Recap and Analysis of the “First to the Finish” Invitational

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When I was in high school, Mr. Newton used to give us a preseason notebook each June.  It was over 500 pages long and filled with motivational quotations, magazine articles, essays on nutrition and on race strategy.  One page I particularly remember differentiated the championship athlete from the average one.  This was structured as a series of couplets, utilizing the following template: “The Champion runner does A, while the average runner does B.”

One such formulation said something to the effect of “the champion runner is able to adapt to unexpected changes in their routine, while the average athlete allows such changes to negatively impact their performance.”  This advice proved important for us as we headed down to Peoria yesterday: a major convention scheduled for the same weekend as the “First to the Finish Invite” meant that all the local hotels had been booked; our usual ‘home base’ of the Embassy Suites in Peoria was unavailable, and so we made a new home at the Hampton Inn, about ten miles west of Detweiller Park.  This led to some modest changes: a warm-up through a shopping center parking lot rather than along the Peoria River, a breakfast buffet with somewhat more limited options, a need to pay closer attention to map reading on the way to and from the course.  Yet the runner (and coach) are creatures of habit: the best of this group have established set routines, but are not fazed when these need to be altered.  How would we manage?

In truth, this was only a small challenge facing our squad, with the larger questions of how we’d respond after a strong first meet and how we’d manage as the pre-race favorites also waiting to be answered.  I had been feeling cautiously positive throughout most of the week, encouraged by a strong mid-week interval workout and by an analysis of the past few years’ results (which predicted significant improvement between Hornet-Red and Peoria).  The best omen, though, came just an hour before the gun was to go off in the 3A boys’ race, as our Girls’ team scored an unexpected knockout victory over nationally ranked Naperville North.  The lady Devils’ caught the attention of the state putting three runners in the top 4(!) and scoring an impressively low 63 points.  I reported this news to our top 8 varsity runners as they assembled near the starting line shortly before the race, suggesting it might portend continued success for Hinsdale.

Our starting assignment was box 4, way to the inside, which meant I’d have a good view of our boys as they tackled the opening 500 meters before funneling through the first turn.  The race began under an enormous blue sky, white puffy clouds settling in as if to watch the events below.  We appeared to be out well, with most of our red towards the front quarter of the quickly moving mass.

While there are more teams competing at this meet than at state (49 versus 25) and over twice as many athletes, the fan base is not quite as large or raucous, which means it is easier to secure a spectating spot directly along the course and less difficult to find our athletes (especially with the new jerseys we have this season, the word “Devils” spelled vertically down the back of the singlet much more identifiable than the plain white we wore last year).  I could see by 800 meters into the race that we’d managed to position ourselves well, and should do OK so long as we held our spots as successfully as the ladies had earlier in the day.

And hold they did.  As we did last week, our top three (Chris Brenk, Matt McBrien, Blake Evertsen) ran together almost all race, and our next two, Josh Feldman and Nathan Hill, did as well.  Such is the strength of our team that our top trio is interchangeable.  Last week, Blake was our top runner.  Today, it was Chris, who finished 7th with an excellent time of 14:48.  McBrien was next in 11th (14:52) while Evertsen gamely held on for 12th,  finishing 6 seconds behind Matt.  The victory was secured, though, by the performances of Feldman and Hill.  On this day they were 27th and 29th, in a meet very nearly as competitive as state will be.  I remind them that TJ Caveney finished 31st here last year, before finishing 25th in state.  For that matter, Chris Brenk was 50th at this meet a season ago, and ended 43rd in state.  All-state remains a viable goal for Josh and Nathan.  They have raced with savviness for two major competitions in a row, and no doubt will continue to do so.

Nonetheless, we know that having only 5 strong athletes makes a team vulnerable, and we were hoping that some of our other athletes would rise to the occasion and help provide some insurance for us this season.  Nick Tandle may get there – today he made his Detweiller debut and earned a 25 second PR finishing 86th in 15:47.  Matt Tobia, running sick, managed a 16:37.  He’d had to miss a day of school earlier in the week, and will no doubt be disappointed with his time, but benefitted by having the opportunity to run on the State Meet course.  On a more positive note, senior Griffin Gartner, who was on the football team as a freshman and still had not broken 18:00 for a 3-mile race at this point last season seems to be ready to take on the ‘6th man’ role.  He had an excellent race today, running 15:17 for 41st place.  His time is faster than what both TJ Caveney and Matt McBrien ran at First to the Finish last year (for that matter, he bested my Detweiller PR by .3 seconds) and, as our 6th man, he finished ahead of Neuqua Valley’s 4th runner.

DO NOT count out the Neuqua Valley Wildcats, though.  Though our margin of victory was somewhat larger than last week, we know that they have the depth, determination, and seriousness of purpose to contend for the title with us as the season progresses.  They ran today under extremely difficult circumstances and represented themselves with class, as they always do.  I was happy, also, to see WSC rivals LT, DGN, and Glenbard West all among the top 7 teams.  We’ll see plenty of them in the weeks ahead, beginning with our first dual of the season at Downers North next Thursday.

Perhaps I will bring some duct tape to that meet.  Both Alec Danner, the standout DGN Sophomore, and our Jacob Belgrad, another Sophomore rising star, lost shoes during today’s races.  Danner managed a 15:12 despite literally stopping to put his shoe back on early in the race, and certainly has the potential to fill the void that will be left after Ryan Clevenger (2nd today, in an impressive 14:32) graduates.  Jacob, along with Ryan Doorhy and Ethan Planson, seem equally poised to be as impressive a front trio in a few years as Blake, Matt, and Chris are this year.  Belgrad is new to the sport and still learning how to race, but has shown in practice that he will be a formidable runner this season and in the years ahead.  We decided to run Jacob, Ryan, and Ethan in the open race today.  As each team can enter 10 athletes at the varsity level, we knew that these three young athletes should be towards the front of the open race.  They ran as instructed, positioning themselves all within the top 10 by the halfway point.  Of the three, it would be Planson who would have the best race on this day.  Ethan ran a tough and intelligent race and ended runner-up in an excellent Sophomore time of 15:45.  To put this in perspective, only Chris Brenk has ever run faster for a Sophomore at this point in the season (Brenk ran 15:33; other Sophomore times include Kevin Huang at 16:22, Alex Domiano at 16:18, Matt McBrien at 16:22 and Andrew Irvine at 16:11).  Doorhy and Belgrad both paid a price for the fast early pace, but still gutted out the race and earned PRs (Doorhy in 16:15, Belgrad in 16:23).

There is no formal awards ceremony at the ‘First to the Finish’ invite.  The results are unceremoniously taped to a picnic table that has been tipped on its side for the occasion, and trophies and medals are available for pickup nearby.  I can attest that there was no excessive celebration in our camp – it was more a feeling of relief, gratitude, and continued determination.  I am in awe of the maturity of this group of runners.  They approach each day and each race with focus and with calm demeanors.  They’ve begun the season with two victories against absolutely loaded fields.  This is no guarantor that we’ll earn any of the hardware distributed in November; but the approach we have taken in these meets, if not the results, speaks to how prepared we’ll be when we return to Peoria two months from now.

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