In 1976, Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth documented the Paris-Roubaix cycling race in a film titled En Forårsdag I Helvede (A Sunday in Hell). Considered the greatest cycling film ever made, it shows the challenge of the sport’s most difficult race from the perspective of the riders, organizers, and fans.
Likewise, Saturday’s NCAA Cross Country Championships were held in a steady rain in weather barely above freezing. The difficulty of the race, the mud (and mud, and more mud), and the environment combined to make it a Saturday in hell. And that’s exactly as it should be.
WOMEN’S RACE: A YEAR LATER, THE FAVORITES WIN
There are about as many NCAA championships predictions as there are websites that cover it, and I’m pretty sure that Arkansas was a unanimous pick to win yesterday’s meet. The Razorbacks knew that meant bupkis because last year they were a consensus pick for a top-four podium finish – Citius Mag’s own Isaac Wood picked them to win – and ended up thirteenth.
This time the team carried the attitude of champions. Arkansas had pulled off upset wins at both the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field Championships in March and June, and the confidence earned by those made it easier to execute a plan. “They followed the race plan and never lost composure,” said coach Lance Harter. “The plan was to just to try to be in position at 4k.” BYU led the race at the 2-kilometer mark over Arkansas and Stanford, then the Razorbacks moved up to a 9-point lead at 4k, and held on for a 6-point victory over BYU.
Just because they were the favorites doesn’t mean they weren’t excited. Our Citius Mag photographer overhead two unidentified Razorbacks scream “you know what this means? We’re gonna have to get tattoos on our butts!”
Similarly, the favorite to win the individual title was New Mexico’s Weini Kelati, but nothing was guaranteed. Last year Isaac Wood told us you could “sharpie” her in for the win, but she was outrun by Colorado’s Dani Jones. She surged away from a leading group just past halfway, as she did last year, but this time her lead was for good.
MEN’S RACE: WUT?
Northern Arizona was going for their fourth straight championship and was widely considered essentially unbeatable. We don’t remember when the “unbeatable” teams win championships, but we sure do remember when they don’t. ’85 Georgetown basketball, 2007 Patriots Super Bowl, and now the 2019 Northern Arizona Lumberjacks.
I and our two photographers positioned ourselves just before the 1000 meter mark for the men’s race. At the Lavern Gibson course it’s at the end of a very long straightaway and a series of downhills, and we were at a hard right-hand turn. It’s not easy to pick out uniforms in a mass of 256 runners moving at about 14 miles per hour, but it sure did look to us like Northern Arizona was too far back. But hey, there’s another 9k of running to go, right?
At 3000 meters the scoreboard showed that NAU was too far back, and while in second place they were still 57 points behind BYU. At 5000 meters BYU still led by 46.
Two of us had remained at our original spot and waited for the men to come by a second time, at roughly 5500 meters. A lone man came down the hill in a Virginia Tech uniform with a 60-yard lead, and we turned to each other and said “who the f**k is that?”
His name is Peter Seufer, and I should have known who he was. Running on grass slows everyone down but some less than others, and the same goes for running on mud. Seufer is one of those guys. He was 16th at last year’s championship and won his second ACC championship in October. However, not one thing he’s done during track season matches those accomplishments, and that’s why he was off my radar.
By the 8000 meter checkpoint, Seufer still led but by just a step. BYU still led NAU, the gap remained 46 points, and Colorado had moved up to tie NAU for second. Soon after, Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat took the lead and kept it, eventually building a lead big enough that he could celebrate the win before the finish line. Behind him, Seufer surged past Colorado’s Joe Klecker and BYU’s Connor Mantz to move back into second, but didn’t have the gas to hold it to the finish and ended up fourth.
On the scoreboard, BYU’s lead widened over the last 2 km and the Cougars took their first national championship in a race that was shockingly never close. Colorado was third, just a point behind Northern Arizona, and Iowa State took the last trophy in fourth.
Was it a stunning upset? Yes and no. Northern Arizona was head and shoulders above everyone else all season, but by itself that means nothing. BYU was third two years ago and second last year, and it’s the norm that a championship team has a recent history like that. It should come as no surprise to observe that improvement at the highest levels of long-distance running is gradual and takes years to accomplish.
THE END…FOR NOW
The Lavern Gibson course at Terre Haute has a shoe tree. When it’s all over for you, either a season or a career, you throw your spikes up into this tree behind the start line.
The NCAA cross country championships come at a time of year when you really know it’s all over. Everyone’s serious fall running season is done, no matter whether you’re a high schooler or a college stud or a pro or a middle-aged has-been, the year’s outdoor spectator sports are basically done too, and real winter is beginning to set in.
I’ve been to the NCAAs for 16 of the last 17 years, including all 12 held in Terre Haute. I do it with some of my best friends, guys I suffered with on other cross country courses decades ago. I’m firmly of the opinion that Indiana State does this event better than anyone else. Their facility is at least as good as anyone else’s, their athletics communications takes it very seriously, and the town embraces the event like nowhere else. ISU pioneered the video board, live broadcasting, live scoring, and even had a fighter jet flyover back in 2002.
I and my friends won’t be at either of the next two championships since they won’t be in our part of the country, and some of them have other responsibilities they’ve been able to shirk only because the meet was easy for us to get to.
On the way home I listened to a Lake Wobegon story from an old episode of A Prairie Home Companion, one looking at the other end of this long, cold spell of Midwestern winter and then still-kind-of-winter that we’re about to endure. Carl Krebsbach was out on the first day of fishing season, a cold and rainy day with water dripping down the back of his neck, eating damp sandwiches and drinking bad lukewarm coffee from a thermos. The scene felt awfully familiar to me.
Garrison Keillor said that you go out in these miserable conditions because you’re not alone, you know that everyone else is suffering just as much as you are. It’s interesting, it gives you something to talk about, and it’s actually a happy thing to know we’re all going through the same misery. You feel sorry for those who never know difficulty, because they never know true happiness.
Was Saturday heaven or hell? In cross country, they are one and the same.