A day at the races

Vineyard cross-country invitational was a beauty.

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From left, Julianna Higgins of (Groton-Dunstable, 45th overall), Elizabeth Parkinson (Bishop Feehan, 44th), Kasey Clark (Shepherd Hill, 46th), and Maura Doherty (Woburn, 43rd) break through to the finish line. — Lily Cowper

At 7:30 last Saturday morning, the vast athletic complex at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) was quiet and empty.

By 10 am it had become a pop-up village, dotted with a dozen tents and upwards of 1,000 mostly young people, there for the 11th annual Vineyard Invitational cross-country meet.

“This event has grown exponentially,” Kimberly Kirk, president of the cross-country boosters club, said with a tone of awe of the early-season extravaganza.

By 2 pm, all five divisional races had been run by 850 participants, the tents were being dismantled, ankles had been iced, dehydrated runners rejuvenated, T shirts purchased, and medals distributed to the top 25 finishers in each event.

At 3 pm, the MVRHS complex looked much as it had eight hours earlier, quiet and empty. Runners, coaches, and parents from more than 25 schools from four states were on their way to stroll for an hour on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs and on Main Street in Vineyard Haven before boarding ferries to their home communities.

Race results were positive for the small band of MVRHS harriers. Vineyarder entrants on Saturday all finished in the top 100 in their races.

The boys gather at the starting line before rushing onto the course in the Manuel E. Correllus State Forest.

Through the five races, the Vineyard freshmen (six boys and two girls) had a stellar day navigating the 3K version of the 5K home course, with the boys placing fifth among 17 schools. Owen Atkins led the Vineyard boys with a time of 10:53, good for eighth overall. Isaac Richards was next in 11:03.60 (12); followed by Nathaniel Porterfield, 11:46.36 (27); Jackson Wojnowski, 12:09.41 (33); Owen Steenkamp, 14:22.67 (64); and Ethan Creato, 14:40.78 (69). Amber Cuthbert was ninth quickest to the line among the girls, clocking in at 13:31.22, while Margaret Sykes was 44th in 16:54.87.

Vito Aiello finished 25th (17:49.24) and Catherine Cherry 33rd (20:37.11) in the 5K varsity meets. Owen Porterfield took the 37th spot (18:07.62), while Otto Osmers (18:31.31) and Charlie Whalen (18:40.75), were 58th and 63rd respectively.

Daniel Rivard led the jayvee boys, finishing a strong 16th in 19:50.59. Senior Lila Norris (27:58.77) was 92nd in her event, and Eben Peak finished 93rd (22:46.69) and Tom Sykes (22:47.76) 94th in their junior varsity race.

Now, if you aren’t familiar with the sport of cross-country running, those are excellent finishes. In fact, given the quality of the field, runners from many schools muttered about hoping they finished in the top 100 racers as they approached result sheets tacked to a shed.

“Great job today. You won’t find better competition than you saw today,” MVRHS Coach Joe Schroeder told his squad at a postrace team meeting. His squad, numbering 14 boys and five girls, is minuscule in comparison with most teams.

Cross-country is a generally underappreciated sport. From a fan perspective, while it’s thrilling to see a couple of hundred kids lined up at the starting line, they quickly disappear into Manuel E. Correllus State Forest for almost half an hour before emerging to race to the finish line.

The trick to understanding cross-country lies in appreciating its simple, organic nature. Competitors need sneakers, a singlet, and shorts for equipment. But their sport also requires a load of internal equipment: dedication to self-understanding and self-discipline. Cross-country is an inside game that somehow morphs into team chemistry unmatched by few sports.

We encountered two examples of the character of the cross-country runner on Saturday.

Noah Slivaz, a senior at Coyle and Cassidy High School, was aided into a recovery area after completing his varsity race.

The recovery area is actually the visitor’s dugout at the MVRHS baseball field. On Saturday it had been repurposed with six large window fans, an ice tub, and a bucket of ice water. MVRHS trainer Tania Laslovich and athletic director Mark McCarthy quickly brought Mr. Slivaz’s body temp down with ice water, while the runner drank water and ate an ice pop to restore his electrolytes.

With the gift of youth, Mr. Slivaz was up and about within 10 minutes, ready to talk about his race. “Last year, I finished about 60th. This year I did a lot better, maybe top 30. Was it worth it? Sure it was,” he said.

Outside the recovery tent, Aidan McDonough, sophomore harrier at Blackstone Milville Regional High School, sat on a folding chair with a cup of water, left ankle encased in ice, his mom and girlfriend at his side. Mr. McDonough ran into trouble during the race, but declined a ride and finished the course. “He insisted on finishing,” mom Mary Strocky said. Likely, among 850 runners, there were other examples like theirs.

The lure of the Island aside, the exponential growth of this meet is due, in part, to the experience provided by MVRHS athletic director Mark McCarthy, his staff, and booster club volunteers. For example, the full-service recovery area is unique at cross-country meets.

The prospect of traveling to an island several states away to compete might be daunting, but Johanne Joseph, MVRHS transportation director, has the logistics down pat, directing a 10–school bus fleet that picks up almost 700 runners from Steamship Authority docks in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs and from the Fast Ferry dock in Oak Bluffs, then shuttles them back after the meet with time to spare.

Coach Joe Schroeder and the boosters handle race trails and communicate with two dozen schools.

“We are lucky today, not too hot and slightly overcast with a breeze. Heat is the main danger for cross-country events, “ Mr. McCarthy said after postrace ministrations were complete, adding “You need to talk to the boosters. They do the work for this event.”

Ms. Kirk said about 15 volunteers from the cross-country boosters club were working the event as liaisons, at concession stands, and selling commemorative T shirts designed by Carolee Aiello to provide funds for the organization.

Ms. Kirk noted that the ranks of the Vineyard harriers this year include five runners from a youth running club, the MV Hurricanes, begun a few years ago by Ms. Kirk and Reaan Steenkamp. “We started with two kids. Now there are 25 kids involved. Joe Schroeder encouraged and helped us get going,” Ms. Kirk, an Island attorney, said.

Hurricane alumni include her daughter Catherine Cherry, who won the freshman race at this event last year, and Mr. Aiello, a sophomore phenom who finished in the top 25 in the varsity race this year.

Island residents have another chance to observe a big-deal cross-country competition on Saturday, Oct. 28, when MVRHS hosts the Eastern Athletic Conference championships at MVRHS.