I've been following the collegiate cross country season for the first time which has slowly drawn me in to it's tangled web of competitive drama. I kept up with the local running news in high school because I was part of a team, but when I came to BYU I wasn't fast enough to compete for the school so running became more of an individual pursuit. But I signed up for Flotrack Pro and found that they live stream a lot of major races, so my Saturdays have been sleeping in, wearing sweatpants for way too much of the day, and binging on races and interviews.
What I found was that my own school was one of the strongest: the BYU men won the Roy Griak Invitational and placed highly in a bunch of other tough races. Unfortunately XC is so poorly advertised that even while going to classes with these guys I still didn't know how competitive they were. The one runner I knew about was Jared Ward, because I had seen him pace Miles Batty at an indoor meet last year and was impressed by how strong and smooth his stride was, but I didn't see him at any of the races this season so I figured he must have graduated.
It turns out he didn't graduate- he was yet another victim of the capricious whims of the NCAA, and had lost his eligibility for his final year at BYU because of an unsanctioned fun run he did a couple of years ago (if you Google Jared Ward you can read all about it, it's pretty unfair.) Meanwhile he had been training for the Chicago Marathon and and ran his first 26.2 in 2 hours 16 minutes. (That is wicked fast. To put that into perspective, the fastest American at the recent NYC marathon ran only four minutes better.)
So the other day I had some rare time to kill before my next class so I skimmed the running sites and found Jared Ward popping up everywhere I looked. It turns out the NCAA had reinstated his eligibility the day before the Mountain West Conference Regional Qualifier! He jumped on the bus with his estranged team and was their number one runner, placing 4th in the conference. Apparently whatever magic he had last season was still in him. In fact, in an interview his coach Ed Eyestone mentioned that Jared could still run fast even without going all out, slyly implying that he had even more in the tank.
I did some quick math and realized that BYU was already ranked 5th in the nation without Ward, so if they replaced their 5th scorer with their 1st scorer, that could put them within arm's reach of the national title. The race was starting at 9:55 AM the following Saturday and even though I had to be at work until after 1 AM the night before, I would set a rare weekend alarm for this.
Going into the Championships Colorado and Oklahoma were the clear favorites, but BYU, an already strong team, just had the fastest returning runner from last year miraculously reappear on their squad. They had never won a national title so this good fortune seemed like their best shot at ultimate victory. As the runners milled around the start line it was clear that the conditions were brutal: it had rained on the course for the last several days so it was mud and water everywhere. Add to that temperatures in the mid thirties and a gusts of wind pushing 30 miles an hour and this college cross country meet started to look more like the opening scene from Gladiator. The top men like Andrew Colley and Kennedy Kithuka had been talking big in the week leading up to the race, but I have to imagine that as they looked at the course in front of them they felt just a little bit smaller.
The gun sounded and the herd thundered across the weather-scarred field. The cameras stayed mostly on the individual leaders but as the the splits came in at 3,000 meters Brigham Young was narrowly in first in the team category. My hope swelled. Gradually the times and places of the top 50 runners scrolled across the bottom of the screen and at one point Jared Ward and his teammate Tyler Thatcher were in 18th and 19th place- strong positions for their first two runners. If their next three weren't too far behind maybe they could hold on. The men fought on and at 7,000 meters BYU fell to second- still a great position and still with with a lot of race left to go. "Could this be it? Could this finally be our year?" The feed indicated that Ward had pulled ahead but Thatcher had fallen back a few places, so maybe now that the full brunt of the race and the season and the weather was bearing down on them their weaker runners were starting to falter.
Soon the race was over and when everyone had finished their 10,000 meters it was impossible to tell the exact team places. Ward came in 17th but where the rest? The commentators nervously speculated as the officials tabulated the team scores. "Probably not" I said to myself. "But maybe. Just maybe."
After what seemed like an unusually long wait the results came through: Colorado, Northern Arizona, Oklahoma State, BYU. "Oh well, I guess this wasn't our year." I was a little disappointed but I'm glad I had gotten my hopes up, because the great thing about sports is that even if the final score doesn't turn out in your favor you still get all the same thrills along the way- the maybes, the what-ifs, the couldn't-it-happens. As long as the odds against you may be, that inherent uncertainty keeps the possibility of greatness always in front of you just waiting for you to chase after it.