The competition was fierce Oct. 27 in Halifax’s Point Pleasant Park, but the St. F.X. X-Men cross country team came out on top of a closely contested race, running to an AUS banner at the Subway AUS Cross Country Championships.
Head coach Eric Gillis said he was proud to see the performance, noting he had high expectations of St. F.X going into the Saturday afternoon race.
“They went out there and ran to their full potential as a team. We were neck-and-neck with Dal for a lot of the race,” Gillis said, describing the race as a “nail biter.” In addition to their first-place team finish, three of the top four runners were X-Men.
The tipping point in the highly contested race was about two thirds of the way through, when St. F.X. achieved the upper hand in points, by staying the course and making a couple of slick passes in the final stretch of the rugged trails of Point Pleasant Park.
“Our fourth runner, Addison [Derhak] passed a couple of Dal runners, and he moved up a couple of spots in the last lap, which helped,” Gillis said. “The fifth runner, the final scorer, Aiden Doherty, was able to hold off another UPEI rookie over the last 200 meters – it was a close finish.”
While Derhak and Doherty helped St. F.X. secure a tight lead over Dal, Gillis praised the competent footwork of all the X-Men, noting they maintained positions steadily throughout the race – something that carried them to their first-place team finish.
Gillis said, “Other runners from the other schools, like Memorial and UNB, they had guys that ended up passing some Dal runners,” something that allowed St. F.X. maintain its score, while Dal’s was affected.
X-Men runner Angus Rawling was titled 2018 champion – the second consecutive win as AUS Athlete of the Year and all-star.
Gillis attributed that winning streak to a combination of dedicated training and technical skill in the sport – in addition to a constant desire on Rawling’s part to improve and gain deeper insight and skill into the sport.
“[Rawling] is also interested in the sport – in what is happening in cross country. He has progressed since being at St. F.X., and is taking more care of himself as a runner, doing the things he needs to do to be healthy,” Gillis said.
“[Rawling] is willing to learn, try new things that are not always what you would first consider as a way of getting better. Often, we just think of running harder as a way, or running more, but he’s willing to try other things, that can make him better at recovery.”
Gillis also praised Paul MacLellan of Antigonish for his highest finish at the AUS championships – a sign of his steady progress, and the fact that “he has been improving his finishes over the years.”
The Oct. 27 first place finish was the tenth title St. F.X. won in the AUS Men’s Cross Country championships, and Gillis is proud to coach the time that won it.
“When I left [St. F.X.] as a student and athlete, we had not won any titles. I won one as an individual, but none as a team. When I came back for my first year as coach, X had already won nine,” Gillis said. “It was really nice, as a new coach, to have that kind of success.”
Gillis also praised past coach Bernie Chisholm for “gifting me a strong team.”
X-Women take second
Although the St. F.X. X-Women cross country team did not get the first-place finish as a team they were after, Gillis commended their solid performance – a performance that earned them second place as a team, in the AUS championships.
“The Dal team has been a particularly strong team this year – they were ranked fourth in the country, going into the AUS. We were as close as we were for us to be eight points back. We were pleased with the way we ran as a team.”
“The Dal team were strong throughout, but coming into the last lap of the women’s race we were pretty close. It ended up being a Dal rookie that had a really good race, securing the victory,” Gillis said.
This year’s win for Dal is its 25th AUS women’s cross country banner, and it marks the sixth consecutive year they’ve finished the championships with the banner.
Gillis said many individual runners on the team were close to, or exceeded their race plan goals at Point Pleasant Park in the 8km run.
The X-Women also finished with four runners in the top ten; Hana Marmura, Zoe Johnston, Rachel MacDougall and Jane Hergett.
“Hanna exceeded her expectations and raced the way she wanted to for a long time,” Gillis noted.
Gillis said the X-Women ran a race that paralleled the performance of the X-Men; a neck-and-neck run against Dal, their fiercest competition.
The stakes were especially high since the location of the championship, Point Pleasant Park is a rugged, challenging course.
“It’s challenging because of the uneven footing. There is some terrain which can be quite rocky, and there are rocks sticking out of the ground that the runners need to be mindful of,” Gillis said. “So, a rolled ankle is a risk on that course.”
In addition to uneven footing, the park, which juts into Halifax Harbour, is known for its unpredictable weather and often windy conditions – factors that luckily didn’t come into play over the weekend.
“It was good cross country weather,” Gillis said.
In addition to the weather being good for the race, there was a great deal of support, with fans, alumni and even athletic director Leo MacPherson cheering both the X-Men and X-Women – support that was greatly appreciated by the runners.
Gillis praised both the X-Men and X-Women for how quickly they adapted to the new training regimen he prepared for the season.
“Both teams were brought into a coaching challenge. I was coached by Bernie [Chisholm], I knew his training, and it was good,” Gillis said, “but anytime you have a coach that changes that to a new workout, and new routines and style,” he noted it can be tough to adapt.
“They did a great job this year, of being on the training, communicating well to coaches and each other and getting ahead of things,” Gillis noted. “They were great to be on top of recovery and time management.”
Gillis added it has been a busy season for both teams, given that St. F.X. attended all the meets that took place this year, “and not all teams did that.”
This racing at every meet is a strategy Gills intends to bring forward into the 2019 season. The training regimen he uses to prepare his runners, next year, for the championship, in fact, will be largely the same as this year’s, with improvements made upon it.
“We’ll race at all the AUS races, progressing through the season. “Well focus on the championship race, putting it together for that day.”
Gillis is confident his runners will be up for the challenge, noting they have all been diligently pursuing personal goals, “having different goals for different races – and learning from each one.”
The next level of university cross country competition, the U SPORTS national championship meet, will take place Nov. 10 at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.