The Chetek-Weyerhaeuser 2019 cross-country season ended this past Saturday, Nov. 2, at the Ridges Golf Course in Wisconsin Rapids, host of the WIAA Cross Country State Championships. And like McDonnell Central cross-country coach Marty Bushland likes to quip, “It’s the best place for your season to end, even if you come in dead last.” As races go, there is nothing quite like the competition or the atmosphere as the state’s best toe the line to determine who on that day is the fastest of the swift.

Last year, Lana Blumer as a freshman literally seemed to coast through the season, winning most races handily as well as becoming Heart O’North and Boyceville sectional champion along the way. However, despite being the fastest girl in C-W’s history and the first girl to qualify for state in a decade, she was not happy with her performance there. She set a personal record time of 19:37 and finished 12th overall, but felt she lost the mental game and frankly was not used to seeing anything in front of her but the “rabbit.” She was determined that this year, things would go differently.

2019 has been something of a plateau season for her and a nagging hip issue has hampered her overall progress. Still she finished first, second or third all season long and came on at the end of the season to win the last few races and repeat as conference champ, as well as qualify again to the state race.

Junior Natalie Poppe “joined” cross-country last season after some gentle arm-twisting by her parents and very quickly became our solid No. 2 runner. She became stronger over the course of the season and missed qualifying for the state race by one spot last year—literally, by one second. Her experience in cross, her budding friendship with Lana and missing qualifying by that single second lit a fire in her. 

This past summer, she recorded nearly 250 running and biking miles (with training partner Lana who racked up nearly 350 running/biking/swimming miles of her own) and her efforts were rewarded with a breakout season, where she emerged as a serious contender for the conference champion in her own right, edging out Blumer in one race and usually finishing a half-step behind her in the others. At season’s end, she was the HON runner-up, the fourth-place finisher at the Boyceville sectional and readying herself to run in the Division 3 championship race.

The weather seemed to change every 15 minutes or so. First it was overcast with a slight breeze, then the sun showed its face momentarily, then the wind picked up, the clouds returned and halfway through the Division 3 race, the snow began swirling crazily in the air.

My main goal for both of these girls was to run their first mile smartly. Every year at the state meet, that first mile tends to be real fast on account of all the adrenaline and electricity in the air, and if you’re not careful, you’ll get caught running someone else’s race and not your own. So, I wanted them to run somewhere between, a 6:10–6:15 pace that first mile. After that, they would settle in and they would figure out the rest of the race.

As it turned out, Lana ran her first mile in 6:08 and Natalie in 6:13. At that point, Lana was running 19th and Natalie 27th but both looked good and fresh. Even though their second mile proved to be a bit slower (6:34 and 6:44, respectively), they had moved up considerably, and at the beginning of the final 1.1 miles, Lana was running with a small pack of girls in ninth place and Natalie about 10 seconds behind in 15th place.

The state course ends uphill as the last 300 meters is a steady incline to the finish line. Hundreds and hundreds of spectators gather along either side cheering their favorites on, so all you hear is a cacophony of shouting as runners emerge around a bend for the final push to the top. The wind was blowing directly into their faces as the snow swirled around them.

I put myself at the bottom of the hill, hoping that I could shout to either of our girls their place before their ascent to the top. But even here, the shouting was tremendously loud. As Lana came around the turn, she was running with that same pack of girls in 11th place. Right ahead of her was the reigning champ, Marissa Ellenbecker, from Edgar, as well as Hannah Constable, from Johnson Creek. But in that last 300 meters, Lana picked off three runners catching Ellenbecker and then Constable right before she entered the chute in eighth place in a time of 19:45.9.

Meanwhile Natalie got caught in a no-man’s-land, of sorts, with girls ahead of her and behind. But as she told me afterward, she could hear a small pack of girls coming up behind and “There was no way I was going to let them pass me.” She kept 15th place all the way from the two-mile mark on, finishing in 20:17.5.

The chute exits into a corral, of sorts, where all the athletes, coaches, teammates, parents and family members gather trying to find each other. But after exiting the corral, the girls made a beeline to the Marines’ booth. The Marines had set up a chin-up bar there, and five minutes after, they had finished their race, we found our girls doing pull-ups. Yup, that is what we call par for the course.

Lana Blumer is the first female C-W state medalist in school history, and the first girl from our town to medal at the state race since Megan Erspamer and Shelby Berning finished fifth and sixth in 2007. It is quite an honor to make that parade walk in Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln High School’s gym following the completion of the races before all the fans and WIAA officers. The last time a C-W athlete made the podium in Rapids was in 2014 when Brandon Books finished fourth in the boys’ race. It was a huge honor to make that walk yet again.

All in all, it was a very successful season. The girls won the Spooner Invitational, had the 2019 HON female champion and runner-up; the boys had the HON runner-up and two of our own ran in the state race and one medaled. We made lots of good memories, and as usual, had lots of laughs along the way as well. It makes me feel truly blessed to coach these ‘Dogs. We should all be so proud of how they represent us, both on and off the course.

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