Luckily, the sun was shining last Friday as the St. Olaf men's cross country team battled their way to third place at the Blugold Invitational, hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Led by Sam Hauck '06, the men finished behind University of Minnesota-Duluth and Central Region rival Luther College. Hauck finished second overall with a time of 25:40 over the eight kilometer course, running second to Luther's Adam Bohach. Hauck and Bohach ran cheek-by-jowl until the final thousand meters of the course.
Tony Hoff '07, who finished second for the Oles and fourth overall with a time of 26:06, was also locked in a dual with UMD's Eric Atkinson for much of the race. David Swanson '08 (27:12), Andrew Petz '07 (27:17), Cullen ONeill '09 (27:24), co-captain Jason Havey '06 (27:36) and John Lamppa '07 (27:39) filled out the roster of the Ole top seven.
The Oles' third place finish was due at least in part to their large spread. In cross country, "the spread is the time between your first finisher and either the number five or number seven finisher," said men's head coach Bill Thornton. It can also mean the difference between a first and third place finish for a team.
Despite standout performances from Hauck and Hoff and solid races from the next five runners, the Oles only placed third. That is at least partially because this season, the "Big O" (the team's traditional nickname) is chasing the ever-elusive spread.
The first through seventh place spread at the St. Olaf Invitational two weeks ago was 2:28; this week it was a mere 1:59. This demonstrated significant improvement, particularly from the supporting runners.
"We are improving and must remain patient with ourselves," Thornton said.
Given the way cross country meets are scored, having two runners like Hauck and Hoff so far in the lead places the onus on the shoulders of Swanson and company.
With good cause, St. Olaf remains optimistic. Times dropped across the board from the St. Olaf Invite. Hauck dropped over a minute from his Ole Invite performance, as did Petz and Havey. Co-captain Mark Ellingson '06, who was consistently in the top five for Olaf last season, is still awaiting the diagnosis of a mysterious injury.
With less than four weeks remaining until the MIAC Championships at Como Park in Saint Paul, the focus of the season begins to shift from training to racing. In a conference as competitive as the MIAC, seconds on the spread separate the victors from the vanquished, and the Ole men are looking to finish, once again, as victors.
St. Olaf next competes at the LaCrosse Invitational on Saturday, Oct. 15th, their last race before the MIAC Championship. The Lacrosse Invite annually boasts a deep and talented field and looks to be the perfect precursor for the championship season.
Until then, you can be sure that the men's team will continue to work on their spread.