Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Monday, November 19, 2018

A lesson from the Massachusetts All-State Cross-Country Championships

(11/20 update: Race video at bottom of post.)

When it comes to high-school cross-country, Massachusetts is funny, in much the same way anyone who non-ironically uses phrases like "heavy petting" in 2018 is funny. For one thing, despite being roughly the size of the parking lot at Disney World, schools are divided into three cross-country divisions on the basis of geography (Western, Central and Eastern). The Western and Central divisions are further split into Division 1 and Division 2 on the basis of school enrollment, while Eastern Mass, which is essentially Greater Boston and includes about 70 percent of the state's population, is separated into six size-based divisions. Each regional division has its own state meet on the second weekend of November, followed by a statewide championship meet the following weekend. For purposes of the All-State Championships only, the Eastern Mass D-1, D-2 and D-3 schools are considered D-1, while the D-4 through D-6 schools are considered D-2. Western and Central Mass schools, meanwhile, retain their native categories. This means that there are two boys' races and two-girls' races at this event, which this year was held yesterday.

For another thing, as you may have noticed, it's past the middle of November, and Massachusetts is not a warm-weather state. I believe that only New Jersey and California were the only other states to  hold final championship meets this weekend. California still isn't done -- its statewide champs are next weekend in Fresno, assuming the fires out there even permit it -- but Cali also has 38 million people. New Jersey and Massachusetts are relatively populous states, but they are also tiny and it would not be imposing a great burden on both of them to shorten their seasons by a week or even two. After all, both the Foot Locker Northeast Regional Championships and the Nike Northeast Regional Championships are next weekend, and both Massachusetts and New Jersey are in the northeast in both schemes.

Lastly, if Massachusetts tinkered with its schedule to a significant but not apocalyptic extent, it could participate in the New England Championships, always held in the second Saturday in November. Massachusetts hasn't gone to the New Englands since the 1970s, and I think it would be a great boost to all concerned if the meet became a true New England championship again instead of a nominal one that proceeds in the absence of almost half of New England's population. I suspect that this is likely to happen only when people who have been involved with the sport for a very long time finally begin to literally die off and are replaced by folks whose ideas are more in alignment with what the kids and coaches would actually prefer.

Anyway, the MIAA All-State Championships were held yesterday in Stanley Park in Westfield, which is kind of on the edge of the western and central thirds of the state. (Another funny thing about Massachusetts is that it has all sorts of towns starting with "West" and none that I know of are anywhere close to the western side of the state. Weston, Westboro, Westford...this was probably by design, so that it would prove next to impossible to be a decent driver in this state once cars were invented.) I have run in this park myself and it features black squirrels. It was also the site of last weekend's Central Mass Divisional State Championships. Those were held under reasonably good conditions, although the woods loop was reportedly a little muddy. Yesterday's conditions were absolutely foul, with a couple inches of snow and plenty of icy mud everywhere.

For about 3-1/2 years, I've been periodically advising a young lady named Sarah, now a senior, and her father. Sarah started her high-school career in a Catholic school in Worcester, where at times she had no real coach at all. She transferred to Groton-Dunstable, also a Central Mass school, before her junior year. G-D has a legitimate program and Sarah has benefited from this and her own hard work over the past year-plus. She finished 4th at last week's Central Mass D-1 race, which might have had her seeded at maybe 25th going into the statewide D-1 contest yesterday after the Eastern and Western girls were factored in. Wanting to place in the top 15 and earn a medal, she asked me how I would approach the event, which, notably, would include one of the top runners in the country, Grace Connolly of Natick High School. Connolly, a 4:49 miler last spring, finished 9th at Foot Locker Nationals as a sophomore and has a 16:35 5K to her credit this season, although the Brown University course where she ran that time is rumored to be slightly short.

At any rate, my thinking was this:  Usually, Connolly goes out so fast that no one in the state really bothers giving chase. But Foot Locker Regionals are this Saturday, so I guessed that Connolly would hold back a little in anticipating of needing to be ready in another six days. I figured this would have her running just slowly enough to suck her pursuers out at a pace that was unsustainable for them but easy for her. I told Sarah she should probably look to be about 30th at the mile and aim to reel in the carnage from the fast starters in the loop in the woods. It takes guts to hold back like that in the last race of one's high-school cross-country career, especially when Sarah's stated goal all season was to break 19 minutes (she went into yesterday with a fastest time of 19:06) and the Stanley Park course can be very fast on a dry day. (Sarah ran 19:16 there last weekend.)

Things don't usually work out this well, but with the course being a mess, she was able to focus on running for place. The race played out much like I imagined it would for most of the front-runners. Sarah was 32nd at the mile, 20th at mile 2, and 13th at the finish. Her time was 20:04, meaning that she slowed by 48 seconds from last week. But the times of the other fast girls suffered far more. Connolly ran 18:14, yet won by 64 seconds (and may not have held back all that much; if she did, it;s a sign that she's going to be very dangerous in the rest of her postseason). Last week's Central D-2 winner slipped by 75 second to take 8th yesterday, while the girl she edged out by a tenth of a second last week lost 64 seconds yesterday and finished 6th. On the boys' side, only Ryan Oosting, who has 8:53 two-mile and 14:36 track 5K times to his credit and was second at the New Balance Outdoor 5,000 in June after winning the previous year as a sophomore, broke 16:00, running 15:52; Lucas Arambaru, who qualified for Foot Locker Nationals last year, was the only other male between the D-1 and D-2 races to even break 16:30.

The lesson, one I have been slow to learn myself, is that when fast times are out the window and you're not a threat to win, you can either dive fully into the prospect of slipping and sliding and hurting for 15 to 20 minutes and fighting for position, or you can half-ass the race and chalk up the results to poor conditions. Sarah, a great student who will attend American University on a full scholarship next year, did the right but difficult thing and shone brightly as a result.


  1. Sophomore Joeben from Lowell High School, only 7th at conference, 13th at Eastern Mass D1 and then finished 10th at All State. As you mentioned, "fast times out the window" when it comes to racing in those conditions.

    1. There was this kid from a city school in Mass. about the 14 years ago who won a state title on a snowy day in Franklin Park.