OSHKOSH, WI - The 2018 Cross Country season came to a close Saturday, but not before its 23rd National Championships appearance by a Poet runner, in the past 10 years.
This year it was sophomore Benjamin White (La Habra Heights, Calif.) who placed 73rd of the 280 qualifiers. Seventy-three is a solid performance according to Cross Country Coach Greg Phillips who has now coached 60 national championship qualifiers between cross country and track & field. "What one must consider about Ben's performance is he wasn't 73 out of 280 but 73 out of 5,500 (the approximate number of NCAA DIII male cross country runners)." "He's in the top 1.5% and that's an 'A' in any professor's class"; added Phillips.
It was a frigid 30 degrees at Lake Breeze, Winneconne, Wisconsin with a wind-chill of 23 degrees at race time. The race started with a multi-runner crash to the right of White. Crashes at the outset of a cross country race result in a re-start much like a crash at the start of the Indianapolis 500. A re-start throws everyone off and creates a lot of anxiety. It messes with one's adrenaline and warm-up as runners a called back off the course. Then there's a wait period before the re-start. The re-start resulted in a faster sprint off the start line and an even bigger crash going into the first turn. The crash on the re-start couldn't be recalled because it was too far into the race. White was slowed by the crash after the re-start, and got collected into it a bit, but managed to stay upright by moving perpendicular to the direction of the race.
The stampede of runners left White in about 260th place. He found little room to run but weaved and surged up to 208th place by the first split marker at 1,000m. What happened next was atypical at a National Championships. No one seemed to want to lead going into the wind so the pace slowed considerably up front. Meanwhile, mid-pack and trailing runners who had got caught in the stampede and/or collision were running faster than runners in front. It was like an accordion of runners with both ends coming together in the middle. The course was too narrow to handle the 280 competitors so densely packed. It was hard to run without tripping, getting pushed from behind, or pushing someone in front of you. The 1-mile split for the front of the pack was only 4:55, extremely slow for a National Championships race.
It was an effective race tactic for the fortunate near the front because when the pace finally quickened there was a significant amount of lag time before the mid-pack runners, and beyond, could find space to race to match the upfront pace. White's comment was; "I had no room to race until two miles into the race!" Post-race analysis of each competitors' splits revealed White actually passed more competitors from 1000m to the 8000m finish-line than any other runner. "Ben ran out of real estate… an extra mile of racing might have resulted in an All-American performance (top 40)", said Phillips. "It was a great 1st Nationals experience for a sophomore just the same".