In cross country, you're taught to run as hard as you can, because unless you're up at the front, you have no idea what position you're in. And in cross country, position means everything.
The scoring is relatively simple. Each team has seven runners, with the top five finishers from each team scoring. 1st place gets one point, 2nd place gets two points, 3rd place gets three points, and so on. The last two runners don't score, but can displace other runners and affect the scoring.
When Oregon senior Maggie Schmaedick saw the finish line at Saturday’s NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Indiana, she had no way of knowing what position she was in. She had no idea that her team was in position for a national championship. And she certainly had no way of knowing that her effort in the final seconds would decide who brought home the title.
When you run a race, you know more or less how hard you can push yourself. But when you see the finish line of a race, or even know you're getting close, all logic goes out the window. You push yourself beyond any limits that might have been there before. Even if you have to crawl on your hands and knees, you'll get to that finish line.
And that is exactly what Schmaedick and Michigan’s Jamie Phelan did. As you can tell in the picture below, they found that next gear that one can only reach in a setting like this:
Both runners are giving everything they have left in the tank. To hell with “proper form,” there is a national championship on the line in this photo. Oregon calls it a “kamikaze sprint.”
For Schmaedick, this was the last collegiate race of her career with the Ducks. Schmaedick was a local product out of Sheldon High School, making an immediate impact on the Oregon cross country team as soon as she stepped onto campus. But this would be her finest hour, giving it her all, because that is what you do in a big race.
It would take 40 minutes to sort out who had won the national championship. And that is because the kick for home between Schmaedick and Phelan was as close as it gets.
When it was all said and done, the Ducks won the national title with 125 points. So why did the race to the finish between Schmaedick and Phelan, who finished 64th and 65th, respectively, matter so much?
Because Michigan finished in second place with 126 points, and Schmaedick crossed the finish line in 20:38.1 a tenth of a second before Phelan, who finished in 20:38.2.
It was the kick to decide a championship. Had Phelan finished ahead of Schmaedick, the Wolverines would have won the national title. Instead, this was the scene inside Oregon’s tent:
Running provides a lot of metaphors that carry over to everyday life, and this is another example of why you never give up, no matter how hard it gets.