Entering the season, the Macalester Men’s Cross Country team had one thing on its mind: improving at the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championship (MIAC) meet. In 2016, the Mac Pack finished in a disappointing ninth place at the year-end meet, only beating Augsburg College and Concordia College-Moorhead across the finish line.
“We weren’t too happy with how we finished last year,” Jake Lepak ’20 said. “Ninth place, I mean, it’s embarrassing.”
After losing two of their seven scoring runners from last season, including star senior Lachlan Hinwood ’17, success looked as though it might elude the Scots once again. But now, after a strong sequence of summer and fall workouts, the Mac Pack looks to be hitting its stride as it enters the most important part of the season. Without one standout runner, the team has developed a strong front five. Those five, Chris Boranian ’19, Mac Doherty ’19, Spencer Grant ’19, Lepak and Peter Jarka-Sellers ’20 have all taken steps forward from last year. The team’s strength lies not in a star runner, but rather in its depth; Boranian, Doherty, Grant and Lepak have all been the first Scot across the finish line at some stage this season. While Jarka-Sellers has yet to lead the pack, his improvement has been noted by teammates, and was mentioned by each runner who spoke with The Mac Weekly.
“I’ve been really impressed by how the year has shaped up,” Boranian said. “We’ve had some great folks really step up and fill the gaps that we needed filled. Peter Jarka-Sellers has been particularly surprising. It’s been great to see him really go for it in competitions and take his place in the top five by force. After the loss of a couple of our fastest runners last year, I feel like we’ve bounced back in a way I could have never even imagined. Five different Mac runners have finished first on our team over six races. If we’ve got that many guys competing up at the front then I think we can really surprise some folks at the MIAC Championship meet.”
“We haven’t really had the opportunity to put all of our guys in one race, so we are all excited to see what we can do with a full team.” – Spencer Grant ’19
In addition to Jarka-Sellers, the Mac Pack has gotten strong contributions from Adrian Johnson ’21 and Eddy Reyes Herrera ’20 who have consistently been in and amongst the scoring seven. Reyes Herrera’s performances have been particularly impressive, given his background in shorter distance races.
“Eddy recently made the transition from track sprinter to distance runner,” Doherty said. “His incredibly positive presence in the locker room and during workouts is felt by all.”
The Scots had their last meet before the MIAC Championship on Oct. 14, in La Crosse, Wisconsin, at the Jim Drews Invitational. While their finish on the scoreboard did not look overly impressive – coming in 17th out of 21 teams – that was without Lepak and Jarka-Sellers. Similarly, their ninth out of 12 teams finish at Carleton’s Running of the Cows meet was without Doherty. The last time the Scots had their front five at full strength was the middle of September, at the St. Olaf Invitational and the Summit Cup, an annual four-mile race against St. Thomas, which Macalester won for the first time in 11 years. The prospect of putting all of the front five together at the same time has Grant particularly excited.
“The team has shown a lot of upside this year,” he said. “We returned a lot of guys from last year so it’s been fun to watch this team transition from being a young team with a lot of potential to being a team that has an extra year of maturity and experience. That being said, we still do have a lot of youth and a lot of excitement on the team so we know that each week is going to bring lots of improvements and experiences to learn from. We haven’t really had the opportunity to put all of our guys in one race, so we are all excited to see what we can do with a full team.”
That need for a full team will be felt over the next week and a half. After last weekend’s meet at La Crosse, Macalester has a week off before the MIAC Championship at St. Olaf. The team will spend it working on closing the gap between the fourth and fifth place runners, and from the pack of five to the rest of the top seven.
“How Peter Jarka-Sellers runs will be very vital to how we do at MIAC,” Lepak said. “Right now, there’s a little gap between him and our fourth place guy, so if we can close that down and get everybody else to run well, we’ll be in a great spot come the 28th. It’s all about confidence, and not losing sight of the great workouts and great races we did have.”
To finish the season out the way they want to, the Mac Pack will lean on a long-time strength: its unique team spirit. Running, and cross country running in particular, breeds a unique bond, which constantly forces runners and teams to be their best. According to Boranian, much of that comes from the lighthearted nature of the team’s practices and workouts, which mean they enjoy spending time with each other regardless of whether or not they have spikes on.
“After the loss of a couple of our fastest runners last year, I feel like we’ve bounced back in a way I could have never imagined.” -Chris Boranian ’19
“Every time we compete it’s pretty low key and under the radar,” he said. “Although we take practices and competitions very seriously, I feel like the less traditional lifestyle surrounding cross country has allowed me to not take myself too seriously when I’m not spiked up. I think a lot of guys on the team feel really proud of what they can do, but also have the ability to remain pretty modest about it. I think that’s part of what makes our team spirit so relaxed and supportive at the same time. We also just like to hang out with each other, so practices are always fun, no matter how hard the workouts we run are.”
Grant expanded on what Boranian said, acknowledging that runners push their minds and their bodies differently than other athletes do. The nature of that communal experience, and the bond that builds up over the course of a season, give this team the togetherness they are known for.
“We definitely do have a unique team spirit,” Grant said. “Part of that is just because of the nature of the sport in that we are pushing our bodies to their physical limits, so we get to bond over that. But more than anything, I would credit the diverse set of personalities on the team to our notorious team spirit. We all had the opportunity to get to know each other and become comfortable around each other during preseason, and that level of comfort we have to be ourselves around each other has caused such a powerful team dynamic.”
If all goes to plan over the next week, that indomitable spirit will carry them to a top-five finish at the MIAC Championship on Oct. 28.