On Sept. 29, while most of Eastern University students were packing up or starting to relax for fall free days, the men’s and women’s cross country teams were doing the opposite. They geared up and headed over to Lehigh University for the Paul Short Invitational. Although it wasn’t the first race of the season, Friday was the first meet in which coach Mike Wilson, as he put it, “really let our team open up and compete”. The rest of the season had really been workouts, with the runners training and pacing their bodies in each race. They started with pre-season in Florida, which was high intensity training. Senior runner Clayton Bender describes it, ”We had a fantastic time in Florida. The weather was punishingly hot the entire time, but it made our workouts all the more meaningful. Running in high heat and humidity (provided everyone is properly hydrated) is kind of like running at high altitudes. It adds an extra degree of difficulty to your training, and makes you tougher mentally and physically. But first and foremost, it was a great bonding experience and really set the tone for the season.” And the season has been going well. Despite treating meets as workouts, the men’s team has finished in second place in three separate meets, and the women’s team has held strong, earning top three positions in a couple meets early on. After having a few meets to find their tempo and perfect their fitness level, both teams were ready to give their all at the Paul Short Invitational, so that, more than anything else, Wilson says, they could get an “indicator of how our fitness is progressing”.
This was Eastern University Cross Country’s first real chance to race at a higher level of competition. Coach Wilson explains it: “We put both teams in the ‘D-2 division’ which is a mix of top-tier division 2 and division 3 programs, as well as a few solid division 1 programs. In the past, we have competed in the ‘D-3 division’”. He is confident that this year’s team would have won the D-3 division, so he wanted to step up to the next level and see how the runners would do. This was the perfect meet for a move like this. While the overall finish of 20th place for the men’s team would have been higher in a lower division, the individual runners pushed themselves harder in order to meet the harder competition of a D-2 race, and their times reflected this. Wilson had no complaints, “The men’s times were excellent, and it’s great to see where our crew is fitness-wise while still carrying their full training workload”.
The girl’s team met the higher competition level with full force too. Wilson says “The girls looked strong as well, though we’ve definitely taken a hit without Kierra Zack [Eastern’s top female runner, who is currently sidelined due to injury] in the lineup”. Zack’s absence meant that the number 2 runner had to take the lead, which is a process that takes some getting used to. The midpack however, stepped in to pick up any slack, bringing in some “very impressive results at Paul Short”. Coach Wilson explained how they ran “exceptionally well, though we are still quite inexperienced in big races and that showed this weekend, especially in the women’s race”. Senior runner Hannah Schmitt expressed her admiration of Coach Wilson’s dedication to the team and their success, “Mike Wilson has built up this team. My respect for him and his coaching and investment into this team surpasses most and I know great things are to come for EUXC.”
After getting a feel for the fitness level of the team, Eastern University Men’s and Women’s Cross Country can look forward to the upcoming meets of the season with confidence in their strength, and knowledge about how to use it. “We have a ton of fitness,” Wilson says, “the adjustment that needs to be made is trusting that fitness and putting it on the line in the middle of races”. Bender adds: “I think we could use some work on leg speed and hills. I think the leg speed will definitely improve as we drop the volume a bit coming into conferences and do some speed workouts in the next couple of weeks.” And in the next few weeks, the team is excited to prove what they’re capable of. “We have the deepest squad I’ve seen in my four years here, and I think we have a legitimate shot at taking the conference title… Usually the top 3-5 spots at the regional meet are considered for the national meet, and if we win our conference title we have a legitimate shot at making one of those spots and extending our season.” Freshman runner Doug Kramer adds, “I’m looking forward to pushing each other everyday in practice leading up to the postseason where we plan to peak and finish our season off strong.” They have their work cut out for them in adjusting to harder competition and bigger races, but ECross Country doesn’t run away from a challenge.