Men’s cross country in fast fashion at coed relays; season outlook promising

Men’s cross-country opened its 2003 season by hosting the Coed Relays last Saturday, an informal event among the men’s and women’s teams from Williams and Middlebury.

This year, however, was unusual for both its venue and attendance – Vassar College and Roger Williams University joined Middlebury and the Ephs on the grounds of Mt. Hope Farm, a former Rockefeller estate, where Williams held home cross-country meets before adopting the course at Mt. Greylock High School in 2000.

Though the squads are often there for workouts, the men’s and women’s teams had never competed on Mt. Hope’s demanding terrain. The property features a rolling spread of access and woods roads that wind around a horse corral, the farm’s mansion and rock-walled cattle pastures. Runners enjoy little flat ground, and must devote most of their energy to long, steady climbs

The scenery, however, is inspiring for competitors and spectators alike, with the high ridgelines of Mt. Greylock and Prospect and Saddle Ball Mountains framing the Hopper to the immediate east and the Taconic Crest commanding the horizon to the west.

Saturday’s course involved three different loops and five stages. Most relay teams were paired members of the men’s and women’s contingents from each school. Men ran the first, third and fifth legs of three, two, and two kilometers, respectively, for a 7-kilometer total; and the women raced five kilometers over two legs of three and two kilometers, respectively.

The initial 3k harbored what Eph harriers only refer to as “the back hill,” a forested, rocky, almost half-mile grind that gradually steepens before cresting into a sheltered meadow. After that, the loop pounds back down the mansion driveway and hooks a hard left below the horse barns for an uphill finish to the exchange zone.

Both 2k legs boasted hills of their own, carrying runners up and around the mansion and its back lawn, but the men’s final segment drew out like a slow pendulum swing, with a climb to start, a hard beat down from the front drive, and a sapping climb to the chute.

Williams partners swept the first seven slots on the results board, demonstrating more than just the depth of their summer preparation. The Ephs reserve a particular style of self-expression for their first race of the year. No one wears a team-issued uniform. Rather, partners coordinate outfits, aiming for some compromise between outlandish and comfortable.

Bill Ference ’07 and Michelle Rorke ’06, for example, emerged from behind the vans for the start of the seeded pairs race with helium-filled balloons tied around their heads – Rorke removed hers after a few hundred meters, but Ference kept his through all seven kilometers, striding among the pack with his purple thought-bubble bouncing behind him.

Neal Holtschulte ’06 sported zebra-print hotpants – which complemented Kaitlin Rees’ ’07 hot-pink zebra top – and, for the last 2k, a plush cow hat, complete with ears and horns. Stephen Wills ’07 stepped to the line wearing a red sports bra, stuffed with socks, to better match captain Heather Lindenman’s ’04 ensemble.

Head Coach Pete Farwell remarked on the team’s energy and spirited day, and praised the first-years for contributing a number of impressive performances. “A lot of people ran faster than I thought they might, which is a good reflection of the work folks put in over the summer,” Farwell said. “Everyone looked strong – and for me, that’s more exciting than the specific splits.”

With first-year Outing Club trips and orientation now over and the regular schedule of the semester underway, the men’s team will have more time together to knit and tailor their training dynamic. The frenetic days of early September are some of the most difficult for Farwell’s crew.

“The assistant coaches and I always have trouble holding [the team] back a bit when you first arrive,” Farwell told the men last week. “You’re back from a long summer, you’ve been looking forward to running with the guys again, and every day you want to prove what you can do, show the improvement you’ve made.”

“Every year the freshmen want to come in and make a name for themselves, show that they’re for real, and the upperclassmen never give in to a challenge, you know? And that’s a great thing – that kind of playing off each other can be really constructive,” captain Mitchell Baker ’04 said. “But then the group starts to mature together, the new guys get more familiar with the training and people’s nerves sort of settle down. We can get into the groove of daily practices and build from there.”

Next weekend the team will hit the road for New London, Connecticut, for an invitational at Connecticut College to inaugurate the Camels’ new home course. The race might set off an early-season showdown between the Ephs and their New England rival, the Tufts University Jumbos, but Farwell isn’t changing his focus. “The September meets are fun, and we keep them pretty low-key. I think it’s great that we can add a new course to the schedule – we’re excited to go.”