Going the Distance
The women’s cross country team advances to nationals for the first time in school history.
The women from Lewis & Clark huddled near the starting line before the NCAA Division III cross country championships, a broad expanse of grass and six kilometers of undulating terrain waiting for them.
In the moments before the crack of the starter’s pistol, the seven Pioneers on the starting line took stock of where they stood.
“We were talking about how this is where we belong,” junior Melissa Newton-Mora says.
They gathered for their traditional pre-race chant, in Swahili: “Sote, ndoto, sote, kufanya kazi, sote, huamini, ili, kusitawi.” Translation: We all dream, all work, all believe, in order to succeed.
On November 17, the women’s cross country program reached a new high with its first team appearance at the D3 meet. The Pioneers went into the championships ranked 24th and finished 20th out of 32 teams in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Cross country requires individual effort but is very much a team sport. Coach Keith Woodard uses the imagery of an “imaginary rope” that ties the team together when it races.
Senior Emily Thomas made her third consecutive trip to the national meet, but this one was completely different.
“It was so much better this time to have my team with me,” says Thomas, who was 46th overall. “The routine of racing feels more normal. It’s so much easier to race hard when you know you’re running for your team.”
Thomas and fellow seniors Ilana Livstrom and Heather Spurling have helped transform the cross country program at Lewis & Clark, but the culture change started in the fall of 2007, when coach Keith Woodard was elevated to head coach.
There was a casualness to training back then. Woodard initiated a philosophical shift, asking for a stronger commitment to year-round running.
Corinne Innes, a first-year student in the fall of 2008, witnessed those changes firsthand.
“My freshman year a few of us were motivated and competitive and enjoyed running, and some of the others were wonderful women but treated running more casually,” Innes, a May 2012 graduate, says. “I remember my sophomore or junior year five or six of us finishing a (four) mile repeat workout together … when I thought, ‘This is really going places.’ ”
By then, Thomas was in the mix. And Livstrom had made the switch to running full time after starting out as a soccer player.
Thomas and Livstrom each won individual Northwest Conference titles and also became close friends, setting a high standard for the rest of the women in the program.
“At first, the underclassmen as they came in looked at Emily, Ilana, and Heather as untouchable,” Woodard says. “They challenged the others to step up, with positive support and encouragement.”
This fall, the Pioneers won their third consecutive conference championship before qualifying for nationals with a second-place finish at the West Regional meet in Salem.
In Terre Haute, Thomas was joined by Newton-Mora, Spurling, Kaitlyn Throgmorton, Susan Heinselman, Katie Keith, and Emily Fagan. Livstrom, slowed by an injury, was the team’s alternate. There was a familiar face to greet them. Innes, who lives in Bloomington, Indiana, met the team and ran on the championship course with her former teammates the day before the race. When it was over, the Pioneers joined her in Bloomington for dinner, hot-tubbing, and a sleepover.
The team came back home planning a return trip in 2013.
“This was a historic season for us,” Woodard says. “We made that next step from the previous two years of winning conference. Now that we’ve made it to nationals, we don’t want to rest on that.”
—by Doug Binder