In one of my favorite movies, Field of Dreams, the line is whispered from the cornfields, “If you build it, they will come.”
The Thomas Zimmer Championship Cross Country site is a brilliantly designed cross country site, celebrating one of the most popular sports in American high school and American college sports. Thanks to the Zimmer family, the Univeristy of Wisconsin at Madison had the land and the financial support to build a cross country course that is both challenging, and has great views.
I recall several discussions with Sean Hartnett, one of the team behind the course. My first visit there was a couple of years ago, and I was impressed with the course, and especially how fans could see the races unfold.
Saturday, November 17, 2018, opened with snow. I woke up around 6 am, to a lovely early winter snow. My first thoughts were that the weather and course would be even more of a home advantage to the Wisconsin Badgers. Director of Cross Country and Track & Field Mick Byrne and Women’s Head XC coach Jim Miller had been preparing their athletes since July for the 2018 NCAA Cross Country Championships.
The women’s 6k race was a magnifiscent display of the features and planning that went into the cross country course. Nearly ten thousand fans assembled on the course to witness both races. The light snow, and the just below freezing temparatures and the building winds added to the challenges of the day.
In the final 400 meters, Dani Jones of Colorado caught Weini Kalati of New Mexico, and build up 2.5 seconds over the last 200 meters, winning the individual title and lead Colorado to the team title. Alicia Munson of Wisconsin took 4th, with the home team taking tenth in the team rankings. In the toughest cross country race on the collegiate women’s schedule, Dani Jones, a Buffalo senior, called on all those stride outs, and muscle memory, keeping her cool, and going by Weini Kalati to take the NCAA individual title!
An hour later, the men’s race began.
The pace, from the beginning,was fierce, 44 men in the pack at 2k, which was passed in 5:43.4 with BYU’s Connor Mantz, the exciting frosh from BYU, with NAU’s Matthew Baxter, leading a huge pack, with Stanford’s Grant Fisher, Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald, Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat, Colorado’s Joe Klecker. The fans were following the huge leading pack, churning up the snow, as they pounded the 2k laps, one by one.
Getting some of the most boisterous applause and raucous cheering, was Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald. A senior from Australia, McDonald red-shirted in 2017, after taking 7th in 2016 NCAA Cross Country Champs. Mc Donald knew that Wisconsin had a long tradition at Wisconsin, from the first (1939), with Walter Mehl, to Tim Hacker in 1985 and the two titles by Simon Bariu (2004, 2005). McDonald also knew that the Badgers had won five team titles.
The pack dropped from the high thirties, in the 2k to 4.1k, to 23. While the 2k was hit in 5:43, the 4.1k was hit in 12:01.4, the pack had all the contenders, plus some surprises. BYU’s Connor Mantz,Stanford’s Grant Fisher, Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald, Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat, Colorado’s Joe Klecker, along with NAU’s Tyler Day, Stanford’s Alex Ostberg, Colorado’s John Dressel.
The wind picked up as the tough pack hit the 6k in 17:35, a swift 5:33 lap over that two kilometers, reducing the lead pack to 15 from 23. Watching the lead pack on the big screen, Grant Fisher, Morgan McDonald, Eastern Kentucky’s frosh James Sugera continued to impress. The pack, was pushing the pace, and from 6k to 8k, the pack again dropped to twelve, with Fisher, Kurgat and McDonald were leading.
McDonald, post race, noted that the pack was large over the final two kilometers. On the final 2 kilometers, the pace increased, as Grant Fisher, fifth the last two years and Edwin Kurgat began to wind up. McDonald kept his cool, watching Fisher and Kurgat, and the others who were beginning to fall off the lead pack.
It came down to the final 400 meters and the leaders were flying. McDonald kept his cool, and as the annoucer described the fight to the finish.
Almost on cue, Morgan McDonald took the lead in the last 100 meters, taking the win in 29:08.3 to Stanford’s Grant Fisher’s second, 29:08.8, and Edwin Kurgat’s 29:09.0.
The boisterous crowd loved the Wisconsin individual title. The Wisconsin team finsihed 8th, with Northern Arizona taking its’ third straight team title.
Afte the race, Morgan McDonald told the assembled media: “That last 400 meters was crazy. I knew that there were a lot of people around in that whole last 2K, which I didn’t really expect. With 400 to go, I knew that there were still so many bodies there and I was trying not to be the first one to make a move. I knew I had Grant there and Kurgat, so I was just trying to vibe off of them, see when they were going to make their moves and when the time was right, I kind of put my foot down and just prayed that it was enough to pull away and get the victory.”
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#rp @athleticsaustralia ðŸ‡¦ðŸ‡º Aussie NCAA Division 1 cross country Roll of Honour – 2 Randwick Botany athletes have won 3 titles !! â–¶ 1959 Al Lawrence (RBH) â–¶ 1960 Al Lawrence (RBH) â–¶ 2016 Patrick Tiernan (Qld) â–¶ 2018 Morgan McDonald (RBH) (inaugural men’s race 1938. No Australian has won the women’s title) #thisisathletics #ncaaxc
On a video for Letsrun, Coach Mick Byrne was philosophical, praising Morgan McDonald’s dedication and his focus since last May. ” Morgan began training for the NCAA cross last May.”
Olivare Hoare took 17th, as second Badger, and Olin Hacker, third Badger, finished 56th. The team finished 8th.
A dream fulfilled, two top ten finishes for Wisconsin’s men and women’s teams. An individual men’s title and 4th place for top women, plus a huge crowd showed the value of the investment on sucha fine course.
As the movie noted, ” If you build it, they will come.”
Thousands of fans showed, on a sunny and cold Winter day, and the host delivered.
A great day of cross country on the Thomas Zimmer Championship Cross Country course showed one more point: Wisconsin delivered a fine course, a fine crowd, the best cross country teams in the land, and two enthalling races.
Updated 11/19/18, changed Grant Foster to Grant Fisher, thanks to Jeff Shaver, freelance proofer.