It was the race of faith.
In a pre-race prayer meeting led by sophomore Jessica Pixler, the Falcons dedicated the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II Championship race to God.
Nov. 17, on a day of perfect 60-degree weather in Joplin, Mo., SPU’s seven-woman cross country squad took second place against 182 other runners from across the nation.
Sophomore Kate Harline said that the common goal for the team was to praise God.
"[The race] was not praise to the glory of man," she said. "It makes the victory sweeter, doing it for him."
"What we accomplished was to his glory," Pixler said. "It was one of the cooler races I’ve been in or ever will be in."
Head coach Doris Heritage said that giving it to God was the theme of the whole season as well.
"Do what we can and leave the rest to God," she said. "That has been our attitude: Lord, this is up to you, we’re doing our best."
In what Heritage called "a huge team effort," no one knew just where they stood as a team at any point in the race. At the halfway mark, a spectator calculated their times and a rumor was passed along that SPU was in fourth place, junior Suzie Strickler said.
"We found out when they were announcing the places, about 10 minutes after the race was over," she said. "They were reading the teams, starting from the bottom. We were getting excited at the top 10."
Then it was announced that Chico State had taken fourth place, and the Falcons knew they had made top three–their goal going in, sophomore Jane Larson said.
Strickler said that the team was scattered throughout the milling crowd, and when their second-place finish was announced, they "went running towards each other."
"We were putting our shoes on and there was general craziness," Larson said with a laugh. "It came over the loudspeaker….Doris was off to one side with Jessica [doing an interview]. I don’t think she was paying attention, so we went racing over to tell her that we got second."
Pixler proved her ultimate leadership by example when she scorched her course pace of last year by 10.9 seconds to take first place individually–one of only three through the years of SPU cross country, Heritage said.
Pixler’s time of 20:29.1 in the 6k was 13.6 seconds better than her closest opponent, despite a stumble thanks to clipping heels with a competitor halfway through the race.
Larson came in second for the Falcons and eighth overall, followed by Strickler at 47th, senior Karin Rohde at 53th, Harline at 69th, sophomore Lisa Anderberg at 83rd, and senior Kaitlin Rohde at 92nd.
Having two runners with low scores enabled "the sick and wounded to not be at their total best," Heritage said.
Still, she praised the efforts of every member of the team, saying that the difference between the places they received and the places they might have received with less effort could have dropped SPU from second to fifth.
Racing against national competition was very different, was the general consensus.
"The competition goes up each time," Larson said. "We knew names in regionals. Then it goes to 10 times more [runners] at nationals."
So much competition makes an athlete more aware of how much more he or she can do, instead of being content with the middle of the pack, Harline said.
"You have to stay focused the whole time," Larson said. "There’s more at stake. Every second, every place matters."
The team is close, and has been since last year when it was first formed, but Heritage said that, with something this big, a group can always get closer.
The real team bonding of the trip began after the post-race awards banquet. The Falcons headed back to the hotel, got treats and played a big game of Balderdash.
"All the other teams went out and [partied]," Harline said. "We had our families and got to hang out."
Now the student-athletes have to go back to being just students for a while.
Strickler has a lot of papers to catch up on and Pixler is grateful for the Thanksgiving break, which provided some breathing room.
"There wasn’t a lot of down time, so the work can pile up," Harline said. "But it’s worth it, even if you end up cramming."
She added that she is impressed at the high academic success of her teammates, despite the constant interruptions that being on a team brings.
Heritage, too, praised her team for their academic prowess, pointing out that they are all-Americans academically as well as athletically.
"They really think about what it takes, commit themselves and stick to commitments," she said.
It will be back to the grind stone starting on Dec. 1 when many of the cross country runners will participate in the indoor track season with the hope of having a similarly successful season.
Heritage wants her squad to find a balance in remembering the race.
"It’s a good foundation," she said. "It’s encouraging if they don’t gloat on it and they don’t live there, but keep this in their hearts and know that this is what they’re capable of."
While SPU did reach nationals last year in cross country, finishing in sixth place as a team, Pixler explained the difference between this season and last: "Last year we went in just happy that we had made it–a ‘see what happens’ attitude. This year, we went in with a top three goal, with more of a purpose."
Even more than that, however, was the focus on God.
"It was a God-based trip," Strickler said. "We all saw God work in individual ways, and we all came through with our own testimonies."
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Title: Runners break school record | Author: August Williams | Section: Sports | Published Date: 2007-11-28 | Internal ID: 6159