Fourth-year Rachel Venezia and second-year Liz Lawton competed in the NCAA championship this Saturday, and both finished in the middle of the 279-runner field to round out the cross-country season.
With the temperatures dipping below freezing, Venezia and Lawton took 142nd and 162nd respectively, with times of 22:50 and 22:58.
“They didn’t have bad days,” head coach Chris Hall said. “I didn’t think they had great days, and having an average day at the NCAAs usually translates into a disappointing day.”
The temperatures also tested the strained calf that Lawton suffered last weekend, and against new competition, Venezia and Lawton struggled to retain the drive that resulted in the high-quality performances that the pair handed in at regionals two weeks ago. Meanwhile, the duo also had to overcome the congestion they faced early in the race, as the oversized field took shape in the first 1,000 meters.
“I think we didn’t get out fast enough. It was a really big field, and we got stuck in around 70th, and the girls we should’ve been racing were higher in the big pack,” Lawton said. “We didn’t get connected with those girls in the beginning, and that set us up for not being focused the whole race.”
Both runners knew coming into the race that an all-American finish would require a top effort, beyond both of their personal bests for the six-kilometer race.
“We went into this weekend, and it’s like, ‘What do we have to lose? The team’s not here; let’s go after being all-Americans and see what happens,’” Hall said. “I think relatively early on in the race it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, and I think it’s difficult to continue to find motivation of ‘What I am trying to do then?’ I could’ve looked at them and said, ‘Let’s try to be 72nd today.’ That probably would have been a great accomplishment, looking at this field, but I don’t think that would’ve meant anything for them.”
The biggest challenge of the weekend arose not because of the stiff competition, lingering injuries, or frigid temperatures, but because of the absence of the Maroon squad that has pushed Venezia and Lawton to higher-quality races all season. Without a team score to consider, both faced the difficulty of trying to run solely for individual achievement.
“It’s a frustrating thing when people think cross country and track and field is an individual sport…. People can refer us to an individual sport, and people can refer to Ocho Cinco as an individual, too. He’s still in a team sport. I don’t think people show up and compete the way they can when they’re trying to pad their own stats and do things for themselves individually,” Hall said. “Our kids compete well because they do it for team, and that’s what created the biggest challenge for us this weekend.”
Despite the underwhelming finish, both runners knew the value of running at nationals. Venezia, who qualified for the NCAAs in 2006 and has also run the steeplechase at track and field nationals twice, continued to build on her experience on the sport’s biggest stage, while Lawton had her first taste of national competition.
“The great thing about this race is just the caliber of competition. We saw some unbelievable girls, and it was just really fun to be there…and race with all the good runners,” Lawton said. “It was really an honor to qualify, definitely a confidence booster. It made me and Rachel realize how much training really pays off in long run, and that if we put our noses to the grindstone, we can go the whole distance.”
While Lawton and Venezia will hang up their spikes for a short time, they won’t be collecting much dust, as the track season opens January 10. For this pair, this trip to the national championship means better conditioning and, more importantly, more confidence heading into the next season’s toughest meets.
“I expect that [Venezia will] run better right from day one than she did at the end of last season just because of that conditioning that she’s bringing into that season,” Hall said. Of Lawton, the coach added, “She understands now that she belongs in that field. It’s not so much an honor now to go to a national meet, but I think that she should look at it as, ‘I can compete with these kids.’”