Everyone knows that the University of Florida is in Gainesville, but how many people actually know who the home of the Gators is named after? I do. So as an experiment, I asked 100 random people who the town was named after. Most of them kept walking, but the ones who answered were pretty much right on target. “A guy named Gaines, I guess,” was the most common answer. None, however--in a following question--could tell me why. Encouraged nonetheless, I continued.
At this point, I might interject why I was encouraged. Gainesville has been accused of being the fifth meanest city in America. That is entirely possible. Ever see a picture of Edmund Gaines? He looks like Andrew Jackson without teeth. And ’ol Hickory was definitely our meanest president. (Just ask the Cherokees.)
When one of our kids was sick, and Shands Hospital was our home away from home, my wife did a lot of running in Gainesville. Being friendly, whenever she passed another runner, she would wave. “But hardly anyone ever waved back,” she complained. By her estimates, “only one in five runners would return this simple gesture of greeting.” I’m guessing that might be because she wasn’t wearing the right color running clothes.
Anyway, back to the third, all-important question. I could ask virtually anything about “them Gators,” and in so doing elicit an exuberant reply. No matter how I worded it, if it included the word “Gator” in it—which of course is always capitalized--I got a correct response 100% of the time. Even from the kids. (One little kid in a stroller actually removed her pacifier to answer.)
I thought, “Huh, maybe it’s time to reconsider the name of the town?” Being people are always in a hurry, I think it might best be facilitated as a computer survey, one where people would click on “your choice of the most desired image of the town.” Only two images would be necessary: “toothless Ed,” and “toothsome Gator.” (I wonder if the latter has a name? That would have been a good question to ask.)
I have no doubts that the one with a “gator grin” would win. In a way, it already has. I’ve driven into Gainesville about 100 times, and have never, ever seen a “Welcome to Gainesville” sign. On the other hand, you can’t go two feet without seeing an image of an unfriendly gator. (In Gainesville there are two yellow page telephone directories; one the regular size for those businesses with “Gator” in the name, and a pocket-sized version for those without.)
What’s more, a limbless cartoon is a good mascot for its wave-less residents. Maybe having all those Gators around teaches you to keep your hands to yourself.
My favorite expression is “If life gives you limes, make limeade.” (Lemons are expensive, and these are tough economic times.) So why reminisce about some 19th century general, who except for when he was fighting Indians, never even resided in Florida? Just start calling it Gatorville and be done with it. Or—if you’re suicidal—you might suggest changing UF’s mascot to “the Generals.” (After all, Gaines also had his problems defeating the Seminoles.)
Just something to chomp on for awhile. Just don’t take too much of the above as fact. Rumors that I tend to stretch the truth are not exaggerated.
The Men’s College Race
It’s an odd thing about this “invitational”; no matter who shows up, the University of Florida Men’s cross country team, as a whole or in part, always seems to find a way to win. From 2002 to 2011, the team scored seven firsts and three seconds. As if that weren’t enough to brag about, in the decade before this race, a UF runner won six times and placed second three more. (A long-forgotten Gator finished a dismal fourth overall in ’04.)
Except for the fact that he never considered worrying about past Gators, Embry-Riddle senior Evans Kirwa had the competition pretty well sized up ahead of time.
“I was worried mostly about the UF team,” he told me. “If you can recall from last year, I almost won, but three people flew past me in the last 60 meters. They seemed to come from nowhere.”
Finishing first in 2011 was Craig Forys of Michigan (24:35.55), then Matt Mizereck of Florida (24:38.50), and third was Bobby Aprill of Michigan (24:39.73). Kirwa was fourth in 24:47.23.
“I knew they (the UF front runners) had a good kick, and I haven’t done much speed work. This year, I wanted to stay safely ahead of them, until I was almost done, then try to push it out in the second loop,” he told me.
This year, too, there was a different surprise waiting in store for Evans. Jeremy Criscione—Interlachen H.S. class of 2005, and UF runner from 2005-2009—twice won this race while at UF. He was first as a sophomore in 2006 (24:22.48), then again as a senior in 2008 (24:38.75). Both times the Gator Men scored a perfect 15 points. They took the first seven places in 2006, and the first six in 2008. (They also scored 15—first seven places—in 2007, when his name didn’t appear in the results.)
However, after four years of being away, he returned to the Mark Bostick Golf Course, and was as brilliant as ever.
“This race was a ‘tuneup,’” Criscione said. “I knew that the UF guys would go out hard, so I wanted to see how I would do, see what the pace was like.”
Evans, too, knew that was the Gator game plan.
“I watched a race preview, a video recording,” Kirwa explained. “Their coach said that they were going to go out fast in the first loop, so I knew I would have to.”
Jeremy: “We went through in 4:37.”
Evans: “Me? About 4:38. I was sitting back on the first loop, waiting to take the lead.”
Jeremy: “He (Kirwa) started to open up a little lead, probably at 2 ½,”
Evans: “I waited until almost the start of the second loop. When I pushed it, he was the only one who came along with me. I did not know who he was. I did not know his times or anything, but if you run against someone really good, you can’t hold back. The situation let me go out fast, and not worry about being swallowed up.”
Jeremy: “At 3 ½ miles, Evans passed me. I passed him back at, I think, 4 ½.”
Evans: “We switched off, back and forth for the lead. He was really good. It was definitely a different experience for me.”
Jeremy: “He stayed with me for two turns, and then I kind of separated from him at the driving range.”
Criscione built up a small lead, which he was able to stretch to about six seconds, and finished in 24:08.99. Kirwa was second in 24:14, which is pretty close to his personal best—24:06.71--which he ran at the Southeast Classic on October 23, 2010.
Evans: “It was a very successful race. It was my best time on that particular course.”
Plus, as Criscione ran unattached, and Evans ran for ERAU, the race actually had two winners.
Jeremy: “I haven’t run a cross race since 2008, so I thought it would be a good motivation to come back out again; get back on a cross country course. I enjoyed it a lot.”
Jeremy is also back on campus. His return to UF is due, in large part, to complete his graduate work.
“I graduated”—from UF—“in 2009, as a geology major. “I competed in indoor and outdoor track in my first year of graduate school. When I moved south to Lakeland, I left (before) my last semester of graduate school. I just had that and my thesis to do.
“We”—Jeremy, along with his wife Bessie and son Damian—“just moved back in August. I’m working on my last semester of grad school—in construction management—and running as a ‘satellite athlete’ for the Hanson Brothers.”
“Running for, or from those hockey henchmen?” I wondered. I always thought those icons from Slap Shot were fictional! Upon further investigation, I discovered that, while the Hanson Brothers were just movie characters, the Carlson Brothers are a real-life trio of hockey enforcers. The meanest is “Killer (Jack) Carlson,” and he played in the NHL. Without dropping his gloves, Jeremy expanded upon his original statement.
“These Hansons are two brothers who have five running stores in Rochester Hills, Detroit. In 1999 they started the Hanson Olympic Development team. Maybe a year or two later, they were joined by Brooks (running shoes). Since then they’ve been bringing in collegiate runners who have competed in D-1 through D-3. They’ve had two Olympians, Brian Sell (2008) and Desiree Davilla (2012).”
On that Hanson-Brooks team are (currently) five women and nine men who met the qualifying time for the 2012 Olympic marathon trials. Desiree Davila, who made the US team, finished second (2:25:55) in the trials, but did not finish in London. Sell, who has since retired, finished third in the 2008 trials (2:11:40), and 22nd in Beijing (2:16:07).
Jeremy’s first marathon was this past January, in Houston, where he ran 2:20:57. His talents, however, seem to lie in somewhat shorter distances. So far, he has PRs of 29:29 in the 10K (July 4, 2009 in Atlanta), 49:21 for ten miles (January 12, 2011) and 1:04:28 for the half (New York on April 20, 2011).
“(Before this one) my last race was the U.S. Half Marathon Championships, in Duluth, Minnesota.” (Jeremy finished 17th, in 1:05:12, in that June 16, 2012 race.) “My next race will be the US Ten Mile Championships.” (Coming October 7th, in Minneapolis.)
Mens’ Team Results
Once again, UF ran away with it. Placing 2-3-6-8-9-12-18, they won by a whopping 80 points over their next closest competitor, the University of North Florida (15-16-22-25-30-47-53;108). Evans Kirwa, who was first in the team scoring—as mentioned, Criscione ran “unattached”—kept his Embry-Riddle team close enough to UNF that the order of the team finish wasn’t decided until each team’s fifth man crossed the finish line. That fifth man for Embry-Riddle was freshman Ryan Larson, who ran 27:06.14 in only his second college 8K race. His first, at the USF Bulls Invitational a week before, was 29:20.09, so in this race he set a PR by over two minutes. Not too shabby. (I can’t wait until that second time comes up on his flrunners.com page so I can see how it graphs out, or down as the case may be.) 174 men and 17 teams were scored.
Women’s Team Results
It would seem that the UF Women’s team is so deep in talent this year, that they ran two of their top athletes—sans uniforms--as unattached, and still shut out the other 17 teams. (I don’t know how women listed on the roster—one a senior, photograph and all—are “unattached.” Is that like being unfriended?)
Led by a Latvian speedster, Agata Strausa (17:13.32), UF went 1-2-3-4-5-U6-U8—officially their last two were 12th and 14th-- for 15 points. North Florida was next (7-8-9-19-20-22-28; 63), then UCF (6-18-27-31-34-41-45; 116). 157 runners and 18 teams competed.
If team spirit were tangible, it no doubt would be wearing an all-yellow team uniform. It would be seen stoically surviving daily workouts in one of the hottest cities in Florida, enduring long bus trips to compete against teams that offer the closest in competitive spirit, meeting disappointment with dignity, and personal setbacks with sportsmanship. In short, it would be called Belen Jesuit.
Although the team always has the same name, its components are as interchangeable as a precision machine. This time out of the box, the varsity was comprised of senior Avery Lopez (first overall in 15:47); junior Fabian Tomas (third in 16:10.58); junior Michael Magoulas (sixth in 16:27), junior Andres Fernandez (ninth in 16:36.12); sophomore Ryan Rodriguez (12th in 16:48.92), freshman Jaime Lopez (34th in 17:30.12); and senior Marcel Arzola (43rd in 17:39.82).
I asked each of them to describe the race from their point of view.
Avery: “A fast start; basically to get down the hill fast and run a fast first mile. I ran, like, 4:42.”
Michael: “I was with Avery for about a mile and a half, to about right before the hill. The fast start got to me. It was a very tough course.”
Fabian: “I caught up to Michael, then closed the gap towards Avery and the Columbus kid, Fernandez (Danny, second overall, in 15:59.74).”
Andres: “In the first mile, I was right with the lead pack. But they surged up, and I tapered off. Then I closed the gap between me and Michael.”
Ryan: “I was about five seconds behind Andy. I trailed by seven or eight seconds the whole race. At the final sprint, I was with the third Columbus kid, Danny Linares. I passed him at the finish, and closed a little on Andy.”
Jaime: “First mile I was a little behind Ryan at five flat, but finished in the 17:30s.”
Marcel: “The course was a little tough. The first mile came in fast—five flat—so I was with my teammates Ryan and Jaime. The pace was slightly fast. I tried to recover from that by tapering. I was able—with that recovery—to kick in the last 800 and finish strong.”
Avery: “I was in the lead the whole, entire race; I never lost it. I went through two in 9:54, and tried to hold my cadence for the remainder of the race. With the hill coming up, and less than 600 to go, I tried to build up a sprint. I finished in 15:45, unofficially.
“I wanted to PR”—his best so far is 15:32.90 at the November 26, 2011 Nike Cross Country Nationals, Southeast Regional—“but it’s my season best.”
“My goal is to win every single race this season, and bring my teammates along, right behind me. We had an unofficial one minute spread, one through five.”—1:01.82—“Our goal is for me to break 15, keep that same spread, and for the top five to keep on getting faster with me.”
Boy’s Varsity Team Results
Belen Jesuit traveled all the way to Gainesville’s Mark Bostick Golf Course—a trip that was well over six hours and nearly 400 miles--in order to compete in a meet with 39 teams. Ironically, the competition boiled down to just three teams, all three of which were within a short bus ride from each other in southeastern Florida: Belen (Miami), Miami Columbus, and St. Thomas Aquinas (Ft. Lauderdale). Belen (1-3-6-9-12-34-43; 31) scored a third that of Columbus (2-11-14-33-36-45-52; 96), and a fourth of St. Thomas Aquinas’s (15-16-21-37-42-47-49; 131). 292 runners and 39 teams scored.
Picture a twin starting line, with (a total of) 274 anxious and hyperactive girls lined up on a hill, waiting for the gun to signal a downhill sprint. Now imagine you’re a diminutive, 14 year old freshman, 300 miles from home, surrounded by upper classmen, in only your second cross country race ever. What’s running through your mind? What is your primary goal for the next half hour? What chance do you have to win?
“I was nervous,” admitted Alexa Cruz, “but I love the sport. I just wanted to PR.”
Just that? Or was there more?
“At 2 ½, I thought that I had a chance to win. Amber Johnson (a Dr. Phillips senior who finished second in 19:07.62) was still pretty close. I just tried to relax, and keep my pace.”
Somehow, this precocious young lady did just that. In addition to winning the race, she sliced a full minute off her previous—only—cross country best, 19:52.74, which she ran at the September 8th University of Miami Greentree Invitational.
“But today wasn’t my best. My best was at the Mother’s Day “Run for the Roses” race in Ty Park (Dania, Florida) last May.”
In that race, she ran 18:48.1, placing fifth overall out of 278 people (including adults), and—no surprise here—first in her age group.
“I’ve been running since I was in second grade, and ran at Our Lady of the Lakes Middle School.”
With that kind of start, I wondered if she had set any running goals for the year?
“Now that I’ve gotten the time that I did, I may need to adjust my times downward. I hope to run under 18 by the States.”
I’ll bet you have a career all picked out, too?
“I’m going to be a pediatrician.”
(A quizzical look, getting an answer to a rhetorical question.)
“I like to plan things ahead. I set my goals early, so I can find out how to work to achieve them.”
And how does flrunners help you do that?
“I look at other runners’ times, for example Bridget Blake—even though she’s a senior—I aim to get near her time.”
(Pssst, Bridgett, are you getting this?)
“I don’t know. Cross country is a sport that changes so much during the season that anything can happen.”
I think it already has.
Varsity Girls Team Results
I think Alexa, in a headlong race to fulfill her season and lifelong goals, created a powerful vortex, sucking her team right into in. With Cruz’s “1” came an Aquinas 4-10-15-25-28-79 finish for a total of 55 points and the GV title. Oak Hall (8-9-12-31-42; 102) and Lakewood Ranch (14-17-30-37-48-56-74; 146) made it in real time. As mentioned, there were 274 finishers and 30 full teams.
The plot of this race closely followed that of the VB. Belen Jesuit’s Alvaro “Tuto” Mejer played the part of Avery Lopez—except that he didn’t lead quite the entire way—and his supporting cast was too long to list (I counted 20.)
“For the first 600,” Tuto began, “Tommy Bello (who finished 33rd in 19:28.46) and another runner took the lead. As the rest settled, Diego Rojo (second in 17:30.97) and I surged to the front. I’m fairly sure that I led the race until the last ¼ mile, and he pulled up. It was basically a sprint to the finish. I think I won by two seconds.”
I asked Tuto what it meant to be a member of Belen Jesuit.
“I have been running for Belen since I was a sixth grader. I started off the first meet of the year—UM Greentree Invitational--on varsity. I finished as sixth man. But on a Thursday, there was a meet called the Ferguson Falcons Invitational. We did not run our top five—to give them a rest—and I finished fourth, so that made me the ninth man. That’s why I ran the JV race today.
“I saw this meet as an encouragement to make the top 7. I want to be on the varsity for the State Meet, and I saw it as a motivation to run faster, so I can do that. I was never more focused, because I had seen how the varsity ran. And I was hoping to keep up that intensity.
“I ran a 17:29, so for this season, it’s a best, and moved me into sixth place on varsity.
“Frankie (Ruiz), our coach, likes to see the results of our meets, and how we run each practice. With that, he selects the best ‘fit’ to help us win the next meet. Usually, if it’s a mid-week meet, he’ll rest the best runners to give the other runners a chance to compete in a varsity level competition.
“Over the past three years, I’ve seen that all of our runners have progressed. Frankie’s system is not only a model for running, but it also fits in as a lifestyle, and teaches us the right habits for life, like teamwork and discipline.”
JV Boys Team Results
With a knot of yellow Belen Jesuit uniforms up front, and a long ribbon of them strung along the course, it wasn’t difficult to predict which team would prevail. The top seven finished 1-2-6-8-9-10-11 with 26 points. St. Thomas Aquinas had 54 (3-4-12-14-21-22-25), and Flagler had 99 (13-15-16-17-38-41-43). 17 teams and 234 runners competed.
We began with—more or less—the philosophy that whatever life has in store for you, make the best of it. Seventh grader Danielle Corbin is living proof that, by the time you reach the next finish line, it will turn out for the best.
“I have something called Osgood-Slaughters syndrome, named after the two people who identified the condition,” she explained to me. “Kids my age get it, and I’m prone to injury. It’s because the bones in my knees grew outward, and I have to wear a brace to take off the pressure.
“It doesn’t keep me from doing things, but my mother feels that if I were to run varsity, because it’s a faster race, it might encourage me to go harder and run faster. So for now, I’m on JV. But I’m only in 7th grade—I’m 12—and I’m still growing. When I stop growing, I should be able to compete with the varsity.
“Tennis is my main sport. This (running) is for cross training, but I’ve always loved to run. As an adult, I can see myself doing both. But for now, I run three days a week, and play tennis the rest. That’s just during cross country. Track is the same season as tennis, so I can’t do that.
“Right now, I go to Episcopal, in Jacksonville. It has sixth through 12th grade, but I didn’t go to sixth.
“This is my first year of cross country, and my second race for the school. I ran Katie Caples, and got fifth (22:38). This (today) was my PR (22:10), and my first win.”
Girls JV Team Results
With a boost from the “unattached” category, St. Thomas Aquinas picked up five places (sixth through 11th), and outscored a close Carrollton. It was Aquinas 43 (6-7-9-10-11-13-25), Carrollton 57 (2-4-5-19-27), and Winter Park 104 (18-20-21-22-23-24-29). 166 girls and 12 teams finished.
Footnotes: Unless you’re a well-conditioned athlete, this is one meet where a golf cart is a must. Is it just me, or was this the most spread-out cross country meet in the western hemisphere? With the parking lots, start, finish, results, awards, refreshment, and rest rooms all in different places, and dispersed over about a hundred acres, my legs gave out long before I finished my last interview. I will admit that those portable toilets looked like serene, green sentinels, all lined up in that dell. Unfortunately, I only accidentally stumbled across them at noon--while chasing down a team that was disappearing into the distance--and scenery had long since taken a back seat to more important things. As a parent or spectator, it’s wonderful to be invited to such a gala event, but would be far, far more enjoyable if it weren’t so painful (and somewhat embarrassing) in trying to keep up with kids a fraction of your age.
On a positive note, the newly installed split start erased the problems of 2011. Every start went off like clockwork, and all six races went off smoothly, with no overlap. It was obvious that a lot of time went into a complete redesign of the course, and should be duly noted.