Being from the Pacific Northwest, Taylor Guenther and Austen Reiter felt right at home Saturday in the slop of the NCAA Division II National Cross Country Championships.
Louisville, Ky., may not be much like Clark County or Bellingham, but the wet, muddy course at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer Park did not faze the Western Washington University juniors.
“Oh, my goodness, it was crazy” Prairie High School graduate Guenther said of the conditions. “I’ve never run in that much mud before. It was pretty fun. We all went into it with a really good attitude and just decided to go out there and muck around and have some fun with it, because you just had to look at it with a little bit of humor. I was up to my knees in water at some points. It was just insane and pretty messy. Those miles were pretty slow, so I had to try to not focus on that. Everybody had the some conditions, but some people are better in muck, and luckily I’m from Washington, so I’m used to running in sloppy weather.”
The course was shortened by about 230 meters from the 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) collegiate standard for women’s races because of the conditions. Guenther ran the 5.78-k (3.6-mile) course in 22 minutes, 16.4 seconds, placing 51st. Her WWU teammate Austen Reiter, a Camas High School graduate, placed 126th in 23:09.4.
Camas High School graduate Reiter described the course as was slippery, but she agreed that the Vikings embraced the challenge.
“Our times were slow, but it was all fine and dandy to me,” Reiter said. “I think some other teams may have had a hard time with it, but not us. Not girls who are from the Northwest.”
Guenther was the Vikings’ second finisher in all three postseason races: the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, NCAA-II West Regional and national meets. Reiter was among the team’s five scoring runners in each of those races.
Both have trended to faster times and higher placings during their collegiate careers with the exception of a bad day for most of the Vikings at this year’s NCAA-II West Regional that nearly kept them out of nationals. Guenther’s battle with a troublesome right Achilles tendon was mostly not a problem this fall, and Reiter was grateful that she was able to overcome some non-injury health problems early in the season by the time big meets arrived.
With a 3.84 grade point average in her multidisciplinary studies major and an eye toward graduate school in the future, Guenther is also a two-time GNAC Academic All-Star — freshmen are not eligible for the award — and last year a Cross Country All-Academic national selection by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
Hitting their stride
WWU’s program is based on a high-mileage philosophy of training, Guenther said, and most meets during the season are run at tempo speed rather than flat-out racing until postseason.
Guenther placed 10th (in 21:03) and Reiter was 13th (in 21:22) and WWU’s second finisher at the Great Northwest Athletic Conference meet Nov. 1 in Monmouth, Ore., with Guenther achieving GNAC All-Star standing with her finish. The Vikings were third as a team, and everything was fine.
Then came regionals, Nov. 22 in Billings, Mont. Guenther — who was a region All-Star as a sophomore by placing 12th — finished 26th in 22:11.95 and Reiter was the team’s fifth scoring runner, in 70th place at 23:16.81.
“Regionals this year was really rough for me,” Guenther said. “I don’t know if it was the pressure that got to me, or the altitude, but I was really dizzy before the race and my legs were dead. It was just one of those races that never came together. I just pushed through and kept going.”
It was not a good day all around for the Vikings with the exception of Katelyn Steen, the senior from Sammamish who won GNAC and regional titles before placing fifth at nationals. WWU was sixth in the team standings, the last to qualify for nationals as a team.
“We had a bit of a scare at regionals where a few girls — including myself — just didn’t have great races, and we weren’t sure if we made it or not,” Reiter said, but that stark reminder that trips to nationals are earned made the Vikings more appreciative of advancing.
“We barely made it, really honestly,” Guenther said. “It could have gone another way and we wouldn’t have made it to nationals. When I crossed the finish line, I had no doubt that we had not made it. I knew I ran a crappy race and I didn’t see any teammates. Even though our No. 1 runner, Katelyn, won the meet, I still didn’t think we had a chance. I was really thankful that we got another opportunity to prove ourselves.”
The Vikings did prove themselves at nationals, as coach Pee Wee Halsell told wwuvikings.com that the team’s top five runners “all had the races of their lives.” Ranked No. 18 in NCAA-II, the team placed 12th.
“The course was extremely muddy, so that actually played to our favor,” Reiter said. “I thought the mud was great. It was sopping wet, and there was a lot less pressure. Nationals was the highest competition for us, but it’s our last race of the season, so how could we not enjoy it?”
WWU did not qualify for nationals when the Clark County runners were freshmen. Guenther placed 94th and Reiter finished 136th last year, so 51st was a big improvement for Guenther — but she wanted to end up among the top 40 who garner All-America recognition.
“I was actually really happy and felt like I ran a solid race,” Guenther said. “Mentally, I was right where I should be. The only regret I have is that I was only 12 seconds off being an All-American. Of course you’re going to look back and wish that you’d pushed just a little bit harder. In a packed race like nationals, that’s really close.”
Looking to the future
Guenther and Reiter — who both also compete in indoor and outdoor track — will be the only returnees from this year’s top five runners for their senior cross country season. They both said that with Steen’s departure, the Vikings will have to tighten their pack to keep their team scores low.
“I think we’ll have to change our strategy, because we won’t have that front-runner who’s going to go win regionals for us,” Guenther said. “That’s a huge advantage.”
Both Clark County runners are looking ahead for inspiration.
“I’d like to be able to say I’ll be out there like Katelyn is,” Guenther said. “It would take a lot of improvement, but it’s not impossible.”
Reiter said: “Taylor is our fastest returner, so I hope that I can train really hard to help push her along and get closer to her. … I think we’ll have to work really hard if we want to make it to nationals again, but it’s certainly within our reach if we work for it.”