By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Take note, high school cross-country runners in the rest of Ontario: they’re back.
Two of the Kingston runners who won Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations championships last fall appear to be well recovered from injuries that kept them from competing in the spring track season or training for much of the summer.
Cameron Linscott of Kingston Collegiate and Branna MacDougall of Regiopolis Notre Dame were both in top form Thursday: MacDougall winning the senior girls title at the Kingston Area Secondary Schools Athletic Associations meet at Lemoine Point, and Linscott finishing second by a whisker to another prodigal champion, KC teammate Kieran L’Abbe, in the senior boys race.
L’Abbe won the OFSAA midget boys gold medal in 2011, but injuries and illness have prevented him from competing much since then.
Alas, one of Kingston’s defending provincial champions won’t be winning a gold medal this year. That’s because 2014 midget girls champ Brogan MacDougall, Branna’s sister, has opted to bypass junior division and compete as a senior this year. She was just 32 one-hundredths of a second off big sister’s pace Thursday, but regardless of how well they do when they get to OFSAA, there’s just one gold medal to go around.
On a sunny but windy day on the conservation area grounds, the MacDougall sisters were about 15 seconds ahead of KC’s Jackie Quesnel, who herself was 10th at OFSAA last year.
Branna, prevented by injury from running for several weeks, said it’s good to get off the elliptical trainer. “I feel amazing. It’s just so nice to be running again.
“I’ve been running full volume for over a month now so I’m feeling good.”
As much as machines can express gratitude, the trainer is probably relieved as well. Something about a blown battery? “I kind of took it to the extreme,” Branna said, grinning, “and got banned from it because I was going a little too crazy on it.”
Linscott says he’s 100 per cent back after missing months of training with a stress fracture in his left femur. “Physically, I’m great,” he said.
“I don’t have quite the base I wanted because I was off during the entire summer. I got back running lightly in August, slowly getting back into it. The last couple of weeks the legs have really started to come back suddenly. Every week there’s been exponential improvement.”
Linscott said the plan for the senior boys race was for him and L’Abbe to do “whatever we needed to do to get the result.”
“We went out pretty easy, slowly picked our way through the pack and then once we got to the big loops, we decided let’s try and spread the field out so we don’t have to sprint to the finish. Close it out a bit faster but just enough to get the result.”
Once the KC teammates had distanced themselves from the pack, they jockeyed for a lead that changed hands several times. L’Abbe won the 7.1-kilometre race in 24 minutes 9.75 seconds, 34 one-hundredths of a second ahead of Linscott. Together they were almost eight seconds ahead of Matt Flood of Bayridge, a relative newcomer to scholastic cross-country racing.
Steve Boyd, who is L’Abbe’s father and coaches the MacDougalls as well, recalls “it was a bit of a big deal,” when the possibility of moving Brogan up a class was first broached.
“They were nervous about it, mainly because Branna was injured, so Brogan had, over the summer, caught up to where Branna was when she got injured, and Branna was really afraid of getting beaten by her little sister.
“Once they (competed in the same race), last week, they found it was kind of fun. Branna’s gotten over the idea that it would be terrible for Brogan to beat her, and realized she’s got one of the top runners in the country living with her. They realize it’s kind of a unique situation, and they’re having a little more fun with it now.”
Branna confirms the observation.
“At the start I wasn’t too in favour of it,” she said. “It was really hard because I was injured, and I could see how much training she was doing in the summer, and how fit she was, so I was a little nervous about that, but now that I’m back into it, I’m glad that I have her to race against.”
Boyd recalled a conversation he had with the girls in his backyard in the summer, an hour-long chat in which he explained exactly why this would benefit both of them. First had to dispell some serious reservations.
“Brogan beat Branna’s PB in the 1,500 in June and was teasing her in the house, and that led to problems,” Boyd said. “I said, ‘You guys have to lay off each other until we get Branna out of here and into university next year.’
“Now there’s a picture on Facebook, with Branna (pretending to choke) Brogan, so they’re having a little more fun with it now than they were at the start.”
At the Queen’s Invitational high school meet a week ago, Boyd said the girls raced each other hard, but that wasn’t the case Thursday. “They’ll race a little harder next week and then at OFSAA it’s every girl for herself,” he said. “ That’s when they’ll really go at it.”
Boyd looks forward to seeing how the situation evolves.
“I think they’ll do better when there are other people around them,” he said. “It will diffuse some of that head-to-head sort of thing, but at the same time, having them together in a lead pack is going to be an advantage. That’s one of the reasons they enjoyed last week, is that they actually were able to push each other away from another girl, who they maybe would have had a little more trouble beating on their own. They hadn’t thought about that dimension—you’ve got somebody who you know really well, you can signal, and control the lead pack a little bit.
“We’re going to see a little bit of Kenyan-style, mid-race communication. It settles you down when you have a training partner right with you.”
That might be a happy byproduct of bumping Brogan into senior competition, but it wasn’t the driving force, Boyd said.
“She has just one girl at her level in Grade 10, and they’ve already had several major set-tos, and I thought she’d grow more as an athlete having a group to run against. Head-to-head competition against one girl all the time is not really going to teach her anything. Whereas, by doing this, she’ll have to learn pack skills, pacing, and she’s going to have to learn how to lose. You’ve got to learn how to lose before you can really learn how to win at the highest levels. As a runner, you’re going to lose a lot more often than you win, so you have to learn how to do that well.
“When you’re the best Grade 10 (cross-country runner) ever in Canada, it’s going to be hard to find a way to lose against kids your own age. You have to look for chances to get a good race.”
If any doubts lingered, Branna said they were chased away by the experience at last week’s invitational. “It was actually really good,” she said. “We pushed each other really hard.”
The advantages of the situation, she said, quickly became apparent.
“It’s going to be a little bit intimidating for people to have two of us in the lead pack, hopefully, at OFSAA. If everything goes well, neither of us is injured and we have a good start, hopefully we can work together in the race. We can talk with each other, and I know exactly how she feels just by listening to her breathing.”
Still, it’s not every day an athlete can discuss race strategy with not only an opponent, but one who has the potential to beat you.
“It’s a little weird,” Branna said. “When I’m in a race, I try to treat her as another competitor, not like she’s my sister, but there are some things, like elbows are thrown a little bit more, because we’re sisters we might cut each other a little bit more … you just can’t help it.
“We’re trying to see each other as just another competitor, but it definitely is a little bit different racing (your sister).”
With individual winners in two other races, and team titles in four of six divisions, KC captured the overall team championship with 64 points. Regi was second at 48 while La Salle, the midget girls champion, was third with 16.
The closest of the other races was the junior girls event, where Danielle Adam edged KC teammate Jane Smallman by two and a half seconds, winning in 18 minutes, 2.81 seconds.
The other individual race winners were Jack Rowlatt of Frontenac in junior boys division, and Miles Brackenbury of KC in midget boys, where the winning margins were 11 and 12 seconds, respectively.
All competitors Thursday are eligible to race in the Eastern Ontario Secondary Schools Athletic Association championship meet next Friday at Fort Henry. They’ll be competing for a spot on the starting line at the OFSAA meet, Nov. 7 at Duntroon, near Collingwood.