said Watychowicz.

The main event of the night, of course, was the men’s mile—and their attempt to break the 4:00 minute barrier.

With 200 meters to go Grzegorz Kalinowski was literally right on time.  The Mailliard track stadium clock at Saint Ignatius College Prep blinked 3 minutes and 30 seconds.  With a 29-second 200 Kalinowski would become the first runner in history to break 4:00-minutes outdoors on a Chicago city track.

He ran a 34-second last 200.

“My coach is going to make fun of me,” said Kalinowski, who runs for former University of Michigan coach Ron Warhurst’s Very Nice Track club out of Ann Arbor, shaking his head after the race.  “That was really slow the last 100 meters.”

Kalinowski finished in 4 minutes and 4.07 seconds.   Closing fast in the last 200 meters, recent Loyola University graduate Sam Penzenstadler was second in 4:05.37.  Paul Escher of St. Olaf College finished third in 4:05.37, with Lex Williams of Brooks Running fourth in 4:05.63.

As the race professionals, Kalinowski took home the $500 first prize, Penzenstadler $300, and Williams $100.

Leland Later was fifth in 4:06.21, with Will Crocker sixth in 4:09.20.

The meet crowd, as it happened, included Saint Ignatius and Loyola University alumnus Tom O’Hara.   It was a busy night, but we had a few minutes to talk.  I wanted to confirm something with O’Hara.  Our research into sub-4:00 minute miles in Chicago, especially an outdoor sub-4:00 mile, had turned up a story.  In the spring of 1964, after he had set the indoor world mark and as he was preparing to make the U.S. Olympic team that year, O’Hara ran a workout at the University of Chicago.  The workout was a sub-4:00 mile—solo. Was the story true, I asked O’Hara? Always a humble fellow of few words, O’Hara just smiled.

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Starting a new tradition: The South Loop Challenge for the Sears Tower Trophy

A post-race photo of the Saint Ignatius and Jones College Prep cross country teams--with the Sears Tower Trophy.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

A post-race photo of the Saint Ignatius College Prep and Jones College Prep cross country teams–with the Sears Tower Trophy. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Almost every weekday in Chicago’s Grant Park, on opposite sides of the artificial knoll and the General John Logan Civil War monument that divides the south end of the park along Michigan Avenue, our Saint Ignatius College Prep cross country meets at Roosevelt and Michigan to practice while the team from Jones College Prep meets at Balbo and Michigan.

We both use the same bridge over the Illinois electric tracks and the same tunnels under Columbus Avenue and Lake Shore Drive when our boys run out to the lakefront trail.  We wave and say hello as we pass each other coming and going as far south as 39th street beach on that trail.  We both use Bobsled Hill near Soldier Field for sprint and interval workouts, and coaches even check with each other sometimes to make sure our teams are there on different days.

We each know how hard the other team works.  We start our competitive seasons together at our low-key Wolfpack Howl, really kind of a scrimmage.  We compete against each other in several big invitationals with dozens of other teams, most notably at the Palatine Invitational at the end of September.

So it just seemed natural that we should get together and race one team against the other with something at stake.

“Last summer,” our assistant coach Nate McPherson tells the story, “I attended a barbecue hosted by the Palatine cross country coach Chris Quick. In attendance were a number of cross country coaches, among them Andrew Adelmann from Jones College Prep.   We discussed the fact that neither of our leagues (Chicago Public League and Chicago Catholic League) host regular dual meets among the members.”

Other conferences, like the West Suburban and the Mid Suburban leagues, require small meets among its teams during the season.  McPherson concludes, “We talked about how neat it would be to have an annual dual meet with each other. “

The meet took shape over the next few months, as both teams dropped the invitationals they had scheduled for the October 11 weekend before the conference meets for the Chicago Catholic League and the Chicago Public League.   Jones took on the job of home team and arranged for permits to run on the Chicago Public League championship course in Washington Park.  We offered up our computer watches and Hytek computer software for tabulating results.

Starting line for the first Jones Vs. Ignatius South Loop Challenge.

Starting line for the first Jones Vs. Ignatius South Loop Challenge.

Along the way, coaches and athletes discussed various components to make the meet “special.”  Our early season, informal race had always had a competitive aspect.  But this dual meet would take place right before the conference meets, as both teams expected to be rounding into championship form.  Jones would be prepararing to win back the Public League crown that they had earned in 2012 with a dominating score of 17 points—before going on to win the IHSA 2A state championship.  Ignatius would be trying to win back the CCL championship it had won in 2010 and in 2012.  There would be bragging rights at stake—both for our teams and for our leagues—as both are teams that could make a claim to be among the best in the city.  At the very least, it would be a championship for the South Loop.

Wolfpack captain Andy Weber leads the team during the pre-race handshakes.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Wolfpack captain Andy Weber leads the team during the pre-race handshakes. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Adelmann and his coaches emailed with the suggestion that we start the race a little bit differently than other invitationals.   Before the race both teams would line up for a handshake.   Then, instead of assigning each team to its own starting box, the top seven from each team would take the starting line together—and they would line up in alternating order, Jones, Ignatius, Jones, Ignatius.

And then there was the trophy.  He took some input from our boys—and even from me.   But it was really McPherson’s brainchild and baby.  His brother, Aaron (an accountant by day), was a woodworker, he told me as he laid out his plan early in September.   They were going to build a Sears Tower replica, and there would be room to put the names of the boys from the winning team each year, like the Stanley Cup.

“In the three weeks before the meet,” McPherson continues, “my brother and I got together on Saturday afternoons to work on this trophy.”  He supplied some photographs as the trophy took shape—most notably, one without the base as an unstained tower structure which was nonetheless almost three-feet tall already.  He showed us the small plaque for the trophy base when it arrived in the mail.

The finished trophy.  Photo by Nate McPherson.

The finished trophy. Photo by Nate McPherson.

On the Monday before the Thursday race, the photo showed a finished product, wood stained black, with white antennas on top.

I sent the photo to some media friends, including Justin Breen of DNA Info Chicago and Mike Clark of the Sun-Times.   Breen expressed interest in the story, and you can read it here.  Clark wanted a photo so he could put it in his cross country notes column.

The trophy itself appeared in the faculty lounge at Ignatius on Thursday morning before the evening race.  When we loaded the bus to take it to Washington Park, there were some comments about how important it would be to bring the travelling trophy home to Ignatius at the end of the day.

The meet began with the frosh soph race.  It was a good one.  We had lost to the Jones frosh soph team twice previously, at our own Connelly-Polka Invite and then at the Palatine Invite back in September.  Our boys gave a very strong Jones group a run for their money, but we came up just short, 25-30.  Freshman Patrick Hogan led the Wolfpack with his second place finish, running 16 minutes and 56 seconds on the slightly longer than 3-mile course.  Sophomore Lyndon Vickrey (5th, 17:18), sophomore Joe Amoruso (6th, 17:28), freshman Brett Haffner (7th, 17:36), and sophomore Paul Tonner (10th, 18:12) completed the scoring five for the Wolfpack.

Then it was time for the main event.

Our team ran what was arguably our best race of the season—and the Jones team didn’t.

The top three Wolfpack runners--Kallin Khan, Andy Weber, and Dan Santino--took control of the race early.  In a dual meet, 1-2-3 wins the match.  Photo by Steven Bugarin.

The top three Wolfpack runners–Kallin Khan, Andy Weber, and Dan Santino–took control of the race early. In a dual meet, 1-2-3 wins the match. Photo by Steven Bugarin.

Midway through the race, after the first 1.5 mile loop, it seemed like Ignatius was in control, with four among the top five leaders.  But Jones runners lurked nearby.  Mark Protsiv, number one Jones runner for much of the season, chased the top three Ignatius leaders—Dan Santino, Andy Weber, and Kallin Khan.  Ignatius runner John Lennon trailed that group closely.  But four more Jones runners—Tony Solis, Will Sarchet, Nico Moreno, and Kyle Maloney–were leading the Ignatius number five runner, Vince Lewis.  The race would be decided on the second lap.

But on that lap our boys moved forward, while the Jones boys retreated a little bit.

Dan Santino, Andy Weber, Kallin Khan, and John Lennon go 1-2-3-4 for the Wolfpack.

Dan Santino, Andy Weber, Kallin Khan, and John Lennon go 1-2-3-4 for the Wolfpack.

At the end, the Wolfpack brought the new travelling trophy back to Ignatius and defeated Jones by the score of 19-36.  Ignatius went 1-2-3-4 with Santino (15:48), Weber (15:53), Khan (16:08), and Lennon (16:16).  Then it was Solis, Protsiv, Sarchet, and Moreno.  Vince Lewis (9th, 16:41) was the fifth scoring runner for the Wolfpack, with seniors Brian Santino (11th, 16:49) and Joey Connelly (14th, 17:16) completing the team.

The two teams will meet again at the IHSA Regional meet, again at Washington Park, on October 25.  Both teams will likely advance to the IHSA Sectional at Niles West on November 1.  Both teams have teams that are strong enough to advance to the IHSA state championship in Peoria a week later.

We don’t know where we will keep the trophy until next year.  We will probably add a small plaque with the names of our boys as the winning team for 2014.

And next year we will race for the trophy again.

“Although it started out as a small idea, it kept growing as we got more input from the boys on the team and others in the community,” says McPherson, who gets lots of credit for the success of this new event on our calendar. “We are hoping to make this a quality tradition for both the Saint Ignatius and Jones College Prep teams.”

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Not always a natural match: negotiations between track and cross country

Including some thoughts from St. Olaf’s Phil Lundin

A version of this article appears in the current edition of the Cross Country Journal.


Photo by Steven Bugarin

Each year we try to meet with the freshmen athletes at the end of football and soccer in the fall and then basketball in the winter to recruit them for track. Playing football, soccer, and basketball year round, we tell them, might not be the best way to become a better player.

We can make them better football, soccer, and basketball players by teaching them to run faster and jump higher. They can develop more as athletes in track, and then return to their chosen sport with new abilities.

But even as I deliver that message, sometimes I feel like a hypocrite. We tell our cross country runners to run track if they want to reach the highest levels of their abilities. We even encourage our track sprinters to run cross country for the conditioning if they are not doing a fall sport.

While there are always exceptions to the rule, distance runners develop best by running all year round. What’s more, the competitive seasoning of track season—and the slightly different kind of training emphasis on speed—develops runners both physically and mentally in ways that make them better cross country runners.

There are differences in the sports of track and cross country for distance runners. In cross country we teach runners to race side by side. In track, we tell them to run behind in lane one to save distance and draft, or else just edge up on the shoulder. There are other tactical differences, like planning race strategy around hills and terrain in cross country, as opposed to positioning in the pack and carefully watching the pace clock in track.

In terms of the time we have with our athletes, the track season covers much more of the school year than cross country season. On the East Coast, indoor season starts in early December and then outdoor continues in the spring, with three months for cross country and six months for track season. Track runners run fast early season track times building off their cross country training. The Illinois High School Association mandates a couple months off from official practice after the mid- August to early-November cross country season, but the track season covers five months from January to the end of May. In warm weather areas, it seems, cross country is an even shorter season—and track season is longer. Track can extend into June with national competitions, but the regional and national cross country season goes until December. Summer training in July might be counted as part of cross country. But, pretty much everywhere, runners are in school and under the watchful eye of the school track coach for much longer during the track training season.

This summer a family trip took us to Northfield, Minnesota, and a visit to St. Olaf College for a long weekend. I dropped an email to Phil Lundin, coach of the defending Division III men’s cross country champions at St. Olaf. He came in for a chat. The topic of the relationship of track teams and cross country teams came up in our conversation—even though I hadn’t even taken on the assignment for this story yet.

When he arrived at St. Olaf College as head coach for track and cross country, Lundin says, “There was probably a culture among the distance guys here that emphasized cross country as opposed to track.” It is a natural and common situation, he acknowledges: “Many of the distance guys are just going to like cross country best. It’s a purer version of what they like to do. They like to go out to the woods and roads and run.”

But part of the process for building a national champion Division III cross country team at St. Olaf involved an emphasis on the cross country guys running track, as well. In the 2014 spring track season, after winning the 2013 cross country title, three St. Olaf runners ran in the final of the 1500 meters at the DIII national track championships. Sophomore Paul Escher finished second in 3:48.12, and, as it happens, he was St. Olaf’s number eight runner in cross country. Lundin will have to replace runners at the number three and seven spots next year. Escher’s emergence as a track runner suggests he will be an even better cross country runner now, and he will fill in nicely as the team defends its title.

A great cross country program does not automatically mean success in track. Even as York High School dominated Illinois cross country championships through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Coach Joe Newton’s track teams did not win a state title until the spring of 2000. In 2013-14, Hinsdale Central won the Illinois 3A cross country championship with a dominating performance that featured four runners in the top 30 spots. But at the state track meet they managed just one medal for fifth place in the 3200 out of the four distance events—not even making the final in the 4×800 relay.

The sting of that disappointment, however, arguably makes them more dangerous for the coming cross country season.

There is potential for the relationship between track and cross country to go wrong–especially when there are different coaches for each sport. I know nothing other than what I have read about the situation at Arcadia High School and the conflict between the track and cross country coaches there. But it seems like a good example of what can go wrong. Neither program and none of these coaches and athletes win in that kind of conflict situation.

Track is not for everyone, of course, and even cross country runners can be athletes with multi-sport skills.

In Illinois, on the boys’ side, there can be athletes who run cross country and then choose lacrosse—or even baseball—in the spring. On the girls’ side, there is a bigger conflict, because girls can run cross country in the fall and then play soccer in the spring.

At St. Olaf—and in many northern states—the conflict arises between track and Nordic skiing. Cross country skiing, one might argue, is even a more natural fit with cross country running than track. St. Olaf’s number two cross country runner, junior Jake Brown, Coach Phil Lundin understands, “is first and foremost a Nordic skier.” Brown transferred to St. Olaf from Princeton, and at least part of the reason was to be closer to the snows of Minnesota. He has been one of the top American finishers in the Birkebiener over the last couple of years. This year he initially was not going to run track after the rigors of the ski season, but he ran a few races to help the team. He won the 3000-meter steeplechase at the conference meet, and his time of 9:09.46 would have qualified him for track nationals . “We encouraged him to run in the NCAA meet,” Lundin says, “but he was scheduled to depart for Norway the Sunday after the championships and felt that he had had enough.”

The relationship between track and cross country is sometimes a negotiation. Boys inclined toward track might want to pursue track competition through the summer in the AAU and USATF Junior Olympics series. Cross country coaches tend to prefer runners shut it down, in terms of serious summer competition, and build a distance base. Cross country coaches tend to win that one.

Track coaches win the battle when the cross country runners join the track team.

And when those tricky conflict situations arise, as Lundin notes, “negotiation is always possible.”


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