Illinois men’s cross-country makes it eight straight at Illini Challenge

The last time the Illinois men’s cross-country team failed to place first in the Illini Challenge, gas prices were hovering around $2 per gallon.

That streak was extended Friday, as the Illini won the event for the eighth straight season behind a strong performance by redshirt freshman Tommy King. He placed second overall in the race, which was best for the Illini. They fielded five of the top-10 finishers.

“I thought we ran very composed early on in the race, the guys were pretty nervous for their first race in an Illinois jersey,” head coach Jake Stewart said.

The team raced with a roster consisting of only one runner, sophomore Mark Donohue, who had competed for the Illini in the past.

“They ran with good composure and didn’t let anything distract them from the task at hand,” Stewart added.

While this competition has been referred to in the past as a “glorified workout” for the Illini, they felt it served as a quality team effort as well as a great way to kick off their season.

“I don’t think pointing out one guy for what he did would do justice for the fact that everybody showed up on Friday and ran well in the middle of a very hard training cycle,” Stewart said.

King felt the same way and suggested that running near his teammates for the whole race allowed him to push himself to achieve his second-place finish.

Still, King was very pleased with how he performed individually.

“It feels great, it’s something I’ve been motivating myself all summer to sort of be one of the guys that helps lead the team,” King said. “It was really fulfilling to be the guy who took the lead and took charge of the race.”

High levels of humidity tested the team and its ability to adjust to its surroundings. To compensate, Stewart’s runners ran more controlled during the first one-third of the race to avoid exhaustion due to the humidity.

Exhaustion is always a big factor in the sport of cross-country, but it is only going to grow as the Illini look to get into their top racing shape. The Illini Challenge was only a 6K race — their shortest of the season.

“It gives the guys a little bit of experience going above the 5K distance, which is the distance they run in high school,” Stewart said, “But we have to get ourselves ready to run a really good 8K at the end of October and a really good 10K at the beginning of November.”

Regular-season races are usually 8K, while postseason races are 10K.

The Illini said this was a nice introduction and they will look to build on it when they compete on Sept. 14 in the Illinois Intercollegiate in Normal, Ill.

“It’ll give us a chance to run the 8K distance in a meet that — I hate to say low-pressure situation — but one we’re certainly not circling our calendar and really getting ready for,” Stewart said.

_Charlie can be reached at [email protected]_