|By Frank MacDonald||
"I feel fortunate because every day we go someplace beautiful," says Falcon cross country champion Heather Wallace, pictured running on the SPU home course of Camp Casey.
If only trees could talk. Or, better yet, if they could scream, stomp and put their limbs together for some applause.
Perhaps then Seattle Pacific University's cross country runners would get the recognition deserving of the national power they have become. Yet despite the lack of crowds and commotion around their meets, these women, who are regularly ranked among the top 10 in the nation, and who were conference champions four of the past five years, love nothing better than a Saturday race through the woods.
Few sports allow athletes to relate so freely with nature as cross country. The relative sterility of a brightly lit gymnasium, the freshly mowed grass of a soccer field or the straight-away waterway for a rowing regatta are tame in comparison to the undulating hills, twisting trails and breathtaking sights awaiting a harrier with each workout and competition.
All that, plus the sometimes unpredictable weather, make for a pleasant run -- at least as pleasant as a heart-pumping, leg-jarring, 6,000-meter race against as many as 200 other runners can possibly be.
Distance runners typically compete in cross country during the fall and on the track in the spring. But as longtime SPU coach Doris Heritage points out, running is all that the two sports have in common.
"Cross country is so much more aesthetic," says Heritage, herself a five-time world champion. "People don't mind running a long race, but running around a track is nothing like racing along a beach or forest trail."
Heather Wallace says she likes cross country "tons better." Wallace, a senior, is a two-time Pacific West Conference champion and key figure in Seattle Pacific's past three teams, which finished eighth, ninth and seventh, respectively, at the NCAA Division II Championships. "I feel fortunate because every day we go someplace beautiful," says Wallace.
Heritage, who has run all over the globe, rates Camp Casey, the longtime SPU home course, as the best. West Seattle's Lincoln Park, site of the Pacific West Conference Championships October 30, is another favorite.
Meets may not attract large numbers of spectators, but even a few hundred can create sufficient atmosphere as they form a gauntlet of well-wishers for the runners emerging briefly from the forest. "Fans do matter," Wallace says. "I'll think about the course and where I can expect a lift from the spectators."
Perhaps more than track and field, cross country is a team sport. The score of each meet is determined by the placement of each team's top five finishers. First place is worth one point, for instance, and the lowest score wins.
"It's probably the only team sport where the last finisher on your team is just as important as the first," says Heritage. The 1996 West Regional was a prime example. The top three teams were battling for two berths to the NCAA Championships, and only four points separated them. At first, the Falcons feared they had finished third. But thanks to some late passing by their final two runners, they were elated to hear they had not only qualified, but had won the region for the first time.
"We were in tears when we found out," recalls Wallace. "We went from being so sad to so excited in just a few moments. And the best part was that everybody had made a difference."
It is those subtleties, those nuances that invigorate Wallace each autumn weekend as she and her teammates rise early to reach their race course by mid-morning. As a team, they warm up, tour the course and, just before approaching the start line, huddle in prayer.
On the course, teammates help each other through tough times. "One thing about cross country, once you lose contact with your teammates, you feel sometimes like you're lost at sea, just drifting," says Heritage. "Our people stick together."
As for Wallace, who often runs at the front of the pack, if not the entire field, her allies are often the trees. They can't talk, stomp or clap, however Wallace loves knowing a course well enough to make a sharp cut, almost brushing the bark of the trunk, and accelerating away from her pursuers. Although silent, those old soldiers of the forest remain one of a cross country runner's best friends.