November 05, 2014

My Championship Experience – 2014 Men’s Cross Country Edition

My Championship Experience is a diary blog written by Summit League student-athletes detailing their experiences at each of the 19 Championships.

Fort Wayne sophomore Ryan Curtis writes about his experience at the 2014 Summit League Men's and Women's Cross Country Championships:

The postseason is always an exciting time in the world of cross country.  It’s late in the fall, the weather gets a bit chillier, and the stakes get a little higher.  This year the title of conference champion would be awarded in Fargo, N.D.  Seven teams would all compete their hardest to earn the Men’s Cross Country Championship.  It didn’t matter who was favored to beat who.  Past times and races meant nothing.  It would all come down to one race.  Eight Kilometers.  One man against another.  It is what all runners dream about.

To best explain what a Cross Country Championship is like in The Summit League, I will take you through my own experience as part of the Fort Wayne Men’s Cross Country Team.  Last year, we hosted The Summit League Championships.  Due to a barrage of injuries among other circumstances, we stumbled to a last place finish on our home course.  For those of us that ran last year, it gave us an extra fire in our chests.  We were waiting all year for redemption.  We may not have the talent of say, IUPUI or South Dakota State, perennial contenders for the championship, but we knew we were better than our performance last year.  We looked forward to this weekend all season.  After some last minute arrangements were made on Thursday night, we got up at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, to head to the Fort Wayne airport.  The plane departed around 7:30 a.m. After a couple safe flights and a layover in Minneapolis, Minn., we arrived in quaint Fargo, N.D.  We grabbed lunch, checked into the hotel, and then drove to the beautiful Rose Creek Golf Course that would tomorrow turn into the battleground for seven fierce cross country teams. We, along with North Dakota State, South Dakota, and South Dakota State had previously run a 6k on this very course at the Bison Invitational, so the course was familiar.  After a shakeout run and some strides we headed back to the hotel to shower get ready for the banquet.

The banquet was held in a beautiful little hall on North Dakota State’s campus.  All of the gorgeous men and women of The Summit League Cross Country teams were dressed to impress.  Happily for many of the runners, the introduction speeches were quick and to the point.  Food is generally the only thought on the minds of runners.  And access to a free buffet of alfredo pasta, lasagna, green beans, salad, and a mountain of rolls for a college cross country athlete is just too overwhelming.  However, everyone kept their manners and waited their turn to dump a few pounds of pasta on their plate.  After dinner, the athletes took pictures while the coaches had their own meeting.  Once we got back to the hotel, we had a short meeting about the meet the next day.  I’m sure every coach handed their team specific goals, as ours did.  We knew our goal.  We went off to bed early and dreamt of how good it would feel to accomplish that goal.

The next day was race day.  The day we had all been waiting for.  Conditions were not ideal by any means.  Wind gusts of nearly 35 miles per hour were present all day.  The girls raced first, at noon.  We warmed up while we cheered on our teammates.   It was particularly inspiring for us to see Brittany Beard, an IPFW sophomore earn All-League honors.  However, the only thing any of us could focus on was our own race.  We followed the same routine we always had.  We warmed up, did some strides, and some stretches, put our spikes on and headed to the line.  Just like always.  But today was different.  It was possibly the most important meet of the season.  Nerves were at an all-time high.  We huddled up at about 12:50, 10 minutes before the race.  Coach Fruchey fired us all up as he always did and even led us in the chant.  Before we knew it, our sweats were off and we were standing at the line.  The gun went off and so did we.  Coach Fruchey may have pumped us up a little too much as I believe IPFW held the first 7 positions heading into the first turn.  It wasn’t too long after that however, that we all found our groove.  About 1K in I could tell we were all exactly where we needed to be.  We just needed to hold on.  The wind was absolutely brutal. Gusts coming straight at you would slow you almost to a stop, even though you’re putting everything you’ve got into this race.  The important thing that I tried to remember was that everyone has these same conditions.  There is no advantage.  I just pushed myself as hard as I could and didn’t let a silly gust of wind bother me.  The competition was fierce, no matter where you were in the race.  No one gave an inch.  Everyone was focused.  Each 2K loop of the course seemed to get harder and harder.

At the start of the last loop, I had passed my main competitor for most of the race, and began to zone out until I saw a teammate in need.  Our senior Captain, Paul Smith, had fallen way off of his pace and soon was the next guy in front of me.  I heard Coach Fruchey yell to me that Paul needed my help.  That was all I needed.  I got my second wind and caught up to him as quickly as possible.  I pushed him for a while before I got around him.  Paul was clearly in a lot of pain as I heard him groaning as I passed.  But he knew that the team needed him.  He surged past me one last time.  He gave it all he had.  I was not sick, so I passed him back around the 7K mark, but with that surge I knew, no matter how much pain he was in, he was not letting another opponent past him.  And he didn’t.  He stood his ground.  Jordan Holloman broke out of his year-long slump and rocketed out to the best finish on our team, freshman Gabe O’Keefe ran his heart out staying with Jordan.  Senior Garrett Gleckler ran the race like a senior leader in his last league meet, just like we needed him too. The freshman twins, Kurt and Brett Unger ran like seasoned four-year vets to give us great finishes at the four and five position. 
We accomplished our goal.  It was a sensational feeling.  There is no greater feeling than that of putting everything you’ve got on the line and coming up with a victory.  Everyone on every team poured their hearts onto that course, fighting the wind, and the cold, and racing each other.  Every coach had to be proud of their men fighting for each other like that.  Cross Country is a beautiful sport and Saturday was the perfect example of why. 

IUPUI ended the day by taking the crown from defending champs South Dakota State for their first ever Men’s Cross Country Championship.  Despite the conditions and the slow times, many runners came out triumphant.  No matter how each runner finished though, they could all go back home or to their hotel knowing that they gave it their best shot, and their teammates will always be there for them, through the highs and lows.

The rest of the weekend for Fort Wayne consisted of a couple trips to the very nice Fargo mall, some relaxation in the hot tub and pool at the hotel, some studying, a movie,  and some wonderful meals, including dinner at Texas Roadhouse where we ran into the IUPUI Men’s team.  Then, we headed back to the airport to fly back home to Fort Wayne.  It was an incredible weekend for the whole team.  Everyone who attended this weekend’s festivities: athletes, coaches, athletic directors, race coordinators, and volunteers alike, helped make this year’s Summit League Cross Country Championships a success.  Running and competing at this level, in such a competitive conference is a privilege to all of us and I am truly honored to be a part of such a wonderful event.

Ryan Curtis

Don’t forget to check out the next edition of My Championship Experience as it follows the Women’s Soccer Championship, Nov. 6/8 and throughout the 2014-15 season for coverage at each of The Summit League Championships.

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