Isaiah Frielink

Photo: U Sports.

Guelph’s Connor Black and Laval’s Yves Sikubwabo were running side by side, slowly gapping the rest of the field at the 2017 U Sports Cross-Country Championships in Victoria on Nov. 12.

It was a sight that all knowledgeable fans were anticipating. The question was not whether the duo would be able to break away from the pack, but rather when they would decide to do so. At 7K, the surge finally came. Sikubwabo, the defending champion, lengthened his stride. Black followed. They matched cadence, and pursed their lips, as their pace steadily increased. Though they were escaping from Russell Pennock, Alex James, Sergio Raez-Villanueva and others, they were having trouble shaking off one last survivor. A tall, blonde Western Mustang was refusing to let them go.

RELATED: VIDEO: U Sports 3,000m mayhem as bell lap sounds 200m early.

Isaiah Frielink, a heavily-recruited rookie from Barrie, Ont. had come to play and, with each stride, he was making everyone reconsider their Trackie pre-race prediction contest entries. Closing in on the end of the fourth-lap – the course consisted of five 2K laps – Frielink took the lead, began surging again, and crossed 8K ahead of his two seniors.

Against all odds, the rookie was hijacking the men’s 10K.

Posted by Cross-Country et athlétisme on Monday, November 13, 2017

What happened next is already engraved in the history books. Call it a mental block or a rookie mistake. Frielink, having mismanaged his fuel, hobbled the final 2K in 9:49 – slowing down his previous pace by approximately 1:45 per K. He finished 122nd. His final lap was covered almost two minutes slower than any other runner in the race.

As for his team, the defending U Sports Cross-Country Championships bronze medallists: ninth.

“What happened was pretty simple, I thought we were on lap five,” he says. “It was a bit of a mix-up, and it turned out to be a costly one. I was on what I thought was my last lap, and I started moving up in the pack when I saw Yves [Sikubwabo] and Connor [Black] take off. People were shaking their cowbells, and the only distance markers on the course read ‘1K’ and ‘2K’. When I saw the end of the lap coming up, I thought: ‘oh boy!’ Then, I had to quickly regroup, but there was nothing left. I wish it would have been a better finish.”

I remember my first U Sports Championships.

Really, I do. Through the cacophonic chaos, I was trying to make the best possible name for myself, knowing that each place won was a feather in my hat – a more valuable token of history from the momentous event. Little did I acknowledge about the people screaming, the lap counting. Heck, the only reason I kept on running was because I had over 30 runners to chase. In Frielink’s case, not only did he have to deal with the hype that simply comes with one’s first U Sports Cross-Country Championships, he had to focus on remaining calm while leading the entire field of 130-plus runners, some six years his senior. “When you’re thinking about the hype and the race, your brain just shuts down,” Frielink says. “I just became too focused.”

The unfortunate finish, however, cannot overshadow Frielink’s remarkable freshman year. The 1,500m specialist boasts a PB of 3:51 and admittedly “is not used to long tempos or that high of mileage.” He was one of the few bright spots on a dismantled Western Mustangs team. Gone was All-Canadian [top-14 at nationals] Chris Balestrini. Last year’s top performer, Jack Sheffar, entered the season injured. Frielink gave the Mustangs a fighting chance at a podium spot at the OUA (Ontario) Championships, where he finished seventh.

Posted by Cross-Country et athlétisme on Monday, November 13, 2017

Despite the mishap, Frielink is looking ahead and is setting goals for future U Sports races. “Next year, I want to do the same thing – run the same way – minus the mistake,” he says. “That is how I race best. I want to be aggressive, be with the leaders around the end, so that I can use my kick. I want to win a medal in the future, or at least finish as an All-Canadian. For that to happen, however, I’ll have to stay injury-free.”

Frielink was able to let go of his frustrations by venting about his experience to a few seasoned runners after the race. “I saw [Olympian] CPT (Charles Philibert-Thiboutot) and [Olympian] Luc Bruchet after the night’s banquet, and it was nice to chat with them about the race,” he says. “They definitely have a lot of experience.” Training in B.C., the two 2016 Olympians had come to Victoria to watch the race.

Frielink can now smile at the mistake, but he is not letting himself off easily. “I am going to be in Kingston, Ont. in two weeks (for the Canadian Cross-Country Open Championships),” he adds. Only 18, he will be competing in the junior category.

“We have to keep moving forward,” he says. “I want redemption.”

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.

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