It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
The unforgiving ethos of cross-country championship running inevitably elevated some, while tearing down others in Sunday’s 2017 U Sports Championships. Predictions were thrown away and rankings were jumbled, as runners stepped on the course determined to stir the pot and exceed expectations. Many runners turned heads, but not all for the reasons they were hoping.
Now that the dust has settled and the University of Victoria course is wet and well torn apart, we separate the boomers from the busts in Canadian university running’s most momentous event.
The veteran of U Sports XC once again proved that she should never be counted on for a quiet race. Fading to third at the OUA (Ontario) Championship did nothing to shake her confidence. Quickly after claiming the individual gold medal, she admitted: “Sunday’s race was ‘proper cross-country,’ as Seb Coe would say. Wet, hills, cool temperature, and challenging terrain…It could have been anyone’s day to win. It was a great race.”
Gollish is content with her experience. “Victoria did an incredible job with their organization,” she says. “They did not ignore the details and put on a great event. It was a historic day in U Sports, and one I am thankful I got to be a part of.”
Shawn Masters (Windsor)
A hot start at the OUA Championships saw him reach the halfway point 10 seconds ahead of his next competitor and subsequently fade to 21st place, a strategy that had most pundits rule Masters out of contention for an All-Canadian (top-14) spot. However, the fifth-year runner and Lancer veteran had other plans. A more conservative start placed him in the top-20, and a progressive finish landed him in 11th, propelling the ninth-ranked Lancers pre-race to sixth overall. “I ran my own race,” he says. “I felt like I was where I was meant to be. I kept smiling whenever I felt pain. I love these guys (my teammates), and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was something special.”
Ben Carson (Western)
An electrifying performance at the Blair Salter International meet in September was but a distant memory for Carson, when he crossed the OUA Championship finish line in ninth. But, the fourth year Mustang showed that his earliest performance was no flash in the pan. Losing only to champion Yves Sikubwabo, and OUA gold medallist Connor Black, the Western runner snagged individual bronze, and provided a low stick [top scorer] for his team.
Alex James (Calgary)
The enigma that is Alex James put together a performance that – thankfully – allows him to laugh at his previous U Sports (then CIS) finish. He was 119th in Guelph in 2015. The notorious grinder and high mileage runner from the University of Calgary had previously dealt with severe bouts of burnout and, subsequently, stretches of inconsistent performances, but proved that those days are far behind him. His fifth-place finish was instrumental in the Dinos’ silver medal-performance.
Claire Sumner (Queen’s)
The 2016 U Sports champion showed that her fourth-place finish at this year’s OUA championships was but a fluke. The Calgary native and defending champion was only bested by Gollish on Sunday, as she lead the Queen’s Gaels to team silver, running alongside teammate Branna MacDougall, who earned bronze. Sumner has finished in the U Sports top-10 four consecutive years, and has established herself as a high-stakes performer.
Isaiah Frielink (Western)
Although he is a stellar one, Isaiah Frielink is still a freshman. Dare I say, he may have taken counting lessons from his elder teammate, Jack Sheffar, who – with the race’s runner-up, Black – had stopped running with a lap left to go at the 2017 U Sports 3,000m. Frielink’s experience Sunday was eerily similar. Striding along with Black and eventual champion Yves Sikubwabo, the freshman considerably slowed his pace at the end of his fourth 2K lap, seemingly unaware of having one more lap to cover. Unfortunately, the mistake was costly, as Frielink faded to 122nd. Rookie mistake.
Steadily, the Gryphons slid onto the short list of contenders as the year went on. Fate, unfortunately, had other plans. In the absence of team captain Charlotte Ward, the third-ranked team had to settle for fifth ending a 12-year win streak. A ninth-place finish by Danielle Jossinet was not enough to counter the score of their fourth and fifth runners, in 45th- and 50th-place.
Adam Strueby (Regina)
A sometimes-unfortunate aspect of cross-country racing is the overwhelming importance placed on the final race. Strueby is a proven performer at these championships, having earned a berth on last year’s second All-Canadian team. He is also consistent, finishing near the top in all of his races this year, capped by a third-place at the Stewart Cup (featuring all teams from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba). But, everybody is entitled to a bad day. Sunday, the fifth-year runner had to settle for 23rd, nearly 50 seconds back of the winner, after leading the race in its early stages.
Paula Findlay (Alberta)
A late addition to the list of possible contenders, Findlay did not play her best hand. The Canadian Olympian and world-class triathlete jumped into the race as a mystery, having not appeared in any cross-country results this year. The high-profile athlete had to settle for 15th-place, missing out on All-Canadian status. The University of Alberta runner has both a silver and fourth-place finish to her name from the 2007 and 2008 U Sports (then CIS) Cross-Country Championships. Ten years later, she was unable to rediscover the magic.
Jeff Tweedle (McMaster)
For the fifth-consecutive year, the McMaster men finished fourth. Such tantalizing consistency has been a frustrating point for the Marauders, who seem to inch closer to bronze every year, only to fall short. This year was tight. Very tight. We’re talking one point behind the Laval Rouge et Or tight, and nobody is likely taking it harder than Jeff Tweedle. The veteran runner and confirmed member of U Sports’ elite finished 22nd, after placing 10th in 2016, securing fourth-spot for the Hamilton-based team once again. A top-20 finish by Tweedle would have landed the Marauders on the podium.
This race marks the end of the U Sports cross-country season. Satisfied or not, runners will be leaving Victoria shortly with a number in their minds. This number – their placing – will follow them until next year. They will use this number to define their entire season, for better or for worse. It will become a benchmark for them – something to improve on.
Alex Cyr is a St. FX alumnus and a runner for the Windsor Lancers who writes when he can’t run, and runs when he can’t write.