Twilight Highlights

It was an action-packed week with the Devils unusually competing in back-to-back meets, on Wednesday at the Naperville Twilight meet and again Thursday at KLM in a dual with DGN.  Much has been written already on the Naperville Twilight Meet (see Dyestat, IlMileSplit, or recaps on Neuqua Valley and Minooka’s websites) and I will echo those voices in stating my admiration for the vision of the meet directors (Naperville North coaches Dan Iverson and Dave Racey, picking up on an idea first piloted by Neuqua Valley) and the meet sponsors (Naperville Running Company and New Balance).  I wrote a blog last year called “Track has a problem” about how important atmosphere is to performance (can you feel a buzz when you are there, either participating or watching?), and this twilight concept is one excellent example of how create such conditions.

Since the story of how the varsity race played out has already been told by abler pens than mine (see above), I will instead share the story of the meet from the HCXC perspective as a series of moments captured in time:

-“Hold on coach, I have something for you”

 As most of you know, this is the first time we have participated in this meet.  When Naperville North took the meet over they expanded the field, and we were incredibly fortunate to be extended an invitation to compete.  For me personally, one of the ‘highlights of the twilight’ was the opportunity to be in the midst of a group of the finest coaches in the nation, men I deeply admire.  Seriously, this was a hall of fame of coaches.  There was Dan Iverson, coach of the juggernaut Naperville North Girls, 4th in the nation last year.  His coaching colleague on the boy’s side is Dave Racey, who has led Naperville North to top 10 finishes in state every year over the past decade, including a thrilling 1-point state title over York in 2009.  Chris Muth and Ben Draper, coaches of the Yorkville Boys and Girls teams, have 6 state titles between them over the past 4 years, including an amazing 4 in a row on the girls’ side.  Paul Vandersteen has coached Neuqua Valley to two state titles and a national championship (in 2007).  My good friend John Sipple coached DGN to a runner-up trophy in 2013, shocking the state.  Paul Haas at Glenbard West coached his girls’ team to the state title that same year.  Kyle Nugent and Kurt Frazier, the boys coaches at GW, coached their team to their highest ever finish in the schools long history at state last year, finishing 5th.  Coach McCabe and Westphal are state title winners, too.  There were great coaches of up and coming programs, including Andy Derks at Plainfield North and Kevin Gummerson of Minooka, who has built the girl’s program into a state title contender this year, and his assistant Nick Lundin, who is also the head boys track coach and has built that squad from nothing into one of the most complete and competitive teams in state.  I literally felt like a kid invited backstage at a rock festival headlined by all his favorite bands.  What I admire about all of these coaches, aside from their many successes, is how open each has been to sharing wisdom and how committed each is to making our sport better.  An astonishingly generous act by Coach Lundin will illustrate what I mean:

This winter, I will be taking over as head coach for the Track and Field team at HC (Coach Kupres, who stepped down in June, will stay on as an assistant).  I am very excited about this opportunity, but also cognizant of how truly challenging it will be to balance being a good father to my newborn child with being as good of a coach as I can be.  In these final weeks before our child is born, I have been reaching out to head coaches for advice.  One of the first people I thought to contact was Coach Lundin, as we are the same age and I know he has managed the responsibilities of being head track coach with being a good family man (he has two young children).  Nick responded immediately to my email saying he’d be glad to share some thoughts.  A few weeks later, he emailed again, saying he hadn’t forgotten me, and that he’d “typed a few things down.”  When I saw him on Wednesday, he motioned me over to his team area, pulled an envelope out of his bag, and handed it to me.  Amidst the excitement of the meet, I did not get a chance to review the contents until the next evening.  What I found was an 8-page letter he wrote me full of insights and lessons he’d learned over the years of his coaching career!  When I reflect upon how much time and thought he put into this message for me, a coach he will be competing against, I am filled with gratitude and humbled by such kindness.  This act embodies the fraternity shared by coaches, and is emblematic of why I feel so lucky to be a part of it.

-“And in 21st place”

The first race of the day for us was the combined frosh/soph boys.  For the first time, we took our top 5 freshman and joined them on a squad with our top 5 sophomores, perhaps a preview of the team’s future varsity squad.  We especially felt uplifted by the return of Neil Cumberland to our lineup.  Neil was our top freshman last year, finishing 6th in conference.  He had a successful track season, too, but was derailed early into summer conditioning by a stress reaction.  After months of physical therapy and cross training, he ran his first meet this week and looked surprisingly strong given that most of his aerobic work has had to be done off the roads.  Neil finished as our third man in 19th place, and his presence in the race no doubt helped his teammate Colin Yandel, who tucked in right behind him, finishing 21st.  Sean O’Connell had been first across the line in 7th, followed by Steven Zaher in 12th.  Our top freshman was Matt Kusak, who ended as our 5th man in 49th place, just ahead of Sophomore newcomer Sam Schiavitti who was 51st.  Fletcher Spillers (56th), Will Ricker (63rd), Kevin Hopkins (78th) and Brandon Belgrad (90th) rounded out our lineup, all gaining valuable experience at the three mile distance.

According to the meet information we received, custom-made medals would be granted to the top 20 finishers.  Poor Colin Yandel had lost a fight for that final position down the final straightaway and appeared to be in the hard luck position of the being the first finisher not to get a medal.  It was thus quite fun to watch him whoop for joy when the announcer at the awards ceremony intoned, “and in 21st place, from Hinsdale Central, Colin Yandel.”  Colin had run a gritty race and has improved tremendously (and grown about a foot) since last year.  His unexpected medal will be a great memento from an electrifying evening.

-“Coach, can I talk to you?”

Shortly after the frosh/soph boys race, just as my adrenaline was wearing off, Blake Evertsen asked Coach Westphal and I if he could speak with us.  We walked over to a less crowded spot just off our team area, and he explained that he did not feel right.  I know Blake, and there is no one who loves competition more than he, so for him to tell us he wasn’t sure about running meant something really must be up.  Recognizing that the most important meets of the season remain, Coach W and I quickly decided it was best for Blake to head home.  We’d been taken off guard though, and quickly had to recalibrate our expectations for the meet.  We adjusted as best we could, telling out varsity top 7 to stick to our original game plan and that they’d need to step up in the absence of our usual frontrunner.

The moment I’ll remember from the varsity race was the first time the runners entered the stadium, just short of one mile into the race.  Our pack of runners came in together, tightly packed and, at that point, ahead of most NV runners.  Alas, we could not hold that position, and NV showed just how incredibly deep they are easily besting us despite missing their top 2 finishers (Connor Horn and Scott Anderson) from our first race against them at the HRD invite.  The positive news for us was that Chris Brenk looked more like his old self, finishing 4th overall, and our split from 1-5 was only 16 seconds.  It is hard to say if running without Blake affected our psychology.  The best news came days later, when Blake reported to us he was feeling healthy and ready to return to his quest of being the among the best in state, and helping to lead his teammates to the same

-“Wait, Bynan’s in the lead?!”

Blake’s announcement changed the tone of the meet for us, but things took a truly unexpected turn (literally and figuratively) during the boy’s open race.  When I first saw the racers come by, at about the 600 meter mark, we were looking great.  Jan Erik Naess was among the top 4-5 overall, and he was followed closely by a huge pack of Red Devil runners, including Michael Gates, Zach Sayre, Ruiling Ge, Ben Schnieders, Yuji Cusick, and John Bynan, all who were certainly in the top 15 or 20 overall.  Entropy then ensued.  The darkness, confused fans, and an ambiguous juncture combined to set the lead runners down the wrong path, and the orderly stream of athletes devolved into chaos.  It was a truly surreal moment, as collective confusion washed over the observers and participants.  Out of this disorder emerged John Bynan, in a small pack of athletes who best kept their wits about them when the leaders ran off course.  After a massive reshuffling, with most of the lead pack having ventured over 400 meters opposite of the intended direction, JB emerged into the lead.  Sensing opportunity, I yelled at him to seize the moment and do what he could to win.  JB traded leads with a DGN and Minooka runner between the 2 and 2.5 mile mark before making an authoritative move with 800 to go to put the race away….or so we thought.  As he entered the stadium though, two athletes (including our own Jan Erik) seemingly emerged from the ether, making the completely understandable though audacious decision to cut off part of the course in order to make up for the extra section they’d added earlier.  In the end, JB crossed the line second, behind a NV runner, though he was certainly the first to the finish of all the athletes who ran the regulation course.

For most of the rest of our JV athletes, the race left them confused and hungering for another chance to test their fitness.  It’s pretty tough to set out on a three mile run only to find out halfway through you are actually going to be running 3.5 miles!  Conference looms next.  We’ve never had more than 4 athletes earn all-conference in the JV race.  Could this be the year?

As a fitting coda to this story, JB this morning ran his 1000th mile of the season, becoming the second athlete on our team this year to do so (Blake hit the mark a few days earlier, we realized in retrospect).  I can say with certitude that nobody has worked harder this season than he has – his contributions to the team are immeasurable.  He has absolutely set the standard for commitment – he missed not one single day of summer running, he took care of his body in order to manage high mileage, and when he faced nagging injuries he was a role model of what intensive cross training should look like.  I know for a fact his work ethic motivated Blake, who upped his own mileage after realizing how hard his teammate was training.  If we should be so fortunate to earn a trophy this season, JB will have a rightful stake in it, regardless of whether or not he runs in the top 7.

“This looks like a rave”

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The above quotation is how a fellow coach described the Awards Ceremony held after the final race. Indeed, the awards ceremony at the Twilight meet was unlike any I’d ever been to before.  It was held in the middle of the track, under the stadium lights.  Music blared, and the gathered athletes tossed around neon necklaces that had been distributed by the race organizers.  It was clear the high schoolers in attendance were giddy to be there – for once, cross country getting a billing somewhat reminiscent of the fabled Friday night lights football players enjoy.  Our freshman athletes were wide-eyed, perhaps realizing truly for the first time, the future that being a runner could hold for them.

The next day, we were back at it.  While Thursday’s meet lacked music and stadium lights, we did have the envious setting of KLM on a lovely fall day.  Though DGN opted to use the meet for a recovery run (as all their athletes had raced the previous day) we used the race as an opportunity for our freshman to get a race under their belt at the three mile distance and for our older athletes to test out race strategies against each other in a low-pressure situation .  Our top 2 finishers, Michael Chadwell and Daniel Hu, have been handling varsity workouts since the beginning of the season, each regularly running 50 mile weeks.  Chadwell, who holds the distinction of having the most punned last name of anyone on the team, took home his first ever race victory, crossing the tape in 17:40.  Hu was next in 17:56, followed by Sophmore Kiril Kuzmanovski who earned the bronze, running 18:03.  Kiril will join Mac Anderson and Sam Schiavitti next week at conference, with all three vying to fill the role of all-important 5th man.  Our top freshmen in the race were Anshul Sankaran (18:37) and Charlie Carter (18:47), two young men who have improved tremendously this season, and, even better yet, are polite, respectful, and enthusiastic, all qualities which make them a joy to coach.

Full results are below:

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All these men will toe the line one final time this season – a week from today in our conference meet, hosted this year by Glenbard West.  It is amazing how fast the season goes by.  Here is to hoping that each man has that final race go by faster than it ever has for them before!

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