Nothing can replace experience, a reality that the Michigan cross country team was confronted with as it traveled to Virginia this past weekend. Led by veteran athletes, the Wolverines felt the full force of NCAA Division Ⅰ competition on Saturday in the NCAA Championships.
Senior Kayla Windemuller represented the women’s team alone at the 6,000 meter championship meet, while graduate student Tom Brady led the men’s team in the 10,000 meter race. Rife with talent in both competitions the Wolverines had a tall task in front of them. Experience would prove to be of chief importance in this meet.
“It’s such a big meet with incredible depth and talented runners and it’s honestly chaos the whole time,” Windemuller said. “You’re packed in with bodies the whole time. It’s a really cool environment to be a part of.”
Under the hot sun, in front of a sold-out crowd and with a hard packed course beneath him, the NCAA Championship was the final chapter of a career full of talent and determination for Brady. He finished 27th overall with a time of 29:37.1 and earned himself the coveted All-American title.
“For Tom, this race in particular is the culmination of a lot of hard work. He had big goals, which was to be All-American,” Michigan coach Kevin Sullivan said. “He managed to keep himself in control early, which he hasn’t done in other national championships, and so I thought he did a really nice job of managing his effort early, which allowed him to run really strong over the back half of the race.”
With 255 individual runners on the start line, the first objective for all competitors was to stay on their feet and avoid being swallowed by the masses. Windemuller put up her fastest start time of the season, finishing the first kilometer at 3:01.9 in her race, illustrating the ferocity with which she planned to attack the meet.
Brady, on the other hand, employed a more reserved start. At the one-kilometer split, he clocked in at 73rd place, giving himself a large hill to climb in the coming 9,000 meters. He was followed by his teammate, sophomore Caleb Jarema, who came off the line with an aggressive start that he failed to maintain. At the one-kilometer split he was just five seconds behind Brady, but over 100 runners separated them – exemplifying just how fierce the competition was.
At the seven-kilometer split, the condensed pack began to spread out and Brady began his attack. He had soon progressed to 37th place and was followed by teammates in graduate student Owen MacKenzie and graduate student Nick Foster, in 103rd and 138th place, respectively. Meanwhile Jarema had fallen to 153rd. The men’s team finished in 19th place out of 31 teams overall.
“Nationals is a very fast race and you don’t want to get left behind,” Brady said. “So I just decided to start picking people off and embrace the pain and roll with it and try to beat bodies. I think that’s the best way to go about cross country, just beat the guy next to you and then move on to the next.”
Brady built off of his aggressive performance as well, securing his 27th place finish. With the immense depth of talent that the competition held, Michigan was an underdog from the jump. But the Wolverines put up a good fight and with a relatively young team, they are ready to build off of the experience of older runners who went to NCAAs.
“This race is like no other.” said Brady, “I think the best way to race it is to have raced in the past. And you just gotta be ready for how fast it is and how much pain you will feel throughout the entire race. It’s just a crazy race, and I’m proud of the effort they put out there today and I’m excited to see what they do in the next few years.”
Windemuller was in a unique position, not receiving the team motivation that the men had as the lone representative for the Wolverine women. While garnering support from her team from afar, she was alone in the heat of the competition, missing her race ally in graduate student Samantha Saenz.
“It’s definitely very different,” Windemuller said. “We are in this routine all season and all together. So to be alone, it was kind of lonely … but I definitely felt I had their support and tried to represent them. And I know that they’ll be next to me next year. So that’s the goal that we have to keep working on.”
By the five-kilometer split, Windemuller’s ferocity was clear. Climbing 11 places in just one-kilometer, she made her way to the 96th spot, squarely in the middle of the pack. Windemuller kept her foot on the gas and overtook four more spots, finishing the race in 92nd with a time of 20.37.7.
While it may not be the explosive finish to the season Windemuller hoped for, she added another feather to her cap that should positively impact her teammates in the coming seasons. She holds valuable experience that her teammates can continue to feed off of.
Next season will look very different for Michigan, but its veterans have set up their successors well. Windemuller is ready to shepherd her team to championships next season as Brady did this year, giving the Wolverines a good foundation to build on and continue to grow the program.