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Cross Country Finishes 14th at Nationals

Despite Two Key Injuries, Team Accomplishes Goal of Finishing in Top Fifteen

By Jeffrey J. Billing

The men’s cross-country team left Friday for the Division III Nationals in Oshkosh, Wisconsin with one goal: to prove they were better then their 21st national ranking. The seven harriers were convinced that on an average day they were a top fifteen team and that with a strong race they could break into the top ten.

The team accomplished just that, and proved to the nation that they were a top fifteen team. MIT’s cumulative score of 356 was good enough for a 14th-place finish, just nine points back from 13th. The team pulled off the successful finish despite losing two of their top five runners to injuries.

Team carefully planned strategy

Since racing in Oshkosh two months ago, the team had been contemplating its strategy for the meet. Their conclusion was to go out conservative: “A combination of poor results at the national preview meet, combined with the fact that most runners at nationals run the first mile significantly faster than the other miles of the race, led us to the strategy of a combination of place and time goals for mile one that initially would appear to put us totally out of the race,” Taylor said.

A risky strategy on a twisty, narrow course, but one that is well suited to Oshkosh’s flat and grassy course, which winds through the wide-open fairways of a local golf course.

Leading the charge for MIT would be Daniel R. Feldman ’02. Feldman emerged as a star last year by setting the Indoor Track freshman 5000m record, and the start of his sophomore year as been no let down.

He has been Tech’s top finisher at every race he participated in this season. Feldman’s plan for nationals was to start out in about 50th place, going through the first mile no faster then 4:45 and then finishing strong enough to pass 15 to 20 people and earn All-American status by placing in the top 35.

Planning to go out 5-10 seconds back from Feldman was senior captain Christopher S. McGuire ’00. McGuire started the season slow but over the last month has shown signs of returning to his previous form that has brought him two Outdoor Track 5000m New England Championships. With a good race, McGuire was hoping he could finish in the top 50 overall.

Sean J. Montgomery ’01 was hoping to be 3-7 seconds back from McGuire at the mile. Montgomery, a highly-touted track star hoping to be All-American in the mile this year, is only running his second serious season of cross-country and is still accustoming himself to the longer races. Montgomery was frustrated by poor performances early on in the season, but has since regrouped to become a solid third man for the team and a runner who could emerge at any time to bring the team to the next level.

Montgomery’s plan was to run just back from McGuire early on and rely on his superior speed to outkick many competitors over the later portion of the race.

Liyan Guo ’01 aimed to start out just behind Montgomery. Guo put in over 900 miles this summer to prepare himself for this season and as a result has performed remarkably while being one of MIT’s top five runners for the first time in his career at MIT. Guo’s typical strategy is to make his move in the middle of the race and use his mental toughness to gut it out over the last mile.

William F. Johnston ’00 was expecting to go out in no faster than five minutes for the first mile. Johnston, not know for his speed, is one of the most reliable members of the team. He’s also the only one who doesn’t participate in track as he prefers to run longer road-races including an occasional marathon, which he’ll be doing in two days on Thanksgiving Day.

Johnston was expecting to start off in about 150th place and then run his patented even splits over the next four miles to pull-in those competitors who could not maintain their early pace.

Depth provides strong substitutes

Also stepping to the line for MIT were Sean P. Nolan ’03 and Christopher M. Testa ’03. Nolan finished the regular season as Tech’s eigth-ranked harrier, but has filled in for number five man Phillip J. Loiselle ’01 (out with an achilles injury) during the post-season. Testa finished the regular season as the team’s number nine runner, but filling in for number-two-ranked Edward A. Keehr ’01 who was hampered at the National Qualifiers last week by a hip injury and decided to step aside this weekend, confident that Testa would be able to perform better.

Psyched up the night before by a motivational speech from 10,000m Olympic Bronze Medalist Lynn Jennings, the field went out extremely fast, as Coach Taylor had predicted. The leader clocked the first mile in 4:26 and the pack was right behind him.

Unfortunately, most of the MIT runners were dragged out fast as well. Feldman and McGuire, whose miles splits were 4:37 and 4:47 respectively, each later said they were trying to hold back and felt like they were going much slower. Just behind McGuire, Montgomery and Guo came through in 4:50, also faster then they had planned. Staying back, however, were Johnston and the two freshmen, going through the mile in 5:00.

By mile two, Feldman had moved up into 23rd place, while the next three Tech runners held their positions in the top 100. Johnston and Nolan were still near the back, just beginning to move up through the pack, but Testa had already broken away from them. He obviously was feeling good and was doing exactly what Coach Taylor had told him; he was going for it.

MIT accomplishes placement goal

The winner crossed the finish line in 23:41. Feldman trailed by a minute, coming through in 24:44, a solid time, but he had fallen back to 43rd place as his aggressive first two miles caught up to him. Not too far back from him, Montgomery and McGuire came in together with Sean outkicking Chris as they finished 95th and 102nd respectively. Their overzealous start had also caught up to them, but in a credit to their desire to win, they gutted it out and held on to place solidly for the team.

Twenty seconds back from them came Guo, with Testa right on his heels. The plan had worked to perfection and Testa had the race of his life, offering a huge pick-me-up for the team. Liyan finished in 130th and Testa was just the very next place, rounding out MIT’s top five.

Back from them, Johnston finished in 181st with Nolan following him in 189th. All seven runners improved upon their times on the same course, and all set their 8000m personal records.

Had their top four been a little more disciplined and gone out a little slower, they might have been able to pull out some great performances and would have been poised to break into the top ten. As it was, Testa was the only one with a spectacular performance, but the key was that no one ran poorly. Everyone had a solid race in the biggest race of the season, a true complement to their mental and physical preparation.

With five of this weekend’s runners returning and with Keehr and Loiselle healthy, the Engineers have seven veteran runners coming back. They should be able to use what they learned this weekend to challenge as a top ten team next season, when nationals will be held in Spokane, Washington.