In a sport where there is often one peak performance in a season, times posted at nationals typically represent the high point of months’ worth of training. An incredibly muddy course prevented many runners from hitting their top form Saturday, but the elements and the tough competition weren’t enough to slow down cross country at the NCAA championships.
With nine runners making the trip to West Chester, OH, the Maroons capped off a stellar season, pulled off a top-20 team finish on the women’s side, and saw fourth-year Vidthya Abraham end her career as an All-American. Led by Abraham’s 27th-place finish, Chicago kicked its way to a 19th-place performance, the fourth best result in school history. Representing the men’s squad, fourth-years Brian Hague and Emil Bojanov finished out of the running but ran strong races to close out their illustrious careers. Hague crossed the line 227th, while Bojanov finished 64th.
“The course conditions were absolutely horrible. I think that the NCAAs should never have allowed that site for a national meet,” head coach Chris Hall said. “Not that our kids didn’t adapt to it well. I think that they had a good experience, but I don’t think that the race was a fair test of where people were at this time of year.”
The rough terrain at host Wilmington College was nothing out of the ordinary for this time of year. With a natural propensity to become waterlogged, the course quickly became a swamp under the trample of a big crowd, with six to eight inches of mud to bog down and trip runners. Instead of being an opportunity to race against the division’s prime opponents, nationals quickly became a matter of surviving the next six or eight kilometers.
Taking the wind out of everybody’s sails, the unexpected obstacle made it all the more difficult for Chicago’s NCAA first-timers to focus on bringing everything that spurred them past foes during the regular season to Saturday’s showdown. Most of the South Siders toeing the line were making their debut on the national scene, with six of the seven women chasing after their first shot at claiming All-American honors. The two Maroons who managed to be the most consistent with their technique from earlier in the fall pulled away with the team’s top finishes.
“When you qualify to the NCAAs, you belong there, you fit in,” Hall said. “Provided you don’t do anything differently from what you’ve done all year long, you usually have a lot of success.”
Taking full advantage at her first and only chance at national recognition in cross country, Abraham put herself in a good position early on and never lost sight of the front of the pack. The 27th runner to cross the line, the veteran covered the six kilometers in 23:41 minutes and made the cut for the top-35 individual finishers who make All-American with some room to spare.
“I’m just really proud of her and how she adjusted to the conditions. She’s had a lot of problems with asthmatic attacks and some things that have prevented her from consistently running up to her ability level,” Hall said. “She just never really labored in the race, she felt good; she felt comfortable with where she was at and seemed to enjoy it.”
Crossing the line less than a minute after Abraham, classmate Dilshanie Perera’s 24:38 time grabbed the 76th spot, helping to pace the squad to a 19th place finish out of 32.
On the men’s side, Bojanov and fourth-year Brian Hague were among the 56 individual runners selected outside of their teams to race at the championships. Co-captain Hague battled the last traces of a virus and a sore leg as he completed the course in 29:57, while Bojanov took in 64th with a 28:09 finish.
“Emil Bojanov really handled the course conditions well and raced a smart, intelligent race where he went after being an All-American. If he didn’t achieve that, fine,” Hall said. “He ran out of a little steam over the last mile, but I wouldn’t change a darn thing about what he did. A lot of our other athletes were probably affected by the course conditions.”
While most of the South Siders closed out the cross-country season last week at the Midwest Regionals, the championships marked the full wrap-up to the year.
“That was one of the main goals of the season—to make it to nationals,” Hague said. “I had made it the last two seasons, and I really enjoy traveling and hanging with the team. So, I try to extend my season whenever I can, and I wanted to see how I would compare with other runners in the nation.”
For the women, the 19th-place finish at nationals proved just how well the team has adjusted this fall after the loss of top scorer Jessica Winter (A.B.’06) pushed runners into new slots under higher pressure. On the men’s side, Hague and Bojanov helped carry the squad in a transition season following last fall’s best-ever ninth-place finish at nationals.