Loudoun Valley hasn’t truly flexed its cross country muscle yet.
Not in winning the Great American Cross Country Festival a week ago and not in scoring 18 points to win the Third Battle Invitational, taking six of the top seven spots in the process. The defending Nike Cross Nationals champions haven’t even figured out who their top seven will be, and two runners who raced in Winchester did well enough to only make coach Marc Hunter’s job harder as the Vikings pick their seven runners who will compete in postseason races.
“It’s a good problem to have,” he said. “I’m always amazed at how the boys do. It’s a revolving door for 6-7-8-9, and it’s been a short season, so we’ll have to make some tough decisions. When they run well like this, it makes it harder.”
Luke Tewalt isn’t the kind of hold back, especially when he has a chance to really be part of a race.
The Washington Latin junior took that opportunity Saturday at the Glory Days Invitational at Clifton’s Bull Run Regional Park, leading W.T. Woodson’s Jack Leech and Bishop O’Connell’s Max Greczyn through the rolling course. For Tewalt, it was a Goldilocks race, not too fast, like the DCXC Invitational a week earlier when he faced off against a Lynchburg area runner with a much faster personal best; and not too slow, like many of the smaller invitationals his charter school team had been racing.
“I don’t mind setting the pace because I’m used to that in a lot of my races, but it was even better to have guys to run with,” he said. “We were all out there pushing each other and it wound up being a really fun race.”
Woodrow Wilson sophomore Vincent Kimami spends a lot of his time before races wrapped up in his nerves. This week, coaches and race directors were right with him.
As rain continued to fall on the D.C. area, the fates of weekend invitationals were once again in doubt. On Friday, Fauquier County, Va.’s Octoberfest Invitational pulled the plug, like Oatlands two weeks before and Maryland’s Track and Trail before that, driven by concerns about how courses would survive the onslaught of spikes and body weight.
But the DCXC Invitational at Northeast D.C.’s Kenilworth Park was a go, and runners would have a chance to face off and get dirty. Coaches, and Kimani, could stop fretting and start planning on actually racing. The flat, usually fast course was not immune to the rain, and long muddy stretches and iffy turns forced many races to become tactical, which as T.S. Wootton senior John Riker remarked after his third place finish, would ultimately be more beneficial in the long term for runners.
Tom Martin isn’t sure what he’d do without the towers field in Bethesda, Md. Maybe his cross-country runners would have to do more workouts on the track, he says. Maybe he’d even think about retiring from coaching. That’s how important the roughly 1.25-mile, grass-and-dirt loop around the WMAL radio towers is to him. It’s more than just a 75-acre field nestled between two highways and not far from Walter Johnson High School, where Martin coaches. It’s a crucial piece of the local running culture in Montgomery County.
“For me, it’s almost as if, when that goes away, I might consider retiring,” Martin says. “It’s invaluable just to have… this nice open space where we can do all different kinds of workouts. It would be a tremendous loss to our program.”
Long, dewy grass at Fort Washington Park presented a challenge at runners at the Prince George’s County Invitational. So did “the General,” a long hill from the bank of the Potomac River.
That was alright for Eleanor Roosevelt coach Nayda Pierla, whose teams won the boys’ competition 36-90 over Parkdale and girls finished second behind Flowers 27-54. Roosevelt junior Brandon Lewis on the individual title in 17:49, while C.H. Flowers junior Javon Watts remained undefeated at Fort Washington Park for her career, winning by more than 90 seconds in 21:14. It’s a few seconds slower than her winning time last year, but the grass on the course had not been mowed.
As students at St. Albans School and National Cathedral School prepare for the cross country conference championships, many of these runners are also getting ready for the fall play.
Jim Ehrenhaft, who coaches cross country for both Washington, D.C., schools and is also the assistant track coach in charge of distance, is just one of the coaches in the region who works with students balancing other commitments outside of running and school.
“It’s something that we just have to help them manage,” he said. “Because their interests certainly should be encouraged, and at the same time, when they made choices, there are consequences or repercussions, and we just, again, have to help them understand that and put it in perspective — that’s one of the big challenges.”
After a week of being forced to call audibles on practices in the face of oppressive heat and humidity, runners were treated to a cooler day at the Monroe Parker Invitational Saturday at Burke Lake.
Stifling humidity on top of late-summer heat coupled with new school district policies to cancel outdoor practices in the week leading up to the race, with teams opting for morning, late-night or independent practices. When runners at Osbourn Park couldn’t do morning practices, the Yellow Jackets wound up running stairs or laps around the hallways.
“That was tough because the kids have to take those turns slower,” said coach Mike Shuster. “I’m hoping the silver lining is it will keep us fresh a little longer, since we couldn’t have regular practice for seven out of nine days.”
Changes in plans like that left some runners and coaches a little unsure of how they would open their seasons. The September ACT testing date conflicted with this year’s race, to boot.
Tradition versus at uniformity on Fairfax County’s hallowed grounds
Anyone who’s been part of Fairfax County cross country knows the Burke Lake course. You can’t talk to a cross country runner without hearing about it. Since 1974, the park in Fairfax Station has served as a primary competition location, playing host to numerous postseason races, district meets and the season-opening Monroe Parker Invitational. Some of the best distance runners in the country have been through there.
Despite a few minor tweaks here and there, the course has remained relatively unchanged since 1974, which gives it a certain sentimental identity. But unlike the other courses that grace Fairfax County’s high school cross country scene, Burke Lake is not a 5K. It’s 2.98 miles and it has been that way from the beginning. This has sparked a debate over whether to preserve this unique trait or to conform the venue to other courses.
It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Music blaring from a DJ breaks the sleepy stillness of the open field. Underneath the foggy haze of a fall morning, hundreds of high school runners are awake and ready. A mass of bodies squish together along the line, experiencing the thrill of adrenaline, nerves and anticipation.
And then the gun goes off. All you can hear is the tidal wave of cries from spectators and random cowbells clanging. The race is a blur of hills and turns and ups and downs. Sand and mud and grass.
And then it’s over. Runners stagger across the finish line; many collapse into the waiting arms of volunteers. The music is still pounding; the finish line announcer is calling out names and times. What began as a competition, intense and focused, takes on the air of a festival. Athletes wander around searching for food and friends. No longer competitors, racers from all different schools come together to hang out and enjoy the amenities.
Our 2018 cross country issue includes stories about the historic Burke Lake course, schedule building, managing extracurriculars with running, West Springfield coach Chris Pellegrini and more! Click through to read the magazine online. This will, however, be our last print edition because we are going online only from here on!