Illini track club grows step by step

Three years ago, the Illinois Track Club comprised about a dozen people.

Then Jacob Englander came into the picture. The graduate student in aerospace engineering developed the team into what it is today, an established force of more than 100 runners. Currently, the men’s cross-country club is ranked No. 2 in the nation, and the women are ranked No. 4.

“We want to provide a competitive opportunity for anyone who wants to run in college,” said Englander, the head club cross-country coach and assistant track and field coach. “Maybe there’s people who didn’t know how to run, didn’t know how to compete. I’ve watched people grow, I’ve watched them learn. I watched people develop from finishing in the back of races we’ve been to, to beating Division I teams.”

Englander didn’t do it alone but through a group of core athletes dedicated to transforming the club into its present state.

There’s senior Jess Mulcrone, who joined when she was a freshman, when there were only two women on the team. She wanted to continue running competitively in college, but didn’t find what she wanted on the team. Instead of quitting, she took it upon herself to build the program, Englander said.

“When I came here my freshman year, all I wanted was there to be a cross-country club like there is now.” Mulcrone said. “I was really disappointed when there wasn’t. It’s just so worth all the work because it’s here now.”

Now there are around 30 women on the team, and Mulcrone thinks the numbers will stick, with runners passing on the traditions year after year.

There’s Aaron Silver, a senior and president of the club, who pushes himself and his teammates to be the best every day and to understand how running is something that stays with athletes for life.

He hopes to demonstrate that by winning a race held in Israel to become the best Jewish runner in the world. The idea is a joke with Englander because they’re both Jewish.

“I’ve never been to Israel, and if I keep training it would be fun, being able to say I’m the best Jewish runner in the world,” Silver said. “It’s kind of a funny pursuit, I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

There’s junior Matt Kmet, the throwing coach, who was initially the only thrower on the team and didn’t have anyone to teach him. He watched videos on throwing and picked up endless amounts of reading material with which to coach himself.

“It would get lonely at times,” Kmet said. “I was teaching myself how to throw and in time learned how to teach other people and like it.”

There’s the fundraising chair, junior Zach Boehmke, who is responsible for thinking of creative and unusual fundraisers to help pay for the large team to make it to nationals in North Carolina on Nov. 12. His ideas: a bike wash, bake sales, running and handing out fliers and even running and handing out carnations for a local florist.

“Just picture the image of 60 guys in short shorts and no shirts just giving out carnations to people,” Silver said. “We’re trying to embrace the goofiness and not make it so much about hard-earned fundraising money. We want the athletes to have fun when fundraising, but still being serious at the same time.”

There’s the head track coach, Michael Brothers, a graduate student in chemical biology, who is balancing graduate school and coaching all while trying to establish club track and field on a national level. He has spearheaded the National Club Track and Field Association, which is in its inaugural season.

“Hopefully this expands to hundreds of clubs in the next few years,” Brothers said.

After this year, it’s time for the seniors and Englander to move on. Englander is taking a job with Goddard Space Flight Center, but he’ll never forget the team he was with during graduate school.

“Thanks to the hard work of the coaches, the runners and the people in field events, we finally have the team I always wanted to run on in college,” Englander said.

After graduation, Englander will coach from a distance, and the runners plan to get together about twice a year and race together.

“We’re probably going to be called Illinois Elite,” Silver said. “That’s maybe going to be where Olympic qualifiers come from and good marathon times, half marathon times. That’s an opportunity that very few runners have, they don’t continue to run as part of a team forever.”

Englander will keep the traditions close.

“It probably means I won’t sleep for the rest of my life, but that’s OK,” Englander said. “When you come here, you’re in for life. You get your uniform, you get your alumni uniform, you’re on the mailing list, you’re in.”