Both the highest-finishing national runner and the coach from the Dalhousie University Tigers men’s cross country team agreed the 2021 U Sports Cross Country Championships featured the team’s best performance of the season.
“Everyone ran well that day,” said Will Cox, who finished 30th at nationals hosted by Université Laval at the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. Out of Atlantic University Sport (AUS) runners, only the Saint Mary’s University Huskies’ Andrew Peverill (20th place) beat him. “There were other races [this season] where we didn’t run to our best abilities, so nationals was our best race. Everyone had great days and we were prepared for it at the right time.”
Coach Rich Lehman said the final meet of every season, especially nationals, should be the team’s best run of the year.
“We’ve always known this is a talented group,” he said. “The expectation was to perform on Nov. 20 and they did it. It was by far our best day of the year.”
Buildup of recent success
Dal’s cross country program is typically the top class of the AUS. With this year’s conference banner, the men’s team has won three of the last four championships. Until the Saint Francis Xavier University X-Women took the title this year, the women’s Tigers had won seven consecutive times.
Despite that, the women have thrived nationally as of late, finishing as a U Sports top 10 team on six occasions since 2010.
The men earned the privilege of sending a team to Quebec City with the conference win. Cox, Aidan Goslett, Hudson Grimshaw-Surette, Nick Robertson, Daniel Rosen, Harmon Grimshaw-Surette and Alec Freeman ran for Dal.
The women didn’t send a team but Dal’s two top 10 individual finishers in the AUS race, Kelsey Hogan and Jayne Borrens, raced at the U Sports meet.
“We were focused on Nov. 20 as early as June,” Lehman said, noting that in some races this year, some runners didn’t compete for rest or training purposes. The Tigers also struggled with injuries until late October. It’s important to note only the results of the AUS championships, rather than results from invitational meets, determine who qualifies for nationals.
“We met about this at the beginning of the year and the guys jumped right onboard. Credit to them, because it can be a stressful way to do things. But they got it done,” Lehman said.
Turning point in the season
The team, results and morale-wise, began to bring everything together at the University of New Brunswick/Saint Thomas University Invitational on Oct. 16. In the race, featuring teams from the AUS and Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec (RSEQ), Dal came second in the team standings. Only Laval, the eventual U Sports champions, were better.
“The UNB meet was the first time we realized we were in good shape for the AUS [championships] because a lot of our guys had their first good race of the season,” Cox said.
After the meet, the team decided to taper, or ease slightly from running at full effort, in the AUS championships in order to maintain a training regimen as close to nationals as possible. The goal became more strategic in landing enough runners high up to win the competition, rather than having everyone run at 100 per cent for individual wins.
“There was a lot of load management throughout the season and figuring out when was the right time to push and ease up,” Cox said. “We chose the right times to do that before nationals so we were fresh and ready to race as fast as we could.”
Thanks to that training, dating back to last season which was lost to COVID-19, the squad was able to handle whatever was thrown at them at the Plains of Abraham. On championship day, the course was less than ideal as rainy, cold weather made for a muddy and slippery setting.
Cox and Lehman noted that, yes, looser restrictions in Atlantic Canada throughout the pandemic has allowed for the team to train together more than other programs across Canada. To make it all count though, the runners had to deliver on the final day.
“We’ve practiced in all conditions earlier in the season so we felt prepared,” Cox said. “Our plan was just to stay on our feet. We were able to make it work.”