Describing the course as “just absurdly difficult, the most difficult I've ever seen,” Georgetown Running Club (GRC) Head Coach Jerry Alexander had some trepidation as his men’s team lined up at the National Club Cross Country Championships last Saturday in Bend, Oregon. Alexander had no doubt in athletes’ ability to run well – the veteran coach had confidence in the fitness and talent of his top men and the addition of several elite standouts to the team in the past year bolstered his faith in their potential. But Alexander knew that the unpredictability of running at altitude (Bend is at 3,600 feet) and the strong field of elite competitors made his goal of finishing in the top 10 seem like a long shot.
Despite these challenges, the GRC men outperformed all expectations, finishing 9th overall in the team competition over the 10,000 meter course. Led by Kieran O’Connor (46th place overall, 32:36), with GRC teammates Mike Franklin (61st, 32:49), Luke Meyer (72nd, 33:05), Kevin McNabb (75th, 33:08) and Sam Luff (105th, 33:39) rounding out the top five scores, the team bested a number of other elite teams, including the Boulder Track Club and the Boston Athletic Association. Also competing for GRC on Saturday were Paul Balmer (118th, 33:59), Paul Guevara (160th, 34:27), and Sean Barrett (214th, 35:19).
Alexander could not have been more pleased with the outcome of the race saying, "It was truly a great performance from our guys. After we saw the course on Friday and realized how incredibly challenging the race was going to be, our plan was to stay conservative early, and let the race come to us.” GRC runner Sam Luff echoed this statement about the conditions, describing the course as “Made up essentially of five brutal loops with hills, hay bales, [and] technical descents. We knew we had the GRC’s best-ever assembled team, but had that wild card in terms of the course.”
Fortunately, a significant amount of hard work and consistent training over the past year had prepared the team for the challenge. “We had enough confidence in our fitness that we knew that we'd be able to move forward in the second half of the race, and that's exactly what we did,” says Alexander. “Each of our guys picked off runners every loop, and thanks to our tight pack, we were able to meet our goal of finishing in the top 10. It was a team effort all the way, and one that we are very, very pleased with.”
In addition to the talent and efforts of the GRC men, all of whom hold down demanding full-time professional careers outside of running, credit must be given to Alexander and his skilled coaching of the team, which he began leading in 2010. GRC runner Luke Meyer, a two-time Olympic Trials competitor who joined the team after moving to Washington DC in September, says, “I'm really proud to have finished 9th with the team. It definitely would not have been possible without Jerry giving the team so much time and energy, and without the guys on the team practicing together and working hard together. It's much more fun to work hard with company, and it's inspiring to run with teammates who are so excited to compete and work hard so that we can all run faster.”
GRC runner Sam Luff, a four-time Club Nats competitor for GRC, felt extremely proud to represent the team at the competition, saying, “I think the team’s performance speaks to the work that everyone (not just those running last weekend) has put into the club, both in terms of actually running but also growing the club as an organization. Obviously Jerry’s commitment and unwavering optimism has also helped drive the club in a positive direction.”
Luff has a story of his own that he can share for years, after biting the dust on the last mile of the race in what has now become “the crash seen round the world.” Captured in an epic photo by John Swenson of SwensonPhoto, Luff took a dive after catching his foot on the bottom of a technical descent. A former collegiate steeplechase runner, Luff took it all in stride, saying, “As far as my now infamous tumble, the pictures probably make it seem more dramatic than it actually was. I am no stranger to falling in a race. In fact, I actually ran my PR in a race where I wiped out in the water pit, so I knew it wasn’t a big deal and I just popped up and continued on my way. I got a few raspberries for my troubles, but they stung a little bit less in lieu of our great team performance.”
Says Alexander, “Even for the guys who stayed on their feet, the temptation to give up on the race was there because of the brutal conditions and the difficulties associated with the altitude. But none of them did, because they knew that their teammates were counting on them.”
Now that GRC met its goal of cracking the top 10 at Club Nats, the bar has been raised for next year, when the meet will be close to home at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. For 2014, Alexander’s goal is for both the men's and women's teams to finish in the top five. With the team’s talent, depth, and experience, and under Coach Alexander’s guidance, this should be an achievable feat.