It rained all night long, softening the course for the NAIA Cross Country Championships.
The rain stopped shortly before the start of women’s race Saturday at Fort Vancouver National Site.
Hillary Holt of the College of Idaho was concerned at first, but quickly learned to love it.
“When I saw the rain, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, the course is going to be so nuts and muddy and everything,’ but we race in Portland all the time,” Holt said. “So the rain wasn’t that much of a factor. I was just more excited. I was like, ‘This means mud, and that means craziness.’ It’s always a good time.”
A steady, misty rain dampened the air — and the course — just in time for the men’s race, and continued throughout.
John Gilbertson of The Master’s College loved it.
“For the whole week, I was expecting it to rain,” he said. “So when it started raining, I just got this sick smile on my face. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. It’s go time.’ If you think about physiologically, it’s not necessarily the best weather, but I feel like the rain is when the crazy comes out, so I was ready for it.”
Holt, a junior from Boise, Idaho, and Gilbertson, a senior from Saugus, Calif., claimed individual national championships Saturday. Team titles were claimed by the University of British Columbia women and the men of St. Francis (Illinois).
There were 309 men and 320 women competing.
Saturday marked the end of a four-year run at Fort Vancouver for the event, which moves to Lawrence, Kan., for the next two years.
Holt, who placed 18th at nationals as a sophomore, had a good feeling before the starter’s gun fired.
“I was super nervous when I woke up this morning, but then I just started running, and everything fell into place,” she said. “I was just like, ‘This is my day.’ It just felt so good. It was just a great day, and I’m so happy. I couldn’t ask for any more.”
She was ahead by about a quarter of the way into the women’s 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) race, and had it for good at about the midpoint. Sharon Ronoh of Lindsey Wilson College had the early lead on the long flat straightaway at the start.
Holt kept close to Ronoh for a while, then made her move.
“I was like, ‘Just stay with her,’ ” Holt said. “I got to the top of the hill and I was three quick steps off, and that’s when I took the lead. My coaches told me to go out with the lead and stay with the lead, and when I felt like it, just go,” she said. “I started off and felt good early on, so I just took the lead and went with it and didn’t look back.”
Holt built a lead of about 10 meters going into the final full lap of the course, but was far ahead on the “turn and burn” 90-degree left turn into the final straightaway.
“I had no idea,” Holt said. “I always feel like there’s someone right behind me. That’s just kind of how I race. Then I got toward the end and people were like, ‘You have about 100 yards of lead.’ I was feeling pretty good, then I came into the straight and I was smiling and happy, and it was good.”
Holt won in 17 minutes flat, 20 seconds ahead of Ronoh. Eastern Oregon’s Karlee Coffey, the top returner from last year’s race, was third for her third consecutive top-three finish.
Complete individual results can be found at naia.org.
Gilbertson, the top returner coming into this year’s 8-km (5-mi.) race, did not lose a race in his final cross country season.
He shared the credit for his championship.
“Coming in, I knew that the Lord was with me and I knew that I had the strength to win,” he said. “I’ve been undefeated all season. The Lord has just blessed me with that, and I run to the finish that way. Praise God. I’ve been working for this for a long time, and it was my day. The Lord gave me the victory, and that was it.”
Near or in front for the entire race, Gilbertson was fourth after one lap, third at the midpoint of the race, and was running shoulder-to-shoulder with Edward Taragon of Wayland Baptist for the lead going into the final circuit of the course.
He took the lead for good about halfway into the last lap, and was not threatened by the finish.
Gilbertson — whose school said he is the first U.S.-born NAIA men’s champion since 1989 — finished in 23:56, 10 seconds ahead of College of Idaho’s Greg Montgomery. Taragon wound up fourth.
“I was in the front pack for the entire race,” Gilbertson said. “My strategy was just to drop a nasty last lap. I didn’t do exactly what I wanted, but I threw in about five surges and they kept responding. I kept surging, and they kept responding. On the last one, I just kept going and they weren’t there.”
Compelte individual men’s results can be found at naia.org.
• Prairie High School graduate Kelsey Klettke, a senior at Lewis-Clark State College, was 11th in 18:17, garnering All-America status for a second time. Klettke was also 11th as a junior in 2010 before missing last season as a medical redshirt.
• Concordia junior Kristina Cupp (Vancouver Christian) did not race because of illness.
• Northwest University senior Matt Porter (Hockinson) finished 64th in the men’s race in 25:48.
• Concordia freshman Roman Kirvov (Union) placed 107th in 26:12 and senior Nick Wilson (Columbia River) was 263rd in 27:56.