Mule Pack

 

Colby's fleet women harriers use group effort to finish fifth in nation

By Ernie Clark
Photography by Jeff Earickson
 

Members of the Colby women's cross-country team already had achieved their goal by qualifying for the NCAA Division III championships, so they weren't feeling any pressure last November when they entered the race as one of the 24 top teams in the country.

As the Mules readied to take on the six-kilometer course at Whitetail Golf Course in Colfax, Wis., on a raw and windy Saturday, there was the anticipation of competition. "I thought it would be good if we could get ninth at nationals," said co-captain Karina Johnson '05, acknowledging that the team had risen to ninth in the Division III coaches' poll. "We had beaten Amherst at the New Englands, and if we could beat Amherst again and finish ninth, that would be amazing."

Led by Johnson, the Colby runners went out in a pack, as they had while placing fourth at the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) championships and third at the New England Division III qualifying meet.

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From right to left: Hillary Easter '06, Karen Prisby '07, Elizabeth Turner '06, Anna King '08, and Elizabeth Petit '08.
Illustration by Jeff Earickson
And in the national championship race Colby's five scoring runners stayed close, finishing only 45.5 seconds apart. Johnson paced the pack with a time of 22 minutes, 39.1 seconds, good for 45th place overall, followed by Anna King '08 (49th in 22:44.2), Karen Prisby '07 (65th in 22:56.1), Jess Minty '06 (82nd in 23:03.8), and Elizabeth Petit '08 (110th in 23:24.6).

As they began to cool down, there was no sense of urgency to learn where they placed. "We weren't really thinking about where we finished, we were just running around and having fun," Prisby said.

"I had absolutely no idea where we finished," said 20th-year Colby coach Deb Aitken. "Then Kristen Morwick, the Tufts coach, came up to congratulate us and said, 'I can't believe you finished fifth.' Our jaws just dropped, we couldn't believe it. Then we ran down to the finish line to make sure it was true."

Finishing fifth in the nation in Division III was the best in Colby history, topping a 10th-place finish in 1994. Among other NESCAC schools in the race, Williams took first, Middlebury second, Amherst 12th, and Wesleyan 14th.

"We were just all really, really excited to be there, and we really didn't feel any pressure," said Prisby. "We felt the pressure at the qualifying meet. As soon as we got to the nationals we realized we could just go out and run and have fun."

Colby began the season with optimism, based on the return of Johnson, co-captain Torrey Kulow '05, Prisby, Minty, Hillary Easter '06, Elizabeth Turner '06, and the addition of King and Petit. "We had time trials the first week, and coach was really excited," said Johnson. "So many people were faster than last year." But that optimism soon gave way to a problem"four of the top seven and several other runners were found to be anemic.

"With endurance athletes, it's fairly common," said Aitken. "You lose iron through the heels and soles of your feet if you run on pavement, and through sweat. We got them on liquid iron and talked about the need to get iron every day, and within three or four weeks there was a big turnaround. Everybody on the team was committed to doing the best thing possible for themselves and the team."

#mesmules#left#250#Ensuing results confirmed that commitment. Colby placed 10th at the New England open championships, which included teams from all divisions, and the team won the State of Maine meet. Minty was the individual champion at the state meet, but by then the team's identity centered on depth. "The top five were really close together, and we gave each other a great push," said Johnson. "On any given day you couldn't predict the order of the varsity runners. We were close together, and we were close together fairly close to the front."

That pack mentality stayed true at the NESCACs and at the New England Division III regional, where the Mules needed to finish among the top five to qualify for the nationals.

"It was an amazing day," said Johnson. "I can remember it well because I didn't expect us to get third, I was just hoping to get fifth to advance. At first I didn't believe we were third. It had been four years that I wanted to make this, and finally it happened."