There is something to be said for visualization.
Forced to watch his team from the sidelines a year ago, Mark Unger made the trip all the way to Elkton, Maryland just to watch his teammates run loops on the Fair Hill equestrian training grounds. While he recovered from a hamstring avulsion fracture, he never forgot how he felt that day.
"I remember I came here last year and watched when I couldn't run. I was really looking forward to this course because it looked fun when I was watching last year."
This year, Unger won the Track and Trail Invitational 5k race in 15:50.3, which was about sixteen second faster than his former teammate, Rohann Asfaw, ran the year before. He could not quite put his finger on it, but something about his third race of the season felt so much better than the previous weekend at the Interstate Classic in Clear Spring, Maryland.
"It felt really good," said Unger. "I felt a lot smoother than that Interstate. I don't know why. It just felt like a better week of practice and the course today was really good. It was really good conditions and everything."
Unger and his teammate, Garrett Suhr, waited behind Quince Orchard's Chris Thoms for over two miles. The duo said that they wanted to let others set the pace, but in the wooded trail section at about 2.5 miles, they wanted to move into the lead to have a completely clear visual of the footing. Thoms resisted the surge and spurted back up to the front multiple times, but ultimately Unger was too strong when he decided to go. Unger said that when he came out of the woods with less than half a mile remaining, he had created a bigger lead than he realized.
Unger won in 15:50.3, Suhr finished second in 15:53.6, and Thoms faded to fourth in 16:14.9. John Riker of Wootton finished third in 16:06.1.
As for his hamstring injury, Unger said, "I can still feel it when I run, but it's pretty much back to normal. My left leg is tighter than my right leg is just because it's not stretched out fully yet so I can still feel it, but it's definitely working for me right now."
Richard Montgomery won the team battle with five guys in the top eleven.
"I think our one-two-three: they're gonna be where they're gonna be. They are just really running tough and training hard together in practice," said Richard Montgomery head coach Davy Rogers.
"And four - Nick Olano - he put in so much good work over the summer, you're able to see it pay off right now. He had a stress fracture almost a stress reaction in his shin that kept him out the end of cross country and then all of indoor. He came back for outdoor and ran a little bit but we just tried to keep him healthy. He's healthy. He's ready to go."
Rogers also spoke highly of Connor O'Brien who finished eleventh in 17:45.9.
"[O'Brien] was a good sophomore last year. Another one of those kids that he just had grown so much...He's definitely...he's the key to us being a great team versus a very good team: Connor and our six and seven (Ethan Do and Sresth Viswanathan)."
The Wootton High School girls team remembers the feeling of beating Walter Johnson at this meet last year, granted it was a shorthanded WJ team. Wootton head coach Kellie Redmond has her eyes turned towards the end of the season, but certainly wanted to come back and repeat its invitational victory.
Said Redmond, "We had this title last year and wanted to do the same thing again. So it was definitely a great step. We're just trying to, like always, work towards the end of the season so we work on the things now that we need to so that we can grow. The trophies along the way are awesome and great reinforcement.
With nine girls in the top 28, Wootton easily won the meet with 54 points. Jessica Trzeciak of Wootton was the top Montgomery County finisher in the race (fourth in 19:45.3). Redmond took away some things to work on, such as not falling asleep in the middle of the race, but she admitted that she was being nitpicky.
"We are happy as a group for sure," she added.
Weather note: the weather was perfect in 2017. It was about 69 degrees during afternoon race time, sunny with some cloud cover. Any comparisons to 2016 (brutally hot) or 2015 (brutally rainy) should take that into consideration. Meet organizers were insistent that the course is exactly 5k.
XC Course for a Horse, of Course
2016: Track and Trail Recap