It’s 4:30 a.m., and the last vestiges of late-night antics have only recently died down across the campuses. All of Claremont is asleep — except members of the Pomona-Pitzer men’s cross-country team, who are cracking jokes and yawning as they begin a chilly, moonlit shakeout run around the 5Cs, hours before their morning race.
Across the street, the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps harriers are used to an early morning routine; they don’t rise quite as early on race day, but practice nearly every day of the week at 6 a.m., running along a darkened Sixth Street and getting workouts in while others slumber.
For cross-country runners in-season, sleeping in is seldom an option.
“The amount of pain a runner is willing to tolerate while competing is what separates great cross-country runners from the rest,” said Dulcie Jones SC ’21, who’s endured — and thrived in — countless crack-of-dawn workouts in her three years on the CMS team. “I think distance running is the most mentally challenging sport out there, and you can’t expect your training alone to allow you to race well if you’re not willing to embrace how much it’s going to hurt.”
A typical morning practice for the Hens, Ethan Ashby PO ’21 explained, entails a two-mile warm-up run around campus, stretching, sprints, dynamic mobility, some sort of high-intensity or long distance workout and then a two-mile cool-down jog through the Claremont Village.
This is the work it takes to stay in elite running form.
And with the weather turning cold and the regular season all but finished, Sagehens, Stags and Athenas are in good shape and have their sights set on Saturday’s SCIAC championship meet, as well as making their mark at the regional and national competitions.
“A lot of our goals are focused on the championship season, which is just gearing up,” Ashby said. “Everyone’s fit, and everyone’s run faster this season than they have in the past.”
For the first time in years, all four teams have a legitimate shot at the SCIAC trophy, with the Sagehen women poised to mount a fierce challenge to the Athenas’ bid for a 10th straight conference title. The P-P women haven’t won a SCIAC championship since 1991, but they’re ranked No. 10 in the country right now, with the Athenas at No. 13.
Part of this season’s success — which included a narrow win over CMS at the Master’s Invitational in Santa Clarita and a 16th-place finish at the Division I-heavy Bronco Invitational, where the Hens set a program record for fastest team time — is due to depth and a large class of first-years. Lila Cardillo PO ’22 and Helen Guo PO ’20 lead the team up front, though.
And even though team victories in cross-country rely on individual performances, working as a team is still important, harriers said.
“Something that our coach has emphasized is running in packs and racing in packs, so sort of sticking with teammates and using each other to motivate ourselves forward through the race,” Cardillo said.
CMS teams have also seen success in this regard.
“From top to bottom, people have been packing up, people are working together,” Stevie Steinberg HM ’21 said of the Stags. “As a team, we’ve been performing well in that we’ve been able to form and keep these groups going.”’
The Athenas, though, are still formidable. Led by standout Riley Harmon SC ’22, they’ve run well against tough DI fields — taking sixth at the loaded UC Riverside Invitational and third at the Biola Invitational — and dominated weaker competition, winning the Coyote Challenge in San Bernardino.
“One of our goals is to continue to be competitive with Division II and DI and scholarship teams, and we’ve done that all season,” Jones said.
P-P may be ranked ahead of CMS going into Saturday, but Jones noted that rankings hold no value unless they’re backed up by results.
“My belief is that rankings don’t mean anything until you’ve finished the national competition,” she said.
On the men’s side, P-P and CMS both boast impressive squads. The No. 8 Stags have won the SCIAC title seven of the last 10 years, but it’s the No. 3 Sagehens who are the two-time defending champions.
Though they’re led by Ethan Widlansky PO ’22, the Hens have a variety of runners capable of finishing in the 2-3-4-5 spots for the team, which they demonstrated in their second-place finish over some of the nation’s best Division III teams at the Kollege Town Sports Invitational in Wisconsin earlier this month.
“Last year, we had a really great front runner [in Andy Reischling PO ’19], but our depth was lacking behind him,” Ashby said. “Our team is a lot deeper, and anyone can really contribute to the team on any given day.”
The Stags, meanwhile, are relying on a trio of top performers in Steinberg, Thomas D’Anieri CM ’20 and Kyril Van Schendel CM ’22, who have each been the team’s No. 1 runner in various races, and have led CMS to wins at the Coyote Challenge and Master’s Invitational, as well as impressive performances against DI teams.
A strong core of young runners has also buoyed CMS’ season, Steinberg said.
“We have a really cool young team. Last season we were virtually all underclassmen at nationals,” Steinberg said. “This year, it’s been really good having two sophomores, Miles Christensen [HM ’22] and Kyril Van Schendel, in the top four.”
The SCIAC championship men’s race goes off at 8:30 a.m. Saturday in the Wash, Pomona College’s expanse of dirt trails and athletic fields. The women race at 9:15 a.m.