Our third installment in the Project 28 series continues from Carolina's cross country meet at the WakeMed Park in Cary, NC for the adidas XC Challenge.
Friday's meet at the home course of NC State was a tune-up for next week's Virginia/Panorama Farms Invitational. The 20th annual adidas XC Challenge is one of the largest cross country meets held in North Carolina, and in addition to Friday's collegiate meet, a large high school meet was also sponsored for Saturday.
The race itself was only a 5K loop, much shorter than the normal 8K or 10K collegiate standard. The home meet a few weeks ago for Carolina was the first chance for a majority of the team's runners to get a feel for simulated competition that has been absent through summer workouts.
In order to prepare to focus on the upcoming meet in Virginia, head coach Mark VanAlstyne held out seven of the top eight men on Friday and nearly all the upperclassmen women in order to get their legs rested for the nationally competitive meet on Sept. 28. The lone top runner active on Friday for the men's side was senior Isaac Presson, who was unable to run in a tune-up meet due to an illness a few weeks ago.
For the men, the race itself ran at a fairly conservative pace early on, with the first mile clocking in at just over five minutes. Breaking off from the large pack, Presson fought with two Wolfpack runners for the final two miles until the very last few hundred meters. Coming up the hill and around the bend, Presson was nearly 20 meters behind the lead NC State runner, but turning on his jets, he blew past the leader and claimed his first ever collegiate race victory in cross country.
"It was fun to put the singlet on for the first time in a few months," said Presson. "I knew the guy in front of me was an NC State guy and a freshman, so I had to finish him off for my first college win."
"The guy's team has been training so well and workouts have been fantastic," added VanAlstyne. "Isaac's run today just validates what we think about the guys in our top group that will debut next week at UVA."
For the women, junior Lizzy Whelan competed in her first ever cross country meet for the Tar Heels and finished fourth with a 17:38.3 to lead the Tar Heels. Whelan was also the sole top runner active for the women's side, who finished third overall in the team score. The women's race included a course record time from a Duke runner, and for Carolina, it was dominated by an array of freshman who all recorded personal best times.
"On the ladies side, today was an opportunity for the freshman and sophomores to really come out and show what they've got," said VanAlstyne. "For the most part they did that, and although we were thin numbers wise on both sides, we saw some good things."
Cross country meets draw a very specific type of fan: runners. Nearly every person at the meet was either family of a competing runner or a runner themself. Decked out in the latest Nike gear or in other popular cross country apparel, fans migrated to the one main spot where they could catch a quick glimpse of the field midway through their loop around the 5K course.
The only true "viewing experience" for a cross country race (depending on the course) includes three parts: the start, a possible mid-race view, and the finish. WakeMed Park had all three, including a very convenient access point to watch the funnel of runners pass by after the first mile.
In general, collegiate cross country meets draw a crowd of people who enjoy running themselves, but they are also allow for a great opportunity of first-hand interaction with the athletes. Following Presson's impressive finish, handfuls of different fans and young runners came up and shook his hand to congratulate him on his victory, showing the intimacy of the relationship between athlete and fan.
Interestingly enough, coaches casually strolled alongside the nomadic crowd as they cheered on and yelled words of encouragement to passing racers. At points in Friday's meet, Carolina's VanAlstyne could even be seen prepping the women's side during the middle of the men's race. With such a short window of "in-race" communication, fans and coaches spend a majority of their time tossing around footballs, chit-chatting and doing anything on their feet to pass the time until the finish.
One point of interest from the meet was the presence of two distinct age groups of fans. The first being the mobs of high school students laughing and shouting in excitement to see college runners race on the course they would run the next morning, and the second was the presence of club team competitors in their 40s and 50s (maybe even 60s) who raced alongside the college runners because the race was an "open" meet. The combination of these groups created an interesting dynamic of both excitement and detachment for the races.
Because of the viewing experience, cross country meets are catered to running enthusiasts. From a viewing standpoint, the initial gunshot and chaotic sprint of the runners is great, and so is the final line finish, but the only other way to truly keep up with the race is either through hearsay or, in Friday's case, to listen to the live second-hand report of the race over a megaphone as reported by the lead pace vehicle.
Up Next"The UVA meet is the preview for the NCAA Southeast region, so it is one of our big goals going up there, getting a feel for the course," said VanAlstyne. "The competition will be pretty decent, and we'll be unveiling all our runners, so we have pretty high hopes."