Sunday 4 December 2011

Juniors Redux and More Belated POMs

A very busy fall season of coaching and travel has kept me away from the blog for far too long. Redress is now in the offing!

For the third time in five posts, it is the junior/high school program that has drawn my attention. Three posts ago, I took stock of the junior program at its four year mark (equaling one complete high school cycle), detailing both its rapid success and the challenges it still faces. Two posts later, I discussed what is perhaps the main challenge faced by the program (securing the understanding and support of public high school x-c and track programs during the high school championship seasons). This month, I want simply to celebrate the ground-breaking season that our club athletes enjoyed "over the country" this fall. And what a season it was! When the last mud-caked shoe was removed last week, the number of all-time OFSAA top-10 finishes by group members had more than doubled, going from 3 to 7; we had recorded our first CIS (Canadian University Championship) top 10 result; we had crowned our second OFSAA individual champion (to go with Nicole Armstrong's win at 800m in the spring); and, we had our first national team X-C qualifier and our first national junior top 10 finish. But, this was only the tip of the iceberg. Many athletes, including some first year members, showed remarkable rates of personal improvement-- rates that, if sustained, will have many wondering "where did that kid come from?" over the next 2-3 years! Below, in alphabetical order, are the P-K Juniors who raised eyebrows (mine, at least) the highest:

Chris Adams: Chris came quietly into our group late last spring, looking for a way to improve on his results from his first season of high school track (which failed to move him beyond the first round of OFSAA qualifying in the 800 or 1500m). After working hard in the girl's group all summer, Chris would come into his own on the X-C course, beginning with an eye-opening 10th place finish in the junior boys division of the prestigious Trinity Harrier Meet in Port Hope. He would go on to post a couple of top 3 finishes in smaller meets before narrowly missing the final individual OFSAA qualifying position, with his 6th place finish at the EOSSA meet. Thus,in a few short months (albeit filled with many challenging workouts and much long, easy running) would Chris establish himself as a young athlete to watch, both on the track this spring and in his senior years as an X-C runner. He follows in the spike marks of recent Sydenham High grads and P-K members Jeff Archer, Dylan O'Sullivan, and Rob Asselstine, all of whom arose from the same relative obscurity to become Junior standouts, not only locally, but nationally.

Jeff Archer: In his final year as a Junior, Jeff finally tasted some of the success promised by his late and rapid rise through the high school ranks. After finishing 10th at OFSAA X-C in his final year, Jeff would struggle mightily (albeit not always quietly!) over three seasons to recover his upward trajectory, recording a number of results that he, his coach, and his team mates in P-K and at Queen's would prefer to forget (and which, for that reason, are best left unmentioned!). Finally, after undergoing systematic treatment for exercised-induced asthma, Jeff would streak to the front ranks of Canadian Intercollegiate X-C running with a surprise 10th place finish at the annual championships, a result 6 places better than his arguably career-best effort from only two weeks before (his 16th place at the Ontario University Championships). In only his second year as a university athlete, Jeff looks set to contend for top individual honours-- and, in the process, to lead the Gaels to team glory-- in years to come.

Nicole Armstrong: The extent of Nicole's potential as a middle distance runner seems to grow with every season. Her 4th place finish in the OFSAA Junior race (age 15) and, perhaps more strikingly, her 6th place result in the Youth (age 16-17) division at the club provincial (Athletics Ontario)championship, clearly show that she has all the makings of an international class mid-range runner. Breaking through to the top levels of the sport will take both luck and years of very hard work; but, who is more likely to see the top of the mountain than a 15 year old who can both medal provincially at 400m and run with the best teenage long distance athletes over 4kms? Thirty-odd years of watching age-class runners develop (and fail to develop) tells me that Nicole is as real a deal as we're ever likely to see in these parts-- a once in a generation or two athletic specimen, to be sure.

Hannah Ascough: Starting at the back of the girls group in grade 9, Hannah has been the most rapidly improving junior female athlete in the group over the past couple of years (helped, no doubt, by the discovery and treatment of her iron deficient anemia last spring). This season, running in her difficult first senior high school season (senior in the Ontario high school system encompassing both grade 11 and 12), Hannah made yet another of the performance leaps for which she is becoming known in the group. She finished 26th in her OFSAA qualifier, setting the stage for a run at top 10 in her final year. At this rate, Hannah can look forward to a solid career as a Varsity X-C runner (and rumour has it that Queen's will be her number one choice when decision time comes! Right, Hannah?).

Cleo Boyd: The August POM honoree was at it again this fall, but this time against all odds and expectations (except for mine, truth be told!). Suffering a calf strain just before her massive 3k P.B. in late August-- a problem that would be driven deeper by the race itself-- Cleo was almost exclusively confined to the elliptical trainer in September and October. However, logging 90+ minutes per day on the machine, including numerous mind-numbing and body-wracking high intensity sessions, and running just enough to both heal and maintain her local muscular conditioning, she was able to literally hit the ground running in November. Her two-race X-C season (Provincials in Hamilton and Nationals in Vancouver) would prove to be spectacularly successful, all things considered. Running tentatively, she would finish a strong second at Provincials, giving her the confidence to make an aggressive, and eventually successful, attempt at making the Junior National team for the North American/Central American/Caribbean X-C Championships to be held in Trinidad next March. Her 9th place finish-- the first National Junior X-C top 10 by a club member-- would put her 3rd among first year junior athletes and well into the national team selection pool of 8. With a little more time running rather than spinning, there is no telling what she might do next time out!

Heather Jaros: A primary school superstar, big things were expected of Heather, and she would not disappoint in her first season as a high school athlete. Her season would peak with a spectacular win in her OFSAA qualifier over arch nemesis Brockville runner Emily Carmichael, one of only two in their many meetings. A naturally strong middle distance runner, Heather will no doubt deploy her X-C fitness with devastating effect on the track this spring.

Mitchell Kirby: Like Chris Adams, Mitch joined the group in the spring with little fanfare. A good primary school runner and all-around athlete, he was nevertheless several notches down the ranks within what longtime observers would recognize as the most naturally talented cohort of grade 8 boys ever to emerge from the Kingston area system. A few months of steady work, however, and the gap would be all but closed. Mitchell's performances in the early season high school meets, including an 8th place finish among grade 9s in the aforementioned Trinity Harrier Meet, forced the heretofore more successful Kingston boys to learn his name. He would finish the season without a single weak result, and would, with his outstanding 21st place OFSAA finish, help his school team to an historic silver medal performance (behind, of all schools, Holy Cross of Kingston, with whom Mitch's Frontenac Falcons would trade team honours all season-- like I said, an unprecedentedly strong cohort of grade 8 graduates!).

Kieran L'Abbe: A year ago this fall, Kieran was struggling to hold his own against the best of the aforementioned grade 8 cohort, finishing a well-beaten fourth in the city public school X-C championships (and likely a little further back still, had this race included the separate school boys). His entry into the P-K group in the spring of the year, however, would launch a run of improvement such as I have rarely seen in the sport at any level. With no serious sports background to speak of, Kieran was an athletic tabula rasa. By June, we would have beaten all of the boys who bested him 7 months before, setting several local track records in the process. Fours months later, he would be looking back on an undefeated record in his first season of high school X-C, including an OFSAA championship. It's safe to wager that no OFSAA midget X-C champion has ever had such a scant background in the sport, or in sport in general. He will enter his first high school track season almost as great an enigma as he did this X-C season; as such, knowledgeable observers (myself included), are likely to be just as surprised 7 months from now as they were in November. There is literally no telling what he might do next.

Clara Langely: Clara's 2011 X-C season marked something of a comeback, although she hadn't gone far, or for all that long. A period of injury and low iron that began shortly after her stellar, province-leading 10:04 for 3000m in the final race of her grade 10 track season would finally end late this summer, with her encouraging 17:55 track 5k best. Two weeks later at the Trinity Harrier Meet, she would signal her return to full strength with a decisive, course record-setting romp over perhaps the strongest field in the meet's history. The remainder of her races leading up to OFSAA, including the pre-OFSAA meet itself, would be solo affairs. Suffering a little from the effects of a slight virus in late October (as well as, perhaps, from the lack of competition in the lead-up), Clara would be relegated to 5th (albeit close) at OFSAA-- an outstanding result on its own merits, but a couple of spots below reasonable expectations. Three weeks later, she would round out the strongest and most consistence X-C season of her high school career with an solid 18th place finish at the muddy National Junior Championships in Vancouver (minus the mud, I've no doubt she would have been further up the field). Like the others, Clara looks forward to converting her superb X-C conditioning into a season of personal bests on the track.

Danae Morris: Quiet and determined, Danae went about her business in the thick of the very strong P-K girls group, knowing she was improving, but never quite sure how far her fitness would take her. She and everyone else would find out in late October, when she executed a tactically perfect 3rd place finish in her OFSAA qualifier, outkicking a former OFSAA top 10 finisher and punching her ticket to the season finale in the process. Lack of experience would get the better of her in the championship itself and she would finish well down the list; but, more of the bread-and-butter consistency that got her this far, this quickly will make her a good bet become an OFSAA track qualifier, and eventual top 20 X-C performer.

September, October and November POMS

September's POM owner appears for the first time in these annals. His September POM was the first of two monster efforts that saw him lop a total of 5 minutes(!) from his 10k and HM bests. Congrats to Joe Dunford of St. John's NL on an amply deserved POM-- his 1:14:57 HM, which utterly embarrassed his old best of 1:19:20. So strong was Joe's September that his 10k best of 33:47-- a race in which his poor early pacing probably prevented him from going even faster-- is a worthy runner-up performance!

October POM deliberations ended with a rare tie. The first performance belongs to a frequent flyer in this space-- masters ace Rick Minichiello, whose long run of steady improvement shows few signs of abating. The victim this time was his one year old HM best of 1:12:21. Rick's fall training indicated big gains in his running economy (the final element in his transformation from elite cyclist to elite runner), setting him up for an assault on one of the big benchmarks of elite masters running-- the 70mins 21.1k. However, like all entrants in this year's Scotiabank/Waterfront races, Rick would have to overcome some 7kms of strong headwind to reach his goal. Tucked carefully in a mixed pack of marathoners and half marathoners, Rick would make it well beyond the 10k mark before losing his grip on the required 3:20/km pace. He would ultimately limit his losses to a mere 30 seconds, however, crossing the mat just less than two minutes below his old best, easily taking the masters' win in the process. With this result, Rick solidifies his reputation as the best masters runner in Canada for the second straight year!

The second performance belongs to resurgent P-K master's star Agathe Nicholson, who capped a remarkable year with her best performance yet-- a 4 minute revision of her now 3 year old marathon best. As it turned out, Agathe's time of 3:01:18 narrowly missed (16 secs) the Canadian 50-55 best, held by Quebec's Louise Voghel. A concerted attempt on this mark-- this time in calmer conditions, one hopes-- is Agathe's next goal. Don't bet against her!

In the event that these marks enter consideration for POY, I will have to break out my age-grading tables!

With the number of strong X-C performances turned in by P-K members, November was perhaps the most difficult month so far this year for picking a POM. Among the contenders were: Kieran L'Abbe's improbable OFSSA victory; masters athlete Christy Barber's outstanding win in the AO X-C Championship (in the blazing time of 18:50, which would have been more than respectable in the junior girls division); Jeff Archer's redemptive 10th place finish at the CIS championships in Quebec City; and, fellow junior Cleo Boyd's national team qualifying run at the Junior championships in Vancouver. Because national team qualification of any kind is perhaps the most difficult feat to achieve in our sport (short of winning a national championship or setting a Canadian record), the nod goes to Cleo's run, which was made all the more remarkable by the route she took to accomplish it (over two months of 90min to 120mins per day on the elliptical trainer, much of it at high intensity). Of the many remarkable success stories in the lore of x-training, this is one of the most astonishing I have yet seen or heard of.