A selective review of the New Hampshire State Cross-Country Championships

Adversity piled on weirdness didn't prevent some astonishing performances.

The New Hampshire Divisional State Meets were held on Saturday, minus a few of the usual teams and mostly for the purpose of distracting people from other events competing for the public’s interest. For a few hours, it worked perfectly.

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Derryfield Park got some snow the day before the races, but the sun was bright on the morning of Halloween and the course was improving throughout the day, both visibly and according to various comments by those present. The D1 boys went off at 9:50 a.m., the D2 boys at 1:05 p.m. and the D3 boys at 4:20 p.m., so the differences in quality, especially between the D1 race and the other two, were significant.

In an ordinary year, this would have been expected to produce a leveling-out of the normal differences in depth between D1, and D2 and D3, with progressively weaker groups of teams running the same course, but in progressively better conditions. But this year, on the boys’ side, D2 has been better than D1 all season, and that’s without factoring in either Coe-Brown’s massive outlier status or the loss late in the campaign of D1 Pinkerton and Keene, which almost certainly would have placed among the top four on Saturday (those school communities experienced covid positives). As a result, an already bumper D2 crop outshone the D1 crew by even more than expected. Among a number of ways to illustrate this: The fifth-place D2 team’s top five averaged 17:26, considerably better than the third-place D1 team’s 17:49.

In theory, any decrement in course quality would have scuttled the few concrete predictions I made about the races if those predictions had been accurate. I thought Concord would be close to 16:30, and despite the suboptimal footing and a very conservative race from Eben Bragg (5:20, 10:54 en route to a winning 16:07), CHS threw down a 16:41. In my era, that would have destroyed everyone and sent us home devastated on various Blue Bird school buses, in the windows of which would have repeatedly appeared at least two bare, white asses per team as an indistinct signal of merry anarchy to other weekend users of I-93 northbound. In this very era, that effort accomplished pretty much the same thing, as Concord scored only 28 points (I expected 37 to be its winning total).

In the last 1.1 miles, which Bragg covered at about 4:41 pace, he put 11, 23 and 29 seconds on the three runners who’d been with him at the top of McIntyre Hill; all I can really say about that is that those three guys must suck, although a more nuanced alternative thesis is that Bragg was expecting much more of a race this coming Saturday, at the Meet of Champions in Nashua, and was doing his job as a team captain in bringing Concord its fourth straight D1 crown (they don’t give those out anymore, not even at Burger King, but there are only so many words to choose from) while also making sure he grabbed his first individual statewide laurels (ditto).

I have watched the Crimson Tide closely this fall, inasmuch as anyone can do this from a distance of two thousand miles, and my best characterization of the team is that the boys on this year’s squad have shown a remarkable level of adaptability even accounting for all of the covid-induced changes to the schedule and, especially, race protocols. One of them lost his mother to a 14-year-battle with breast cancer 11 days before the meet and turned in the race of his life. On a more mundane level, Concord’s races this year before Saturday represented knee-slapping extremes: They faced regionally ranked Coe-Brown on the Black Bears’ home course three times (getting closer each time, but never making the score truly close) and ran three other meets in Manchester against abysmal teams whose best runners never cracked Concord’s top seven, at least giving CHS valuable preparation on the state-meet course.

The D2 race was notable for featuring the best race I have ever watched a New Hampshire boy run. (I think Cathy Schiro’s races in 1984, my freshman fall, at the same venue were even more dominant, but there has also been only one Cathy Schiro so far.) I knew that Aidan Cox, a Coe-Brown sophomore who looks at most 13 years, 3 months and several hours old, could break sixteen minutes at Derryfield on even a less-than-ideal day. Instead, he ran 15:15 and broke Cory Thorne’s N.H. record by six seconds (the all-comers’ record is 15:08). Not only that, he did it with splits that revealed even greater potential: 5:05, 4:57 and 4:42 pace for the last 1.1.

You have to have an understanding of the course to appreciate how fast a final two miles in about 9:40 is. Cox put so much distance on teammate Luke Tcakzyk (say “Kayzick”) over the hills in the second mile of the course that the announcers assumed that Tcakzyk, who in reality was running a solid, well-paced race on his way to a 15:55, had fallen apart out of reach of the cameras. A 15:15, accomplished using even effort, would feature splits of about 4:55 and 10:10. That this kid has two more years to improve on what looks like close to 15-flat present-day ability at Derryfield Park is a story in itself. (I should probably mention that his sister, a senior, won the D2 girls’ race.) The Black Bears racked up 23 points and a 16:01 team average, a lot faster than the 16:10-ish I foresaw even while assuming better conditions.

There are other great stories from these races, but I’m really only good for talking about the Concord and Coe-Brown boys’ teams, not so much because I don’t have time for the rest but because I really don’t care enough to bother. But the most striking detail of the day is that two of the three individual boys’ winners were sophomores. In D3, Gilford’s Patrick Gandini, who come Saturday at Mine Falls Park is going to rattle some of these boys from larger schools whom he hasn’t raced all year, ran 16:06 and looked quite healthy doing it. If you know anything about kids from the just-south-of-Lakes Region of New Hampshire, which seems unlikely unless you’re one of the summer tourists their parents can’t stand, you’re probably aware that many of them will run into and through trees, walls and other obstacles if provided sufficient motivation, which can be almost anything from a beer to a sheep under threat from a wayward redneck straying too far from the Budwesier and the bonfire. Gandini has that fire, I think. (This “My head is your hammer” trait applies equally, by the way, to the good people of the town of Loudon.)

The 2020 New Hampshire Meet of Champions will be livestreamed here on Saturday, so if you find yourself in need of a break from widespread civic unrest, chiefly involving men equipped with guts, guns, beards and scowls, do watch the races. If the course is dry, or even if it’s not, you’ll probably see the first sub-15:00 in course and state history — maybe more than one.