The men’s and women’s cross country teams ended their seasons at the NCAA DIII Midwest Regional Championship on Nov. 12, finishing tenth and sixth, respectively. These races came after the Nov. 6 conference meet, where the women’s team won the CCIW championship and the men’s team placed fourth. CCIW also recognized seven All-Conference Honorees from Wheaton College: seniors Alyssia Mantia and Susannah Bennett, freshman Louisa Brorson, sophomore Sam Elsen, junior Hope Clark, freshman Sarah Quintanilla and senior Chloe Veth.
Teamwork played an essential role in the teams’ successful runs, especially at the Nov. 6 conference meet. In the women’s race, all but two of the 10 runners spent the first 80% of the race paired with a teammate or in groups of three.
Running with teammates is a common strategy in cross country. To win the meet as a team, the winning school must have five runners cross the finish line before any other team’s five runners. To encourage group success, therefore, a runner might slow down to push their teammate faster, even if it means a slower time and lower finish. For applied health science major and first-place finisher, Mantia, that meant she had to sacrifice her own position in mile two.
“I might have to pull everyone around me up in the chance that maybe I die later in the race, but that’s going to pull my teammates out farther,” said Mantia. “And, yes, maybe someone will out-kick me and I won’t be in the top five, but because you pulled them out earlier you were helping your team.”
Cross country is often perceived as an individual sport where each runner races against their own personal records, but the Thunder believe the “Wheaton” on the front of each jersey has greater importance than the individual who wears it.
Mantia described the feeling of racing alongside her teammate, Bennett, in the front pack of the conference meet race. Bennett and Mantia started the season quarantined with COVID-19, but both went into this meet as frontrunners in the conference rankings, with Mantia holding the second-highest record time in the conference and Bennett holding the sixth-highest leading up to the championship race. Mantia says running next to Bennett helped both of them succeed.
“I feel like we pulled each other, so that was very exciting,” Mantia said. “It was such a joy to race with her and such a joy to know that one of my teammates is right beside me.”
The team’s selflessness paid off: shortly after the race, the women’s team found out that they were the CCIW championship winners. In the face of challenging competition, Mantia and Bennett qualified for the NCAA DIII National Championship scoring 21 and 24, and running 22:48 and 22:51, respectively.
By 12:30 p.m. the top ten male runners from each of the nine schools in the conference were completing their final warm-ups, forming huddles in the open field by the start line; at 12:45, they were off.
The course begins in a field, narrowing down to a path that traverses the woods at St. James Farm, about five miles from Wheaton. This trail goes through the woods, then passes two ponds, a small swamp, and later loops back onto a limestone path that connects to the entrance of the woods. The women run this loop three times for a six kilometer race (3.7 miles), but the men have four laps for their eight kilometer race (4.9 miles).
“Our men ran, as a team, about what I thought they would run, basically to a T,” said head men’s and women’s coach David Walford. “I felt good about that. They did well.”
That Saturday’s race was full of successes: not only did the women win and the men hold their predicted fourth place, but multiple runners in the women’s, men’s and open races had new personal records (PRs) and season records (SRs).
“I’m proud of the training and the effort that our team put in all year, from our top runner to our last runners,” Walford said. “As a coach, it was gratifying to see people that achieved a lot of personal bests.”
Junior Nathan Gibson shaved 3.13 minutes off his PR with a new time of 26 minutes and 26.4 seconds at the championship race.
“It was great and crucial to run my best time this season at our conference meet,” Gibson said. “Many of my teammates had huge PRs and I love celebrating that with them.”
The individual accomplishments that the teammates get to celebrate together is one of Mantia’s favorite parts of the annual championship race as well.
“We saw a lot of girls who maybe aren’t usually in the top few do really really well and have big season PRs or even all-time PRs,” said Mantia. “People can have their own success stories and their own successes even if they’re not recognized.”
Going into the NCAA DIII Midwest Regional Championship on Nov. 12, Walford was hopeful that the men’s team would be in the top ten places, and the women’s team in sixth.
When top seven runners from the men’s team and women’s team each took to the frigid, hilly Regionals course a week later, they did in fact, place tenth and sixth.
The Midwest Regional is a notoriously difficult race.
“[The Midwest is] a really tough regional,” said Robert Harvey, a longtime cross-country coach in the Wheaton area and former DIII All-American runner. “You’ve got several nationally ranked teams and the race is really competitive.”
But Mantia said she felt the final races of the season helped prepare the team for competing at the Midwest and then the national competitions.
“I think a lot of the battle was just trying to qualify,” Mantia said. “Once we’re at nationals I feel like pressure is almost off.”