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The NCAA cross country championships: where 500 or so of the nation’s best collegiate distance runners gather to compete on a grassy, rain-soaked course in Indiana, and aggressively vie for the best position possible from the gun. What could possibly go wrong?
After the 2016 race was over on November 19 in Terre Haute, two photos of the day caught most of the attention—for their depiction of the drama and for the gore factor, too. The first was of Elijah Moskowitz of North Carolina State University, pushing toward the finish line with blood gushing from his face, down his chest, and onto his legs. The other was of the University of Oregon’s Maggie Schmaedick edging out a University of Michigan athlete by one-tenth of a second—enough to give her team a national title by one point.
The shots told two truths: You can break your face while running. And despite the fabled loneliness of the long distance runner, it takes a whole team to win a championship.
Here are the stories behind those shots:
Moskowitz, a sophomore, was feeling good about his position in the lead pack of about 70 men. He had spent the season hoping that his fitness would come around at the right time. The fact that he was around 50thplace was an indication that his day had come, he said.
Then somewhere between 2K and 3K of the 10K race, a runner tripped in front of him. He tried to hurdle the man down, but ended up falling himself.
“I basically face-planted on the ground, then the whole pack was trying to jump over me,” Moskowitz said. “Someone’s foot just caught my face and kicked me pretty hard in the face. Then I just curled up in a ball and waited for everybody to jump over me.”
After most of the field passed him, Moskowitz jumped back up and decided to press on even though his chance for the race he wanted had slipped away—and blood was gushing from his nose.
“I thought that if I passed out somebody would take care of me, so I might as well just do as much as I can,” he said. “I kept having to spit [blood] out and I vaguely remember running by people who were saying, ‘Oh my god!’ I thought, ‘Is it that bad?’”
Moskowitz didn’t notice the pain until late in the race, when the typical burn of the hard effort was met with a possible concussion and maybe a broken nose. (He’s monitoring symptoms and having a CT scan to figure out if any long-term damage was done to his bones.) Upon finishing 243rd, the medical staff escorted him off the finish line to evaluate his condition.
“I’m taking a week or two off, but I’m really excited to get back,” he said. “Even though it turned out some cool pictures, it wasn’t really what I wanted…I hope next time I get interviewed it’s because I had a great race instead of because I got kicked in the face.”
Pressing for a point
The University of Oregon women’s team wasn’t included in many prerace predictions for a national championship, but the team knew they might have a shot at the podium if all seven runners had their best day. Schmaedick’s instruction from coach Maurica Powell was to finish in the top 80 places.
As Schmaedick rounded the bend to the homestretch, another coach screamed she needed to pass two people in that final 500 meters or so. That’s doable, she thought, with no knowledge of what place she was in, what teams were in the hunt for top honors, or who was around her.
As it turns out, Jaimie Phelan of the University of Michigan was also battling for the best finish possible. The two women went stride for stride right into the line. The clock showed Schmaedick taking 64th place in 20:38.1 and Phelan in 65th in 20:38.2. It would be more than 40 minutes before the women knew how significant the individual results were for the team standings.
“Coming down that last straightaway, each body counts and that was definitely true for this race,” she said. “In that moment I didn’t know she was from Michigan and I didn’t know that the points were as close as they were. In that moment I was doing everything I could just to finish as hard as possible…I didn’t find out until later that my final push mattered as much as it did.”
Oregon won the national title with 125 points. Michigan was runnerup with 126 points.
Schmaedick is quick to point out that although her finish was possibly the most dramatic, it wouldn’t have counted as much had her other scoring teammates had faltered. Katie Rainsberger, for example, moved from seventh to fourth place in the last part of the 6K race.
“The reason that my finish mattered was because all my teammates were passing people in the last straightaway. Every single person was fighting for spots—it wasn’t all me,” she said. “There were really so many other things that had to fall into the place.”
It wasn’t until after the awards were given that they started analyzing the results—and looking at the photos. Schmaedick’s most memorable moment remains in the finishing chute when she rejoined her teammates and learned that they were all pleased with their performances.
“I was bawling like a baby. Everybody was really emotional,” she said. “At that moment we didn’t know the score and we didn’t know what place we got or anything—but we were so happy because we knew that we had run really well and the outcome didn’t matter at that point.”