Ralph's Musings: West Orange Invitational

Although generally attributed to Horace Greeley, that irrepressible, mid-19th Century editor of the New York Tribune, the phrase “Go West, Ralph,” apparently has not, definitively, been proven as his. I can, however, clarify that the phrase was used at least once—on a far more recent occasion—during a cell-phone conversation (circa) October 19, 2012.

Horace Grasley: “Ralph, I’ve decided to go to Mt. Dora. Can you”—static--“go”—a momentary break in signal—“West”—more static—“Ralph?”

So there you have it. Of course, any change in venue—and this was the third or fourth time in four days that we ended a conversation with my saying, “Any meet that you need me at, Todd…I mean Horace.”—required the courtesy of contacting the race director. So in a last-minute e-mail, I wrote:

Kevin and Kevin (he had two addresses),

Todd Grasley, of flrunners.com sent me an e-mail saying that I had won an all-expense paid trip to West Orange for a morning of “run in the sun.” (I am assuming that this is a typo and he really meant “fun in the sun.”) Is this one of those condo deals, or a real vacation? And are the reservations confirmed? (He said check-in was 7:30 AM, which seems rather early for a hotel.)

At any rate, if I can find you tomorrow morning, I am looking forward to it. I’ll bring my camera in case the scenery is worth photographing.

--Ralph Epifanio

(Fortunately, Kevin was too busy to respond to my feeble attempt at a clever communiqué—or perhaps too tired, as being a race director is about as exhausting as running for public office, and not nearly as lucrative—so I was on my own as far as finding a school I had never been to.)

Now, other than occasionally driving Florida Road 50 across the state to events totally unrelated to running, I don’t think I had any idea how far “west” West Orange was, so sallying forth before the morning radio talk-show hosts had even showered, I left home, noted the autumn constellations for the first time this year, and drove (generally) westward, ho.

Arriving just before the sun, I can personally verify that the name of the meet was very accurate, as the sun did arrive, bright and orange, soon after. In fact, in perusing the “The Best of Times” folder, you see orange residue in pretty much all of the earlier photos.

It was the first meet of the year where blankets and throws were in ample use, so it was obvious that fall had arrived to Florida cross country, and was welcomed with noticeably fast finish times.

An Explanation of the Course…

Anyone who has seen my impressive Don Joy—the Cadillac of knee braces--could guess that I no longer run around chasing after runners with my trusty Nikon held aloft. Instead, I use guile, wit, and cunning—and a sturdy camp chair--to plan and execute those photos that you see under the code name, IslandwideRunner. (A name that calls to mind an interesting, yet unrelated narrative.) 

Because of my shortcomings as a mobile photojournalist, the variety (complexity?) of this particular course deserves a special tour de Mitchell, and Kevin graciously delayed his post-race clean-up to do so.

“This course is sensory stimulating. We’re the Orange County magnet program for Agricultural Study.”

Translation: besides feet and eyes, participants can use ears, nose, and—if they so choose—taste to get the full “flavor” of this course.

“We have (what is called) the ‘cow loop,’ which smells like manure. Then there’s the ‘dog loop,’ which goes around a dog park.” (This is sometimes affectionately referred to as the “poop loop” by spectators who decide to cut across in order to keep up with their favorite runner.) “Then there are the Orange County Parks and Recreation Soccer Fields. OCP is gracious enough to let us run its perimeter. And finally, there’s the 9th Grade Center.”

As a result of my interviews, I discovered that it is a fast, and thus very popular course, both with the runners and spectators…although few felt comfortable describing particular locations on the route where a runner—and with that competitor, their lead—passed them by.

“This is our fourth or fifth year as an invitational. We call it that, but it’s an open meet, and we’ll take anyone who wants to be ‘invited.’

“In the past three years we’ve hosted the “West” of the Metros, and the Districts…I think the last three years for that. This will be the first year we haven’t hosted it.”

According to Kevin, this particular school is five years old. Incidentally, out of this conversation came information  that from the West Orange School District, also came Dr. Phillips, Ocoee, and Olympic High Schools. And with an estimated 3800 students currently enrolled in West Orange, can it be long before yet another school is created?

Varsity Girls 5K

Here was the first of four fast and furious five kilometer races. No doubt the cooler, less humid weather had something to do with the lasting power—and subsequent finishing kick(s)—of runners in each race, but in this one in particular, that “kick” happened much earlier in the race.  

In studying the opening sequence of GV photos, you can’t help but notice that a little girl in dark blue—Lake Nona’s Adaire Lyden—had a stride that seemed to be totally out of proportion to her height.  (Someday, when her body fills out, she’s probably going to run a 13-something 5K.)

“I was just trying to keep up with Amber (Johnson),” Adaire explained, referring to the eventual winner from Dr. Phillips.  “She’s a strong competitor. “

Perhaps, too, Lyden was attempting to take advantage of an anticipated slot that had opened at the very front of the race.

“Bridget Blake (Dr. Phillips) wasn’t here. I don’t know if that changed the race much, but we missed her. She’s a great competitor.”

In the absence of Blake, there was no doubt a perception that this race was wide open to potential winners.

“I’ve never actually won a cross country meet before,” said Johnson, “so that was my goal. This is technically the last regular season meet of my high school career, so winning here would create  a lot of positive momentum going into the conference meet, and (then the) state series.”

After a long first loop--which passed through some woods, then skirted an elongated, rectangular field--Lyden and Johnson were still stuck together like glue. Wearing nearly identical uniforms (same Adidas top, similar, dark blue bottoms) they passed the half-way point in tandem.

“We switched off leading a little,” said Amber Johnson, “but I led most of the way.”

Johnson, as a senior, might have had an experiential edge.

“This is the fifth time I ran this course, “Johnson told me afterwards, “and I knew what turns to make, and what to do where. So I knew what to expect. It’s kind of like a home course. It’s pretty flat, and I’ve PR’d here in the past, but there are a lot of turns. And it was actually really windy. There was a stretch where I really felt it.”

She used that knowledge to her advantage.

 “One strategy that I try to implement is to throw in some surges, especially when I feel good. So I did that here. She (Adaire) was trying to take the lead, and I didn’t know what her game plan was, so I used those surges as kind of a strategy.

“I kind of started to open a lead—going into the third mile—and where we looped around before the finish, my coach said that I had about a 30 meter lead at that point, I was definitely thinking I could win. I like to think I’m stronger at this point than I was last year. Coach (Sherri) Taylor did a really good job of preparing us, and the whole team is stronger.”

“She’s been working hard in practice,” Taylor said of Johnson, “and she’s doing great (this year). We’ve been working on her finish. Her times are really going down. Today she was just one second off her PR—18:44.98, fifth at the November 19, 2011 FHSAA 4A Championships-- but she’s definitely going to get that. Once we taper, she’ll come down 20-plus seconds.”

Johnson’s winning time was 18:45.27. Lyden might have stalled somewhat after losing contact with the winner, but regrouped at the end and finished a strong second in 19:03.42.

GV Team Results

With only a single team having more than one finisher in the top ten—Doctor Phillips, with first and sixth, finished fourth overall—it was like a shootout in the oh-cow corral. First Academy was (coincidentally) first with 96 points (9-11-17-28-31-35-45); West Orange had 111 (5-14-26-27-39-49-63), and Lake Highland Prep finished with 113 (12-19-20-29-33-44-52). 136 runners ran for 19 teams.

Varsity Boys 5K

If he hadn’t had enough pressure from a very talented Connor Ferrentino from Freedom High School, Trinity Prep’s Dan Salas had the added burden of carrying the fate of his entire team on his shoulders.

“Today, we were without our sophomores and juniors,” explained TP coach Ken Vinal. “We had four seniors, two freshmen, and an eighth grader. We knew, coming in, that Boone and Lake Nona were the two teams at the top. We thought that if we ran really well, we could win.”

“At the beginning of this week, I wanted to set a PR at this race,” Salas said of his projected race plans. “But this week we had a lot of tough workouts. That left me kind of sore.  When I woke up this morning, I realized that I wasn’t going to get one.”

As the race unfolded, however, different priorities seemed to take the place of a possible PR.

“I was lost for the entire race,” he reported. “The Gator was pretty far ahead. I was just following the lines, but sometimes you couldn’t see them.  Conner stayed behind me for two miles. At two miles, he took the lead. I let him, and then put on a surge of my own. After that, he stayed behind me, and I very gradually pulled away. (Based on how I felt and how I did) it wasn’t that great a race, but I did pretty well. I’m okay with that.

“Races like these, plus a lot of speed work, make us tougher. They will contribute to a better race at the end of the season. And once I start to taper—probably the week of the regionals, and the week of the state meet—I will start to feel a lot better.”

Varsity Boys Team Results

The team title was decided by one point; Trinity Prep over Lake Nona, 72-73. While much of that win could easily be attributed to Dan Salas’ all-important first place finish, Dan was quick to point towards outstanding performances by his TP teammates.

“We had two young guys-- Jesse Millson and Chas Cook-- who had pretty good PRs.”

Adding to the performances of freshmen Millson (third overall in 16:19.19), and Cook (seventh in 16:26.98), Coach Vinal mentioned that of Steven Schelling (28th in 17:35.54).

“Our guy in fourth place—Schelling—ran a really good race. He’s normally tenth on our team, but he ran a 30 second PR. That was a big difference. In a close race, when you have someone step up and run really well…that’s how you win races.”

In all, five of the seven Trinity Prep finishers set a new PR.

The scoring for Trinity Prep went 1-3-7-28-33-38-122 (72 points); Lake Nona was 8-10-15-18-22-77-79, for 73 points; and Lake Highland Prep was third with 107 (5-14-25-29-34-48-55).

170 runners and 25 teams flooded the course.

JV Girls 5K

In the grand scheme of things, not a lot of spectators dwell on the results of a JV race, but in that I differ. Here are the kids who are probably competing in mismatched, ill-fitting uniforms, almost always run last (and thus at the hottest time of the meet),  and—despite a state of anxiety that typically measures their inexperience--still manage to maintain a high level of enthusiasm, no matter what their finish time is.

Nothing, however, compares to “The Interview.” That’s the best part. If I take a varsity athlete toward one side for a post-race de-briefing, it generally draws little attention.  JVs, on the other hand, are suddenly surrounded by so many friends and family that I need crowd control.  Teammates “help” answer questions, Moms take photos—and sometimes videos--and best friends are there to make sure that I’ve fully covered the unabridged life history of the athlete they represent. (Even middle school kids have agents nowadays.)

Abby Vahle, therefore, caught me by surprise. She was so calm and laid back that I wasn’t sure I had the right kid. But she was, and is, the winner of her division for the first time ever. Said the ninth grader,

“I’m a freshman. I wanted to PR today because it is our last home meet.”

And so she did; by a minute and seven seconds. Her previous best, 23:35.50 at the September 28th FLR XIII, was shattered by her 22:28.30 here.

“I’m just really excited. All of my teammates are real happy for me.  I’ve been first on my team before—at the Trinity Prep meet (26:29.75 this past September 8th).” But never first overall. “It encourages me to do the best that I can. That time brings me up to the top seven on our team. (With it) I can run at Metros and Districts, if I make it.”

Although she has run track for three years in middle school, this is Abby’s first season of cross country.

“I like running, and I like my (West Orange) team.”

JV Girls Team Results

With a 1-2-3-4-9-12-13 team finish, it’s no wonder that Abby likes running and her team. Second to West Orange’s 19 points was Lake Highland Prep’s 62 (6-8-15-16-17-20-21). Boone was third with 102 (7-19-23-26-27).  86 girls and seven teams scored.

JV Boys

At a mile and a half, eventual winner David Anderson--a sophomore at Oviedo High School--had his work cut out for him. At that point he was fourth overall and Lake Nona’s Yevier Lopez —also a sophomore—was on cruise control. Yevier was just three days past a brand-spanking new 18:55 PR (by 1:05, which he ran at the October 17th Metro F/S Meet). Forget that it was half a minute faster than Anderson’s, (19:24.60 at last week’s Hagerty Invitational), and little did David know that Lopez was heading for yet another huge PR in this race (18:19.54). The only thing on Anderson’s mind was:

“I was just going to run and see if the weather was going to help me out,” he said after a second run to McDonald’s, “and it did. The temperatures helped cool me during the race.”

David started his rise to stardom from amid “humble” surroundings.

“In the first mile, I was in the 20s. In the next mile, I moved up into the top ten. Coming into the field (about 400 to go), I saw Colin Anderson (no relation). That encouraged me, because he was (then) in second place.”

Still in first was Lake Nona’s Lopez.

“By then, I was in third.  I kicked it in, and took off running. I didn’t know that the kid in front of Colin was first. I kicked past him, thinking I was in sixth, and ended up in first. I didn’t know, at all, that I was going for the lead. When I finished, everyone was shouting. It was Justin’s Mom, Mrs. Schanze, who told me.”

The order of finish, then, was David Anderson, first in 18:19.19 (a 1:05 PR); Yevier Lopez, second in 18:19.54 (a  :36 PR); Cesar Sabogal, third in 18:24.53; and Colin Anderson, fourth in 18:24.84 (a :17 PR).

“That’s the first race I’ve ever won, and a PR by over a minute. The temperatures really helped me a lot. And it’s like the end of the season, so I was trying to do my best to finish off.”

Anderson, by virtue of that spirited finish, set off a chain reaction of no less than three PRs. The more you push, the more you pull.

JV Boys Team Results

Those Anderson’s—actually there were three different runners by that name on the team--Oviedo (with a 1-4-6-8-15-17-30 finish) won with 34 points. In second was Bishop Moore (3-14-19-22-26-27-28; 84), and in third City of Life Christian (9-12-21-36-43-49-53; 121). 128 runners and seven teams closed the meet.