At around 12:22 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on Nov. 13, Annie Lydens PO ’13 finished the Division III West Region Championship, hosted by Willamette University, in first place, making her the second individual women’s champion in the history of Pomona-Pitzer cross country. Alicia Freese PO ’10 (now simply Coach Freese), won the West Region title last year.
Lydens’ first-place finish in a time of 21:51.84 earned her an individual spot at the National Championship meet in Iowa Nov. 20 and energized the chilled spectators in Salem, Ore.
But as the excitement settled on the wet grass and fallen leaves, so too did the weight and significance of the results of the men’s race—held one hour earlier—settle on the seven young men flown the previous morning to Oregon to represent the Pomona-Pitzer men’s cross country program.
Before the results were officially announced, before the medals were awarded and the pictures taken, the runners—three from Pitzer, four from Pomona; two seniors, two juniors, two freshmen, and a sophomore—already knew as much as they needed (or cared) to know: they had not run fast enough as a team to qualify for nationals. Their season had ended as suddenly as the race had.
After a devastating but far from nail-biting loss to CMS two weeks earlier at the SCIAC Championships, the runners hoped to redeem themselves with a strong performance at regionals—one good enough to earn them a trip to NCAA Division III National Championship in Waverley, Iowa. With this goal at the forefront of their thoughts, they arrived in Portland the day before the big race confident in their training, well-rested, and ready to run.
Soon, the team formed a circle 60 meters from the race’s start line minutes before the race was to begin; after a quick talk and a whispered, emotionally-charged cheer, the men let out a series of loud, unintelligible but nonetheless meaningful shouts, and headed back to Box 14, legs nimble, fingers cold and tense.
The race—which consisted of four two-kilometer loops, mostly at a slight slope but with one fairly steep hill (repeated each loop), the grass muddy at times but mostly just soft, wet—went quickly, with 19 runners finishing the first loop in between 6:19 and 6:21 (just under or right at the pace of the eventual winner). With runners from Whitworth and Willamette surging periodically, the front pack pressed on during the second loop to keep up and stayed relatively close together—the top 15 runners came through the halfway point between 12:46 and 12:48.
Another 2k loop in, the picture was decidedly different: a Willamette runner had broken away slightly with a 6:11 third 2k; one of his teammates and the defending champion were in close pursuit, and the rest of the leading pack had broken down into a long line of runners in ones, twos, and threes, small but interminable gaps having emerged slowly, imperceptibly, helplessly—horribly.
The leading Willamette runner soon fell far behind, allowing Jackson Brainerd of Colorado College to defend his title; for the men of PPXC, little changed dramatically in the last loop. The seven harriers finished between 14th and 66th overall out of 116, but not one changed position, up or down, by more than one place. Four P-P runners earned All-Region honors for placing in the top 35, and the team scored 133 points, placing the Sagehens 5th (for the third year in a row) of 17 teams. The top four teams earned a place in the national meet.
As consolation for the disappointing result, the NCAA generously awarded small medals to Charlie Enscoe PO ’11, Alex Johnson PZ ’13, Paul Balmer PO ’12, and Hale Shaw PZ ’12 for placing 14th, 18th, 26th, and 34th respectively. Even more generously, they agreed to fund plane tickets for Enscoe and Johnson to compete as individuals at Nationals in Iowa Nov. 20. Along with the qualifying teams, the top seven individuals not on a qualifying team from each region earn a trip to nationals.
Thus, come Friday afternoon, the duo likely will be meandering about the greater Waverly, Iowa area, reveling in its pastoral beauty, accompanied by Coach Boston and, from the women’s side of things, Annie Lydens and Coach Freese, trying to feel the words “Midwest” and “nationals” and “important” and “corn” and “closure” in the air, the stoplights, the grass and the pavement and the buildings’ windows’ reflections.
Of course—and this is the important (unavoidable) part—they’ll be there without their team. Given this, Co-Captain Balmer’s comment that “a year ago [after failing to qualify for nationals as a team] one of my best friends told me PPXC was dead. We proved him wrong on Saturday” might seem counterintuitive.
Yet it rings true. With the season over and goals unachieved (with life, say, drawing to a close and the struggle seeming for naught), all can seem lost, dead, done; the team, though, subverts this first impression—the team, meaning these intangible and inexpressible connections between people, the shared experiences (be them what they may), what the specific memories and phrases and songs and runs and disappointments and celebrations attempt, intentionally or not, to get at, rejects this.
On Saturday, Nov. 20, at around 12:30 p.m., the remaining 560 men and women Division III cross country runners will have completed their seasons. Next season will be different; and the season after will be different, too, but will be the same in that it is different; and etc.