As the runners passed the 2.5-mile mark of the six-kilometer (3.73-mile) Big Ten Championship race, the Michigan women’s cross country team looked to be in a prime position to take home the title.
In first place with 59 points and three Wolverines in the top 10, Michigan looked to capitalize on its position. As the runners approached the 3-mile mark, junior Ericka VanderLende, accompanied by Minnesota’s Megan Hasz and Michigan State’s Jenna Magness, held a tight lead. As they kicked the wet mud behind them going up the final hill, it was shaping up to be a photo finish. But on the final push, Hasz edged out VanderLende for the Big Ten title by 0.8 seconds.
No. 9 Michigan finished fourth at the Big Ten Championships on Friday in a highly competitive event. The tight race around Penn State’s Blue and White Golf Courses was the most competitive race the Wolverines had all season.
In the first mile, the runners practically blended together. Everyone was running stride by stride, foreshadowing a race that would come down to the final kilometer.
“This was definitely our most competitive race with many people close together,” VanderLende said. “(It was) a little intimidating because we haven’t really had a great split like that.”
VanderLende stayed at the front of the pack, placing in the top five at every mile split.
“Today was a good day,” VanderLende said. “Personally, I think it’s been a long time coming to have a decent race for me and when the stakes are higher, I feel like I race better. So I think it worked out well individually as well.”
VanderLende wasn’t the only Michigan runner to have a good day, though. Senior Kayla Windemuller put up a personal best herself.
Windemuller also fought at the front for the entire duration of the event. The first time All-Big Ten honoree missed out on fifth place by 0.4 seconds.
“Mostly, I just wanted to maintain my position,” Windemuller said. “(Michigan coach Mike McGuire) would tell us before the race that every place that you’re in is precious, but the only place ahead of you is more precious than the one you’re in.”
The runners had a tricky course, dealing with strong rain and heavy winds for the duration of the event. Not only did they run on wet grass, but the runners had to weave between trees and trek uphill for large parts of the course. Windemuller and the Wolverines, though, had the benefit of running this course before. Experience that competitors lacked.
“It was kind of fun,” said Windemuller. “It’s kind of what cross country is all about. Just the mental toughness, working hard and the tough conditions. If anything, it was my favorite because we were dealing with a lot of rain even in practice.”
Added VanderLende: “The weather, definitely, has an impact on my mental state, but I just tried to push it away. Normally, I don’t enjoy running in the cold, but just setting that aside, focusing on the task at hand really helps take my mind off the conditions.”
Although the Wolverines failed to take home the Big Ten Championship, Michigan has a chance at redemption as it prepares for the NCAA Great Lakes Regional on Nov. 12 in Evansville, Ind.