11/20 – Open Men Battle to Team and Individual PAUSATF XC Titles!

The day of reckoning arrived with ominous, bruise-colored clouds hulking over the roiling waters of the Pacific Ocean as runners from all over the state of California descended upon Golden Gate Park’s Lindley Meadow for the 26th annual Pacific Association (and USATF Western Regional) Cross Country Championships. A season of toil was at stake at the PA Championships, including the open men’s team and individual overall titles. A great day by our top five runners was going to be required to pull this small miracle off.

The lightning flashed and thunder rumbled to go with a bone-chilling rain, further intensifying the sense of pre-race anxiety and anticipation.

First up on the race docket was the women’s two-loop 4.14-mile race. Rain pelted the soggy, slippery course, which appeared to be slower than the 2010 version, which became more and more treacherous during the race. Runners slipped and slid across the line to times that were roughly 8-10 seconds per mile slower than most years. Finishing 32nd overall was Christine Bowlus, whose remarkable time of 25 minutes and 54 seconds was a full 38 seconds faster than her time in September on this same cross country course, but on a dry day. Christine managed to prevail over several very good runners who’d been ahead of her in other races this season, and this was a delightful way to cap off her season. Elizabeth Ottenheimer had a solid race, but knew she would have fared better with spikes. She still broke 7:00/mile while running in road-racing flats on what amounted to an oil slick in places, finishing in 27:47 (68th-place). We agreed at this point in the season it seemed a little expensive to purchase spikes. However, spikes will be on her Christmas wish list for next year!

The masters men were next and seven hardy Canyoneros lined up as the rain ratcheted it up three notches and devolved into a full-blown cloudburst. The course now had deep mud and small streams of water flowed freely through the meadow–you had to take the turns widely and skirt around the deep water spots. At certain points on the course, it resembled a pond with little green plants sticking up from the water, something we came to recognize as random blades of grass peeking through a lake’s surface.

Robert Elia had a very good race for the Master’s men, bodysurfing across the line with a strong  showing of 11th overall in 36 minutes, 33 seconds. (Only six masters men broke 6:00/mile, which is unheard of on this race, so clearly the course had become a bog). Next across for the club was the stalwart Barry Smith, the seniors wunderkind, who finished as the 6th 50-59 runner in a great performance of 38:54 (37th overall). Daniel Sivolella continued to exhibit his significant and impressive improvement in fitness, with an excellent race of 39:24, almost a full minute faster than last year’s time. And although last year’s course was certainly slowed by mud, this year’s version arguably featured the worst conditions in PA-USATF championships history.

Chris Dodge was the next masters runner to slip-and-slide across, in 40:33, going out a smidge too hard and hanging on for the finish (54th-place). Rounding out the scoring was the 15th-place senior and 64th overall finisher Craig Whichard (41:15), who’d just come off of a half-marathon the week prior. Next across the line was Coach Carl (84th – 43:27). Despite being sevaral deviations off of last year’s fitness level, he was happy his nine-month achilles debacle held up to the rigors of the tricky course, and he felt his fitness was starting to trend in the right direction. Bill Brusher was the last Strawberry Canyonero across the line. He had a calf strain earlier in the week, and had to walk-jog the last two loops and finished in 1:07.43 (166th overall), in what was a tough day at the office for him.

The masters men’s team finished a respectable 6th overall among teams in this race.

However these first two races were mere preludes to the Big Daddy, as everyone knew this was the make-or-break day that might belong to the Strawberry Canyon Track Club’s open men’s team. Going into the race, the Strawberry Canyoneros had the slimmest of advantages in the team scoring competition, and it was a hotly contested three-team race to this point: Strawberry Canyon TC had 70.5 points, while Transports and West Valley TC were hot on our heels and tied for second with 69 points. Hence, it was quite logical to assume, with the team title on the line. that all teams in question were going to bring their best squads to this race to settle the season’s outcome once and for all. So we were a little surprised when Transports held out three of its top five runners and WVTC did not bring their number 3 and 4 runners to the starting line. We had also expected the spoiler team–the vaunted but inconsistent Chico Track Club, would arrive in full force.

Regardless, this was the championships and we were prepared to contend with all plausible scenarios to run our best race and earn our open team title.

The rain let up mercifully for the men’s start on a three-loop 6.19-mile course, which was a chopped up quagmire at this point and that was being kind–the course now resembled moonscape in places.

Of note, Greg Timblin was narrowly trailing WVTC’s Neville Davey in the PA-USATF open men’s individual scoring grand prix competiton, and Davey had looked pretty invulnerable this season, setting two course records in previous rades, so the odds of Greg taking the open title this season were a bit daunting.

But that’s why they run the races.

Greg, fighting through some late season aches and pains, managed to run a controlled, strong race for the Strawberry Canyon TC, and paced our open men yet again. Timblin finished 11th overall, just ahead of Neville, who appeared to have trouble with the muck and struggled somewhat. Greg reclaimed the points lead and prevailed to take open men’s title by a scant 10.5 point margin. His time of 32:30, by his own analysis, would have been worth about 30 seconds faster at last year’s version of the race. Tom Haxton finished ten seconds back and 28 seconds ahead of last year’s time, in 32:40 (14th overall), showing signs of his return to top-level fitness and capping off a fine season, in which he finished 7th overall in the cross country grand prix.

Sean McFarland, who’s been the quiet leader of this team all season, displayed a form of grit that inspired the entire team. In a nutshell, he “played hurt.” Having rolled his ankle severely five days prior to the race, Sean was barely able to run during the week. Greg, who is arguably (clearly) the best all-around jock on the club, rrelied on his extensive personal experience and masterfully taped up Sean’s ankle pre-race, and Sean was able to run at 98%. That was good enough for this day. Sean finished 19th overall in 32:54, undoubteldy losing a little time to the gimpy ankle, especially on the turns, but helping keep his team in the thick of the oh-so-critical team scoring competiton. Although he had a bit of an off-seaon overall, primarily due to a lot of academic demands and lingering fatigue, Sean’s solid performance netted him 4th overall in the open grand prix competiton.

Next across the line for the Strawberries was Kenny Rakestraw, a very tired elite triathlete who has been racing high level triathlons at a national level all spring, summer, and into early fall. Kenny had never really had the opportunity to shut it down for the latter part of the cross country season, and was feeling the malaise of the longest of seasons over the last few weeks. Still, his 33:02 performance snared him a great 23rd-place overall and helped the club out tremendously. Club President Joe Binder might have had the most impressive run for the Strawberries, finishing in a remarkable 33:33, good for 31st place overall. In an extremely gritty effort, he fought off a hard charging Jamey Gifford of WVTC to outsprint him at the finish.

Unless there were some unforseen surprises, things looked good, a lot of blue singlets were in. And one thing that stood out was the impressive 63-second scoring “pack time” between first and fifth place. When the results were tallied up, the joyful celebration ensued, as a hard-earned victory is the most gratifying sort. It was clear that the Strawberry Canyon TC was well clear of the third-place West Valley TC and 4th-place Transports squads. Their second-place finish in the PA-USATF cross country championships was a historic run, the best team finish in a PA-USATF cross country championship race in any division, and also secured for them the well-deserved PA-USATF team grand prix title in grand fashion.

And when the mud had settled, it also became clear that the equally deserving Greg Timblin had managed to forge ahead into the lead for the open men’s individual grand prix title, winning by a scant 10.5 point margin: 670.5 to 660. So congratulations are in order for the men’s open team and its strongest runner this fall season: Greg Timblin. Not to be denied, a good number of other Canyoneros also competed in the open men’s race.

Dan Chebot went out “too hard” and paid a little penalty for his exuberance at the end, finishin in 34:44 (55th-place). Christoph Wanner, the Swiss Express, came across next in 34:51 (56th) and undoubtedly will be looking forward to his middle-distance racing next spring. Gene Burinsky had his best race of the season by far and finished in 59th (34:57). Steve Whitelam, another strong middle-distance runner by way of Scotland, made his return to the Strawberries after a year’s absence due to family obligations, and rumbled across the finish line in 35:23 (62nd). Rory Runser, who clearly prefers the track races, was next (36:34-76th place). Keith Gilmore, a former collegiate sprinter who competed at Swarthrmore College, demonstrated his cardio-vascular devlopment was improving, as he slashed 42 seconds off of last year’s time on a sketchier course and finished in 37:37 (82nd). Between that and his 16:55 at the 5K timetrial on Halloween, he showed that his distance fitness is unequivocally coming around. Jack Wallace paid a stiff price for not wearing spikes as he spent nearly as much time scrambling to get to his feet after tough falls on the greasy course, and he fought across the line in what for him was a disappointing run in 37:57 (84th). Irtaza Haider also paid the spikeless price and finished in 39:31 (96th overall), also a ways off his capability.

Still, it was a wild, woolly and amazing season for the Strawberry Canyon TC men’s cross country team, which won the season open men’s individual and team grand prix titles in dramatic and convincing fashion in its third year of existence, earning kudos from runners all over the region. It was a phenomenal job for one and all, a wholly valient performance and a true team effort.

As coach I would also like to single out some significant and unsung contributions made along the way. David Yu, who will remain in Switzerland for the nex year-plus, for his perseverance, strength and inspiring consistency. I think his consistence in the latter part of 2009, starting with his great 10000-meter race at USATF Club Nationals, inspired our open men to race much more consistently as a team this fall. I also want to mention the contribution of Nathan Leefer, for his steadying hand of leadership during our crucial formative months in 2009-2010. He was a warrior-like presence for us then, and also threw down some very respectable races. I also want to show some appreciation for Christopher Gerber, who’s battled bad achilles tendonitis this fall. His meteoric rise to sub-15:00 ranks and throwing down an astounding race at last year’s Christmas Relays inspired everyone on our open team to dial in and work harder this year. Dan Duett clearly elevated his game last summer with a monstrous 15K PR and also showed that when he can stay healthy, he will really be yet another very formidable force for the club. Kyle Braam has also been a very patient soul, never complaining, just trying to get healthy again after a stress fracture. Andrew Wong, he has hung in there too, after a lab schedule switch forced him to train on his own last spring. And thank you again to the NIRCA leadership of Nathan Lee, Cameron Bronstein and Niko Conner, guys who coul not race much this fall. You young guys represet the future of this club and its leadership.

It was a great season for the Strawberry Canyon Track Club, and you deserve to celebrate over the holidays… Congratulations are in order for this club all the way around.

But we will be back on the track sometime in January so don’t get TOO carried away with the festivities!