What goes into being a Vikes cross-country runner?

It’s early in the morning on Saturday, Oct. 26, at an hour far too early to be running kilometre after kilometre around Mount Douglas High School’s football field. Yet myself and the rest of the UVic cross country team find ourselves running through damp grass and around pylons, as we gut through the final workout before the 2013 Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) Cross Country Championships in London, Ontario, which would take place on Nov. 9.

The skinny guys with long greasy hair and thick lumberjack beards take to the field first. They run in a tight group; they are shirtless, wearing only their spiked racing shoes and brightly coloured, loincloth-like garments called “split shorts.” Though they wear hats, woolen mitts, and even arm sleeves, shirts-off is a cross country training necessity; no bloody chafed nipples on this team, they’ve got enough aches and pains as it is. “We’re always shirtless in September,” shares third-year Patrick Psotka.

As the alternate for the women’s team, I train like I’m going to race, even though I will only compete in the event that someone on the team steps off a curb wrong and breaks their leg. Or something equally unlikely.

The men’s team headed into the 2012 CIS Championships anticipating a medal. After a series of disappointing finishes, they came out with a Canada West title, but fourth place in the CIS.

“Last year was definitely a though loss. Going into that race, with the goals and expectations that we had, and not being able to perform up to our potential was extremely frustrating,” says third-year runner Forrest Simpson.

Throughout the past year, the men’s team rallied for change. Adopting “Curls for the girls” and “Don’t get injured” policies, it seems they have come back stronger than ever. This season, the group of skinny, shirtless dudes in need of haircuts has gone undefeated. In October, they won the Bronco Invitational—a race that’s home to many strong NCAA Division One teams—in Santa Clara, Calif., by about 20 points.

The victory was made even more remarkable by the fact that Dylan Haight, a CIS All-Canadian and top scorer for the Vikes, was unable to finish the race due to injury. Rookie team member Olivier Collins stepped up and impressed as well, showing just how deep the talent runs on the Vikes.

More important than victory, though, is how gnarly these guys look.

The hair. The beards. The staches. These men went nine weeks, since they drastically upped their mileage to prepare for the London race, without shaving. All a testament to their manliness, and the commitment to what it truly means to be a member of the CIS cross-country team, ticket punched and stamped.

“One cannot truly embrace the essence of cross-country running without some sort of grime adorning their upper lip,” says Simpson.

And, hey, these poor suckers have to run 10 gruelling kilometers, over whatever course the race directors decide to throw at them. If looking and feeling like a caveman helps them through it, then all the power to them.

The women, on the other hand, do not go without shaving to prepare for their national championship. Instead, they eat healthy meals, take their iron supplements, and, oh yeah, run a ton.

Going for the third-straight Canada West win, they too were gunning for a spot on the CIS podium. Two years ago, they had a taste of success with a silver medal finish, but last year they faced a similar situation as the men’s team, and finished in fourth.

“Ultimately, it comes down to who is ready to perform on race day, and unfortunately, I don’t think we were able to show that last year. It was disappointing to leave London last year without a national medal,” said team captain Kendra Pomfret.

This year, the women’s team has had to deal with losing a few of its best runners: standout team member Ellen Pennock (2011 CIS XC Rookie of the year and third-place finisher), who recently raced to a silver medal at U-23 World Triathlon Championships; Stephanie Trenholm, a 2011 first team All-Canadian; and Brittany Therrien, who was the leading Vikes runner in 2012. Still, the lady Vikes have come together with force. Pomfret attributes the early season success to the team’s ability to work together as a whole.

“Our team dynamic is a mix of competitive, goofy, and supportive. We all want to succeed, and we know that to do that, we collectively have to work together. Cross is awesome because it is very much a team sport in terms of scoring and preparation. We are each other’s second families, both on and off the course. When one teammate is having a bad workout, another pulls her along. There’s no way we would be where we are in the sport without each other,” says Pomfret.

That much is clear at the Oct. 26 Saturday morning practice, as the girls plow through their repeats. As soon as one girl begins to fall back, overcome with fatigue, someone shouts back to her to dig deep and not give up. This group-orientated attitude earned them a second-place finish out of the non-Div. 1 schools at the Bronco Invitational and third place at the Western Invitational in Bellingham, Wash.

“Our team is diverse in its talent; we have girls with incredible core strength who are consistently crushing hill workouts, girls whose kilometre repeats and steady-state tempos are so consistent they’re flying, and girls who can straight up compete—they may not be leading repeats in workouts, or putting in extra miles, but come race day, they act as the not-so-secret black horses—reliable scorers and forces to be reckoned with,” Pomfret says.

Steam wafts above the girls as they surge between the two pylons that mark the finish line. I don’t really understand how, given the gruelling nature of today’s interval workout, but these girls do not look tired. Instead, they smile and make little jokes, slap one another’s butts and break into an easy cool-down jog.

The men’s team mills in behind the girls, back to the start line.

“All right, guys. Ten seconds,” says Irvine.

They toe the space between the cones and bend forward, sweat rolling off their shoulders and chests.

“Hup!” and they take off, spikes flashing.  One two-kilometre repeat left, and then it’s taper time.

The Victoria men brought home their fourth-straight Canada West title and came sixth overall in the CIS. The Vikes women notched a silver medal in the Canada West standings and finished eighth overall in the CIS. It’s certainly not a lack of effort that left the Vikes off the podium this season. They will be back stronger and more determined next year, driving for the podium.

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