In the last two minutes, everything changed.
As sophomore Alyson Kohlmeier came into the final stretch of the five-kilometer race she was in fourth place, where she had been the entire time. But now she was finally in a position to pass Cassie Hunt of No. 20 Illinois. Just as Kohlmeier was securing third place, sophomore Erin Webster and junior Arianne Field made a push toward the front of the pack, securing their 13th- and 14th-place victories, respectively. In this short period of time, the Wolverines made up at least 20 points – all of which would prove to be critical for them in the end.
After crossing the tape behind Stephanie Madia and Molly Huddle of No. 3 Notre Dame, Kohlmeier was almost positive a team win was out of reach. But the Wolverines running at the end of the field didn’t give up and continued to pass others as they progressed toward the finish line – never throwing in the towel. The No. 5 Michigan women’s cross country team won the Notre Dame Invitational on Friday in South Bend, beating Illinois by five points.
“From two minutes into the race until the end of the race, we just kept passing people,” coach Mike McGuire said. “I knew our second through fifth runners were going to move up, and they knew they had to move up. We were only as good as our fifth runner, and that’s why we won; there is no doubt about it.”
For the first time this season, the Wolverines were tested – both physically and mentally – as they found themselves scrapping for better positions in the 200-person field. During the first few minutes of the race, the runners were stuck in a bottleneck and, with the exception of Kohlmeier, were forced to run in a congested pack.
“The whole race was just a battle to get in,” Webster said. “There were so many people, but I just looked for my teammates because I know we are on the same level, and they are who I should be running with. The hardest part by far was just getting in the race.”
Kohlmeier got off to a strong start and never looked back. By escaping the early pile up, she was able to speed up early and move her way into the front group of runners, where she found her second wind right after passing Hunt. This put Kohlmeier in the position to finish in third place with a time of 16:40 – her third straight top-three finish this season.
“In this race I was able to stay mentally tough, and that was really big for me,” Kohlmeier said. “I’m usually not that positive of a thinker and to do that here and maintain a good state of mind was really important to me.”
For Webster, a significant moment in the race came when she passed her older sister Elizabeth – a runner for Notre Dame – midway through the course. With their parents watching, Erin maneuvered her way through the competition, passing her sister and shocking herself.
“I had been right behind my sister for a long time,” Webster said. “When I passed her, we gave each other a look and she just said ‘go get ’em,’ and I almost cried because neither one of us ever talk during our races and we both said something to each other and that was a huge moment in the race for me.”
The Wolverines faced six top-30 teams this weekend, giving them a preview of what’s to come in the Big Ten and NCAA Championships. The crowded race course will be something they will see again in the post season, and after this weekend, they know getting off to a strong start is crucial in these types of races.
“I think we learned that there are no easy wins, and this is something that is going to push us even harder,” Webster said. “Even if we may be ranked ahead of them (top-ranked teams), it always comes down to the race. It’s good that we saw them because now we know what we have to work on and what we need to do.”
Michigan also won the Blue race – which consisted of both Division I and Division II schools – by 113 points, finishing with just 60 points. Senior Chelsea Loomis led the Wolverines, coming in seventh place with a time of 18:04, four seconds faster than eighth-place finisher, sophomore Laura Glynn. All around the Wolverines came out on top, setting a strong pace heading into the second half of the season.
“We needed this win, and at this point in the season, we needed to accomplish exactly what we did,” McGuire said.