November 28th, 2015. It’s a beautiful day in Charlotte, North Carolina. The sky is crystal blue, a flat plane interrupted only by a smattering of small, harmless clouds. The fields of McAlpine Park are damp and mushy from the rain that came the previous day, but the winding gravel path that meanders through the park is firm and dense.
A gunshot in the distance.
Cameras click rapidly. A crowd gathers along the gravel path, and a loud cheer goes up. And a stampede of 324 of the region’s best high school runners hurtle down the cross country course of the Footlocker South Cross Country Regional Championship.
For some, this cross country meet serves as an opportunity to reach the Footlocker Cross Country National Championship, as the top ten finishers from each regional meet (South, Northeast, Midwest and West) will race in San Diego, California on December 12th. For others, such as myself, the race serves as an opportunity for one final meet, either to set a new personal best time or simply to enjoy running one more race.
The annual meet — which consists of 21 races for a wide variety of ages — takes place at McAlpine Park, a premiere destination for cross country runners due to its flat terrain and well-maintained surfaces. I ventured down to this year’s meet to run in the Boy’s Senior Race with two of my good friends, John Hazelton (‘16) and Floridian Drew McCorey (‘16). We were met by the friendly, healthy, and wildly eccentric group of people that is the cross country community.
The main events were the Boys and Girls Seeded Championships. Obscure as they may seem to those not in touch with high school cross country, these meets were heavily anticipated races, not only for the thousands of runners and attendees who gathered to watch, but for cross country fans in general. The Boys Championship featured a strong group of Virginians, led by Drew Hunter of Loudoun Valley. Hunter, who committed to the University of Oregon this fall, led the race from the beginning, cruising through his first mile in a blazing 4:27. After this shockingly fast first mile, Hunter continued to impress the crowd, finishing the 5k in a course record 14:27. Following him were fellow Virginians Gannon Willcutts and Jonathan Lomogda. The fourth Virginian to earn his ticket to San Diego was Douglas Freeman’s Waleed Suliman, coming in sixth overall. Two runners behind him, in ninth place, was the fifth and final runner from Virginia, Micah Pratt of Lynchburg.
The girls race featured two strong performance from Virginia, with Heritage’s Weini Kelati winning with a time of 16:43, and E.C. Glass’s Libby Davidson placing third. Kelati’s win is another chapter in her inspiring story that started last year, when she ran her first cross country race in the U.S. after moving from Eritrea.
For the hundreds of high schoolers competing in the non-seeded races, the meet was an exciting, intense new experience. Collegiate boy’s co-captain Hazelton said of the race, “It was a nice atmosphere to run in but was also pretty nerve-wracking beforehand. It was certainly different than what I was used to. There were hundreds of spectators and fans cheering at literally every turn. It was also a little weird when I could turn to my left or right and see singlets from states as far as Georgia, Florida, Texas, et cetera.”
My friends and I left Charlotte with a memory that will last a lifetime. We had experienced a prime example of what makes cross country such a great sport — sportsmanship and a dedication from people of different areas and backgrounds. “To be around such incredible athletes was both exciting and humbling” McCorey said of the event. “I didn’t care about time, as I was just so happy to run with the guys I grew up running with one last time. That’s what made this race different. It had meaning.”
Featured image: footlockercc.com.