By Pierre Lechat, October 30—
On Oct. 26, the Canada West Cross Country Championships took place at Canmore Park. This conference race was a dress rehearsal for the Dinos before the U Sports National Championships next week in Kingston, Ontario.
The Dinos are the defending national champions, and according to head coach Doug Lamont, “stronger than last year.” Russell Pennock — who placed third at U Sports last year — and his teammates did not disappoint, placing their five best runners on the men’s team into the top 12. Stefan Daniel earned the top honour with the individual title.
Canmore Park with its high altitude of 1,100 metres, was truly the perfect place for this success. The Dinos knew the course by heart, as they train there most of the time.
“In terms of the course, we’ve run countless workouts on it and know exactly how hard each section is,” said Daniel. “It played into our hands, knowing when to push and when to relax on the course.”
Not only did they have home track advantage, their opponents had to deal with a special guest — the weather. The cold, the snow and the wind made Saturday‘s show absolutely epic. It was an advantageous factor for the Dinos, who are used to running in tough conditions.
“I think the snow and wind suited our team really well,” confirmed Daniel.
For Pennock, the other universities had a disadvantage because of the weather.
“A lot of schools probably were not prepared for it, especially the west coast teams,” he said.
Dressed with its white coat of snow, Canmore Park was much more difficult than usual. For the women’s team, it was even more complicated.
“They showed up at the start of the warmup on warm sunny weather and by the start of the race we were in a mini blizzard,” said Lamont.
Still, more than a bit of snow was needed to slow down Emily Simpson, who placed fifth with a solid run.
“I wanted to get top 10 so I’m really happy with that,” she said.
Unfortunately, the team as a whole missed the podium by five points, but will have a chance to redeem themselves at U Sports.
The Canada West Championships went a little better for the men’s team, who took to the track just after the women’s race. As expected, no team in the conference could match their strength or density. They were a force to be reckoned with even without one of their leaders — Alex James, out with an achilles injury. But, their success by an astonishing margin — 52 points ahead of the second-place team — isn’t a surprise. What was surprising, however, was the identity of the individual champion. Defending Canada West champion, Russell Pennock was the expected winner, but it was his teammate Stefan Daniel who impressively dominated the race. Even Daniel himself couldn’t have predicted his win
“I was confident I could maybe get top five, but I didn’t expect this,” he said.
For Pennock however, Daniel’s success wasn’t really a surprise.
“I knew that Stefan was in really good shape. I was not surprised to see him take the win at all,” said Pennock.
Daniel took the lead in the first moments of the race. During the first loop, he looked behind him, surprised nobody was following his pace. He chose to keep pushing hard at the front, a strategy that wasn’t premeditated.
“It was not my strategy to go solo off the front. I had to make a decision to either slow up and get in the big group to hide from the wind or just keep going and not make it easy on them,” he said. “I didn’t want to slow down, so I committed and just tried to run hard for the rest of the race.”
Behind him, Pennock and Kieran Lumb from the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds were in pursuit. But loop after loop, the gap widened with Daniel. He seemed untouchable all the way to the finish line.
“The finishing straight was filled with a lot of emotion, not only because of the win but because I haven’t felt confident or controlled in a cross country race since high school,” Daniel explained. “It was a huge feeling of relief to finally feel like I was back to running at my best.”
Thirty-two seconds later, Pennock completed the Dinos’ double.
“Overall it was a good race for myself,” he declared, not unhappy to concede the race to his teammate.
Behind those two men, Matt Travaglini, ex-terror of the Canadian Collegiate Athletics Association Championships (CCAA), ended a consistent race at the fourth place. Not far from him, the 19-year-old Max Thiessen finished his race sixth overall. Thiessen, the 2018 U Sports Rookie of the Year, has been on the rise. He’s already become the future of the Dinos Cross Country team and is one to watch at U Sports. The last man scoring for the team was Eric Lutz. For a long time, Lutz has been in the top 10, but this race, the 1500-metre specialist, suffered in the last loop and finished 12th.
“He is a big-time player so we expect him to step his game up for U Sports,” said Lamont.
Last year, Lutz surprised everybody, finishing U Sports in ninth and helping the Dinos to win the national title.
Defending their title is the main objective now. The team has succeeded in its home test and will head into the battle in Kingston as the ones to beat. The Dinos will go to Ontario full of confidence.
“I think we’re in a great position to repeat as national champions in two weeks,” said Pennock. “Our whole team is running extremely well and as long as everyone is healthy for these next two weeks, we have a great shot at winning again.”
The main strength of this team seems to be its collective, team attitude, despite being full of successful individuals. Daniel and Pennock could certainly be rivals for the individual national title, but their priority is to win as a team.
“First and foremost, I want to do whatever I can to help our team defend our national title,” said Daniel.
“I’m trying to focus on the process of consistent workouts and training and trying to run as well as I can for the team to get that team title at U Sports, and if I happen to take the individual title as well that would just be a bonus,” added Pennock.
Daniel and Pennock are certainly teammates first and foremost.
“Russell has pushed me for so many years in training and has always been my role model and one of my best friends,” said Daniel. “I couldn’t have done this without him, and we’re excited to work together and get something special done at nationals.”
This unity is certainly not good news for the Dinos’ opponents in Kingston, but the battle will be a great show for specators in Ontario. For the Dinos, the massive success at the snowy Canada West Championships are just an appetizer for the main course — the national title. However, the team will be more impatient than stressed in the days before the event.
Lamont has been freshly minted as Canada West Coach of the Year.
“I am excited for what will happened at U Sports,” he said. “The men are as ready as we can be. The women are excited to get another chance.”
To be continued.