Far more than in any other meet, intangibles can play a disproportionate role in the final results of the conference championship. Although latent, such personal issues as team and individual expectations, pre-existing injuries, academic stress, illness, interpersonal relations, and an emotional low can weigh more heavily on a runner’s mind than the race itself. On the other hand, if a runner can find a way to run relaxed, his/her footsteps can, instead, lead him/her to great successes.
For Stetson, this Atlantic Sun Conference Championship--the first for some, but the last for others--became an epic struggle for self-fulfillment.
In the last weeks leading up to the championship, members of the women’s team suffered injuries that limited practice for three of their top five finishers, and completely sidelined their #6 runner, Emily Nolan. Even worse, what prior setbacks didn’t do to their spirits, the race(s) did. As a team, they averaged 40 seconds slower than in their last 5K.
Freshman Amanda Spring, who was nursing an injury, did her very best, and came in first on her team for the sixth time (19:43.91). Sami Hicks, usually the team’s second runner, re-injured her hip in a final sprint, and barely made it across the finish line (20:10.57).
“I’m still in a lot of pain,” she e-mailed me two days later. “I did my best in the race. I pushed as much as I could. (Right now) I'm just trying to put it behind me, and focus on getting healthy.”
Passing Hicks in the final yards, and finishing second on the team, was Adrienne DeVita (20:07.74). DeVita was—as she had been all season long—yet again rock-solid.
A steady #4 performer, Daniella Godenzi-Moreno, just couldn’t seem to get on track in this race, and finished last (21:50.55), two and a half minutes slower than her most recent 5K.
“I honestly don't know what happened,” she said. “I was hyped for the race, and was aiming for a PR of 19:30. I wanted to help my team and Sabrina to have a great end to the season. For some reason I couldn't make myself go faster; my body was dead and I have no clue why, because I rested well. I hope that never happens again...I will keep working hard and try to forget about that race because it is upsetting to me.”
Running through her injury, senior, and team captain, Sabrina Guzsvany (20:28.83) finished as the fourth Hatter. Although she ran injured most of the season, she also met her primary goal of being a top-five scorer for her team.
“Percy Warner is a beautiful park,” Sabrina said, “and the course was really great! It had hills that…might be considered mountainous, but I actually didn't mind them. The weather was great and provided us with perfect racing conditions.
“The women's team might not have performed to their full potential, but that's okay. Our season was still VERY successful. We've improved so much during my time here at Stetson. Although I'm graduating, I'm beyond excited to see what this talented group of women will achieve in upcoming seasons!”
On the men’s side, the general rule seemed to be tired legs among the front runners, but PRs for four others.
Doubtless, for teammates (Sr.) Andrew Epifanio and (Fr.) Joseph Beery, this race symbolized the final chapter in a mutually beneficial relationship that had begun even before the first day of practice. All summer long, prior to meeting on campus, they compared and traded training schedules. Then, starting in August, they paced each other through every practice and race, hoping to do the same in the season finale.
So far this season, in both time trials and six races--as he had in all of the (previous) 26 races in which he ran for Stetson from 2010 to 2013--Epifanio has finished first for the team. Beery, in 2013, finished second in all his races.
In this last meet of the year, however, Joe Beery ran the better race and finished first on the team. Andrew, having what could best be described as a “bad day”—he ran a minute slower than he has all season--finished next. Although both their times were well off their usual pace, what better season-ending story could there be? Joe, all year the understudy, had switched places with the team’s outgoing senior captain, and former pace-setter.
It was the one race that will undoubtedly be long remembered by both. Not only was this a sublime ending for their relationship, but no doubt cemented that bond. And, in his last race of 2013, Joe Beery had started his own “streak.” To be continued?
“Andrew and I went out in the first mile in 5:15,” Beery explained afterwards, “which was the game plan. But he was unable to hold on. I don’t know what happened, but it might have been because of the hills. We don’t train on hills.
“The hills took more out of me than I anticipated. I guess I’ve been out of Ohio (his home state) too long. There are barely any hills in Florida. But this”—Percy Warner Park—“is like a basic, mid-western course. It’s good to be back on a course with dirt—instead of sand—and trees—instead of palms.
“I think (for me) it was a successful race. All in all, I left it all out there.”
“Beery ran a very strong, and mentally tough race,” affirmed Epifanio, “and I’m very proud of the way he pushed through the struggle of the run. He’s been a great partner throughout the season, and his dedication has been admirable. He definitely helped me push my own training limits. I’m actually quite pleased to be able to pass off my first varsity position to him. He has a lot of talent, and with his work ethic, shows a lot of promise.”
In so saying, Epifanio has thus passed the torch on to Beery.
“I’m not sure I’m ready to be a leader in the literal sense,” Beery suggested, “but maybe I can lead by setting an example, or perhaps by giving advice when asked for it. I don’t want to initiate leadership, or claim it. My definition of a leader is one who sets an example, and is there to lean on.”
“I’ve been training hard,” he said afterwards. “I think the two-a-days have helped, and then tapering into more reasonable mileage the last couple of weeks.
“I was definitely psyched before the race,” Townes continued. “I went out fast, and ran a 5:20 first mile. At about the three mile mark, I noticed three green jerseys ahead of me. I assumed that they were from JU, and we wanted to beat them. By the fourth mile, I had caught two of them. The third guy and I went neck-and-neck, but he beat me at the end.”
Interestingly, “little victories” by Beery (who outran JU’s first runner by one place), Townes (who finished one place ahead of JU’s fourth runner) and Kyle Meerdo (outsprinting JU’s fifth runner), together helped the team to tie Jacksonville (at 273 points). Meerdo, moreover, in sixth—one place ahead of JU’s fifth finisher—gained an advantage for Stetson, resulting in an eighth place win over Jacksonville (which was 9th). In all, members of the two teams finished in the 12 consecutive spots between 48th and 62nd place.
Next for Stetson, in order, were Cody Malloy (30:02), Ryan Hodgins (30:24.21), Kyle Meerdo (30:35.27), and Jeremy Butler (31:33). Behind them, and setting personal bests—along with Kyle—were Austyn Finnk (32:59), and James Welch III (33:33.58).
Kyle: “I've been dealing with injuries all season, and had to take it easy for a few races. I was finally, fully healthy for Conference. I prepared the best I could, and tapering really helped. Andrew (Epifanio) got me into the mindset that I had the capability to achieve an easy goal of 30:45, but that I might also get a 30:30. I always run better when I get my nerves (under control) the night before, so I did not stress at the race. I also run well when it is cold.
“I took out the first mile a few seconds faster than I had planned, and without realizing it, my second and third were slower (than expected). I decided to race the last two miles; my last mile turned out to be the fastest. Ryan (Hodginson) was right in my sights. I wanted to catch up to him and push him to help our team out. Also the Jacksonville kid coming from behind helped push me more. I never let a kid pass me at the finish before, and was not going to start at this race. I gave it all I had, and it turned out to be a PR.”
Austyn: “On race day I had a lot of adrenaline, and a sense that it was going to be a good day. At the start line I drew the usual Jewish star into the ground (which I did for every race this season), and then I knew I was going to PR. During the race, the course still had that fast feel, at least for me, and I carried that momentum for the entire race. The cold didn't affect me at all and the only thing that slowed me down a little was the small hilly area back in the forest, otherwise I really enjoyed the course. I'm hoping I can build on this PR and do even better next season.”
James: “I had prepared harder for this race than any other. I was ready, but nervous. I had two goals: to beat Austyn and to get a PR. Well, I followed Austyn the whole time, but never passed him. The course was rough, and I just knew I had to finish, and I did. I collapsed at the finish and could not breathe. I had to be carried to the team "camp," but it was an absolute honor, and blessing, to run in conference.”
This meet concludes the 2013 Stetson cross country season. While it didn’t end as the landmark season that many hoped it would be, it will be remembered as a step in the right direction.