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X-Country Coaching: Final Chapter, the Post-Season

Photos by Dave Watt

Coaching runners often times leads to those times when training and race plans get derailed due to injuries. Such was the case with the Spartans (West Springfield HS’s Girls team). In my last installment on the Fall X-Country season, I had mentioned that we had entered the post-season and that our Conference meet had gone exceedingly well. We won. One week later, our season’s goal of being on the podium at the State Meet was in tatters. Our #2 runner Katie Kennedy had developed a severe pain in her ankle area. We feared a stress fracture but were somewhat optimistic when Katie was able to do some running without any limping. We would soon find out that she was one tough competitor and could tolerate a high degree of pain. The Regional Meet in our area is always a pressure cooker. The depth of competition is ever-present and there are more quality teams than the number of team slots for the state meets. There is one message: run hard and leave it all on the cross country course. If not for our nationally ranked #1 runner in Caroline Alcorta, Katie K would have been leading our team. At their best, both Caroline and Katie were as good a 1-2 duo as any team we had faced.

Katie warmed up and we told her that if the pain was too much to bear that she should let us know and we’d have her sit. She also knew that our team’s state berth would be more precarious without her racing. Katie toed the start line at Regionals and raced. The Regional Race went as best we could hope. Alcorta ran her fastest race of her career on the Burke Lake Course, as she ran the 3rd fastest time in the 35 year history of the course. Katie managed a 25th place finish on a hobbled ankle, almost a minute slower than one week prior. Our team took 3rd and owed that day to a gutty performance by Katie whose season was most likely finished. It was a tough moment. She was a senior had been in the top 2 – 10 every meet. Now we were facing the State Championship Meet without our #2. The injury bug hit our team in a few other spots. Our top freshman girl had broken a bone in her coccyx or tail bone and was out for the next couple of months. Our #7 runner had a worsening stress fracture in a toe and had been shut down a couple of weeks earlier. Could we race respectably at the State Meet without our strong #2?

The message to competitors in the State Meet is simple. You as a member of a team at States have earned your entry through weeks of practice and strong early post-season performances. You did not sneak in the race. You had earned it and now was the time to celebrate your season by giving it your all. Our girls’ team knew how to get to States and not be intimidated. This fall marked the 7th time in 8 years that our West Springfield Girls team had earned a spot in the most competitive division in Virginia high school sports. The one thing that stood out with the 2013 team was that we had the clear-cut State Meet favorite in Caroline.

Gun goes off and Caroline is out in front within the first 30 meters just like every race this season. Our other 6 competitors fall into the zones we discussed as the race field makes the sweeping loop of the first mile. Caroline comes through in an eye-opening 5:11 for the mile. She has a 40m lead. By two miles, her lead has stayed constant. Our other girls are in good shape except our expected #4 for the day Abby Snyder. Her sometimes sore hip has acted up and she is having difficulty keeping up her paces. She begins to fade and soon is being passed by our two freshman who move into our #4 and #5 positions. All of the coaches sprint over to the area on the course that makes up the long 600m straightaway to the finish. Caroline looks strong and has opened up her lead to almost 40 seconds. She has no wobble and breaks the tap in a new state meet course record, breaking last year’s new record by 11 seconds. Our other 6 runners run gamely and we end up 5th in the State. With our strong #2 Katie Kennedy and our then #5 freshman Sarah Waugh out with season-ending injuries, our West Springfield team did an admirable job of making it to States and coming away with a 5th place (out of 12 teams) team finish.

Next up: the National Meet in San Diego.

Footlocker Cross Country Nationals in San Diego

Photos by Dave Watt

West Springfield’s Caroline Alcorta earns trip by winning the South Regional (one of 4 nationwide)

Three years ago, Caroline Alcorta was playing JV field hockey in the fall of her freshman year at West Springfield HS (VA). She had not seriously considered coming out for cross country. That all changed after she did come out and ran Winter / Indoor track and the spring Outdoor Track seasons. No one could have predicted that she would become one of the all-time greats in Virginia high school cross country history and one of the top 10 girl distance runners in the U.S.

Caroline continued her undefeated front-running season at the qualifier race for the national finals of the Footlocker Cross Country Championships. Footlocker South in Charlotte North Carolina has been the site for the South Region for as long as the 30+ year national event. Athletes from the quadrant bordered to the west by Oklahoma and to the south by Florida and Texas converge on McAlpine Creek Park to try and grab a top 10 finish and an all-expense paid trip to San Diego and the oceanfront hotel on Coronado. Caroline did just that with an 11 second win and a sub 17 min finish in 16:55. Two weeks later, it’s Finals in Balboa Park in San Diego

The National Final included 5 other Virginia athletes that made up the boys and girls field of 80 cross country runners. In fact of the 5 other VA runners, 3 of the girls live within 2 miles of each other and two boys live about 10 miles apart. That would deem No Virginia as a hotbed of high school cross country.

The races were held on Saturday morning December 14th. The girls 5K went first at 9:15 am PST and the Boys 5K race followed at 10 am. Caroline came in as one of few undefeated runners, yet she was not perceived as a favorite. All pre-race online write-ups had her somewhere in the top 6-7 finishers. Had she been slighted? More than likely was the fact that she had not faced some of the other highly ranked entrants. The race goes off with all the fanfare of a professional championship. A professional video production company was onsite for the high definition online broadcast. The course had logos and event titles spray-painted onto the start area. Elite athletes were in attendance to give commentary and to be official Team Captains for the 4 quadrants of athletes. The gun goes off. Caroline is so accustomed to controlling the race from the start that she gets caught up in the expected sprint in the first 500m. She is in the top 5. As the field winds its way around Morley Field in Balboa Park, spectators can see the race competitors on multiple occasions as the course is a double-loop. At the first mile, Caroline is still in contention in the top 3-5. She has not wavered from the gun. At the first mile, the only true hill of the course is in front of you. At the crest, runners can gather themselves briefly before a steep downhill along the street. It has to be one of the steepest downhills you will see in a cross country course. The leaders come flying down the hill. Caroline is all of 5 ft tall. She can motor with the best of them on uphills and the flats, but she is at a slight disadvantage on a steep downhill. She is still in the top 5 but cannot close on the downhill. As a coach, you have to love the fact that your top athlete does not shy away from the front of a National Championship race. For many of the competitors at Footlocker, the entirety of the event is intimidating.

At two miles, Caroline is in good position within 10m of the lead. With about 1000m to go, she begins the assault up the hill once again. Hill running is her forte. She makes her move and by the top of the hill, Caroline is in 2nd place. Now the downhill and the final 800m is at hand. Here comes Hannah DiBalsi of Connecticut who sprints down the hill and moves from 4th to 2nd. Caroline is now in 3rd. Barrett of Pennsylvania has had the lead since the 2 mile mark and is showing no signs of giving up the lead. With 300m to go and the final stretch after the 3 mile mark, Caroline is gamely holding onto 3rd. The top 3 hold their place as Caroline exceeds her goal and is on the podium with a 3rd place All-American finish.

The coaching for the fall cross country season has ended. It started with August tryouts and Camp at Cacapon State Park West Virginia. A Girls Team Conference Championship, Regional 4th places finish and a State 5th place followed. The final chapter concluded with Caroline Alcorta’s amazing All-American performance. Being a coach can be summed up with one word: Inspiring

XC BORDER WAR 8: The 2013 Battle of the Potomac
XC Championships

Team Maryland Sweeps! MD’s Ryan Forsyth breaks Course Record set in 2006 at Inaugural Race

The 8th rendition of the now-nicknamed Border War brought back the boys’ only two-time Champion and Course Record holder, Nick Bax. Nick Bax was invited back to be the honorary starter. It was fitting that one of the top seeds in the Boys Race, Tai Dinger, was a senior at Bax’s alma mater St Albans. Team Maryland appeared to be the heavy favorite going into the Battle of the Potomac XC Championship. It was not simply the presence of 3 individual state champions. More importantly, the State Championship Boys team from Severna Park High School near Annapolis had decided to use the XC Border War as a tune-up for the Nike Cross Nationals Southeast Regional to be held a week later. Team Virginia did not have anyone of that caliber entered.


The day began with enthusiastic if not celebratory runs in the Middle School races. These 6th, 7th and 8th graders are the future stars of high school. The course is a single tour or loop of Smokey Glen Farm that measures out to 2500m. The two high school races are a double loop of 5000m total. The middle school boy’s winner was out quickly and ran in the lead from the gun. The girls winner ran a similar race and ran close to an impressive 6 min pace per mile.

The Open Races had the usual assortment of runners in colorful shorts and hats to match the Nike DryFit Singlets that are one of the top lures to run the XC Border War race. There is no lack of enthusiasm in the Open races. The speed may be lacking but not the love of cross country running. The Open Girls winner was a first: Prior to this year, we had not had a girl winner from West Virginia in either the Open or Seeded races. This year’s winner should have entered the Seeded race given her impressive wire-to-wire win.

Team Maryland had never won the Girls Potomac XC Cup. They did contribute to the Team Maryland win in the inaugural Battle of the Potomac in 2006 but that was when there was one combined Cup. Since the 2007 race for a Girls Potomac XC Cup, the Team Virginia Girls had won every competition. The Bethesda Chevy-Chase Girls state runner-up squad was the key runners for Team MD this year. Led by State Runner-up Nora McUmber the Maryland team looked strong. After one loop of the Smokey Glen 5K course, there was no doubt that Team Maryland was going to end their Potomac XC Cup drought. To top things off, Nora McUmber was not going to be denied an individual championship.

Team Maryland left its main competitors from Virginia humbled. Maybe the message will be received in the rest of the Commonwealth of Virginia that the Maryland runners came to race hard. Pride in one’s home turf counts and for 2013, Team Maryland claimed all the glory

Enjoy the snow-covered trails (some of us) on your run!

The Staff and Board of American Running

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