1. The Mighty Mitten State
  2. Bleed Green in blue-collars
  3. The Wolverines
  4. The Long Run
  5. The Michiganders
By Mitch Kastoff

The Michiganders

Michigan State University and University of Michigan: the making of two homegrown dynasties

The Michiganders
Michigan State University and University of Michigan: the making of two homegrown dynasties
The Mighty Mitten State

The only way to tell where Lake Michigan ended and the sky started was by watching the sun slowly disappear over the opaque horizon. Or, maybe it was rising. For a brief moment, I couldn’t remember.

A fog had rolled in early this morning, or late this night, and blanketed the lake in a serene, hazy abyss. It should occur to me to pull over, and like the hundreds of people standing on the dock, snap a few photographs. But I don’t. I’m late.

Before I start, let me say that I’ve never really known anyone from Michigan. I’ve never even set foot in the state before. I only knew what I had seen on the track or in pictures and I thought I had a solid idea of what I was going to find. I went looking for a cherished, cutthroat rivalry, one of decade long bitterness and jubilation. And at face value, that’s what I saw.

Long before 1979, when Michigan women’s cross country joined Michigan State in the Big Ten Conference, the rivalry was well ingrained on both campuses. The schools’ football programs had played for the first time in 1898 for the Paul Bunyan Trophy, and then almost every year since 1910. When women’s cross country was introduced, the two teams already knew who to hate.

Though the feud has deep historical roots, the Michigan-Michigan State cross-country rivalry is a product of the last decade or so. Since Mike McGuire took over as the Michigan head coach 22 years ago, the Wolverines have either won or finished second in the Big Ten 18 times. They've captured nine Big Ten titles too. Before Walt Drenth was named Michigan State head coach 10 years ago, the Spartans had been a mid-level conference program. But since 2004, MSU has finished first or second six times, winning three conference titles, which was as many as the program has amassed in its history before Drenth’s arrival.

In terms of national success, the story is more of the same. Under McGuire’s reign, Michigan has made the NCAA championship as a team 20 times, placing as high as 2nd in 1994. They’ve placed fifth and fourth the last two years. Michigan State, on the other hand, went through a drought in the ‘80s and ‘90s, having only qualified for two championships. But since Drenth’s arrival in 2004, Michigan State has qualified every year, placing as high as fifth in 2007. They were sixth last year.

When I returned home to thaw out after covering the 2013 NCAA Cross Country Championships, I did two things, quite possibly at the same time: (a) sat in a hot shower for an hour and a half and (b) opened my computer and started looking at next year. 

Michigan State, projected 14th heading into nationals, justified their ranking of 6th earlier last fall by finishing right in that spot. They may have graduated two seniors -- their fifth and sixth finishers -- but had two experienced redshirt seniors waiting in the tall, East Lansing grass.

Michigan, on the other hand, was ranked 8th heading into the championship and over-performed for a second year in a row, finishing fourth, and returned, well, everyone.

All seven.

This is a team that finished fifth the year prior, graduated four of their top five, and got better. And that's not even the most astonishing part.

The Spartans top seven have six women who stayed in-state for college, with one lone Ohioan in the bunch. The aforementioned Michigan have all seven of their varsity squad representing their home state.

Michigan State and Michigan are two of, if not the two, best teams in the country. They’re down the road from one another and they’re almost entirely homegrown.

In the lore of sports, homegrown teams are legendary creatures. They’re a myth perpetrated by storytellers — a game of generational telephone gone awry. But these two teams are real.

In the lore of sports, homegrown teams are legendary creatures. They’re a myth perpetrated by storytellers — a game of generational telephone gone awry. But these two teams are real. And by the time both coaching staffs call me back, they’re both about to head north to prepare for the season. So, I packed up my car, and drove the 1,500 plus miles from Austin, TX to Northern Michigan.

It’s here that I hope to find the answer to the most begging of questions: what makes Michiganders so damn good at cross country?

But now, as I bid adieu to the Mitten State, I realize that I found what I went looking for, but that’s not what I took with me as I crossed back over the state line. I discovered something entirely different. I came across something that won't be replicated ever again, like the perfect sunset over Lake Michigan.

Except this time, I stopped to take pictures.

Bleed Green in blue-collars

Preseason camp is a prelude of what’s to come, or, at the more depressing end of the spectrum, what’s not to come. Hopes and dreams of grandeur are still intact as the reality of the fall just barely begins.

I drove up to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which is often referred to as “one of the nation’s best-kept secrets.” It makes sense, obviously, that Michigan State was holding their pre-season camp on the shores of Lake Michigan. Last fall, this team flew so far under the radar that they probably got a call from Lockheed Martin after the season ended.

I met the ladies the next day. An atypically cool summer morning brought in a swiftly roaming fog that crept along the nearby hilly terrain, a taunting 100-meters from the campsite. The team had rolled into camp yesterday afternoon, went for a quick run, and rested for the all-knowing, all-forsaken, first workout of the season. Neatly outlined on a sheet of printer paper was the schedule for the day that read: “4 - 8 x 800m hills w/ 800m jog rest plus 1 x 800 downhill at faster pace.”

The men’s and women’s team stretched and did an assortment of dynamic drills, under some light rain, because when else would the weather start to get bad other than right before a workout? The women’s team then split into one of five groups and made their way to the start.

The lead group didn’t take long to form. Most of the varsity crew from last fall had spent the summer in East Lansing, gearing up for a big fall, or, for some, a last hurrah. Summer miles bring fall smiles, some would say, but these ladies were already chipper in August.

The most recognizable of the group was Leah O’Connor. The redshirt senior from Croswell, Mich. is coming off a dramatic NCAA title in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, where she dropped an eight-second personal best to come away with the championship in 9:36.43. Her winning times ranks number three all-time on the collegiate list.

“I had expectations for myself and I knew that if I devoted myself to running, that good things could happen,” she says. “But they were just ideas. It wasn’t just a set goal like,” she drops her voice (for effect) and swings her arms side to side as she enunciates each word (for hilarity), “`Someday I’m going to be a national champion.’ That was never something I focused on. I just wanted to be better.”

Coming out of high school, O’Connor was certainly not atop every program’s list of recruits. That’s not an insult as much as it’s a compliment to her growth.

The “process” is something O’Connor, and the rest of the team, for that matter, emphasizes.

Coming out of high school, O’Connor was certainly not atop every program’s list of recruits. That’s not an insult as much as it’s a compliment to her growth. Having run 5:04 for the 1,600-meters and 18:35 on a not-so-grueling cross country 5K course on 25 miles per week, O’Connor entered Michigan State with little expectations.

“I just wanted to break five minutes in the mile coming into college,” she joked.

But back then, running was just a fun thing for her; an extracurricular, among the many, that she happened to be pretty good at.

“I did theatre, I did different sports, I was in the environmental club, I was in the yearbook committee, I was class president,” she said. “I wasn’t a crazy runner geek in high school. I grew up pretty normally.”

Then, in the very next sentence, she contradicts herself.

“But now, I’m kind of weird, but in a good way.” She’s now wearing a periwinkle t-shirt with a superimposed goat taking up most of the fabric. The rest of the women’s team soon busts out similar casual wear. 

It’s “Animal Shirt Tuesday.”

After the first interval, I greet O’Connor and the rest of the probably-top-five, who are full of smiles, at the base of the hill. At the turnaround, the ladies sink into a 2-3 formation with redshirt juniors Katie Landwehr and Lindsay Clark leading the charge back up the hill.

Clark and Landwehr

Clark and Landwehr

By the time I sit-down with Landwehr, she’s traded her sports bra and tights for a maroon-and-blue poncho and an old pair of the men’s team shorts.

Landwehr, the Ohioan from Tipp City, has an air of relaxation about her, perhaps attributed to growing up with brothers, or simply because she spent most of her downtime lounging and reading in her hammock.

If you start to struggle, find someone to help. It’s a truth that all the women embrace, even in the most-dire situations.

One common denominator, among the many, that I hear from team is the maxim: If you start to struggle, find someone to help. It’s a truth that all the women embrace, even in the most-dire situations.

Both O’Connor and Landwehr tell the story of the 2013 NCAA Cross Country Championships, where Landwehr was there to track down O’Connor’s beacon for help.

“NCAAs, we were out there and I was running with some teammates and coach said, ‘Get to Leah,’” said Landwehr. “When I got to her, she was a little bit apprehensive about it and I yelled at her, ‘LEAH! Let’s go!’ I was kind of pissed at her for not coming with me initially. And she was kind of whining saying, ‘I’m coming.’ It’s just a lot more fun that way. 

“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh crap, another one of my teammates is passing me,” O’Connor recounts. “It was like, ‘Oh thank God my teammate is here.’ Because she was able to help get me through the last bit.”

Watching Landwehr and Clark lead the second rep, I realize this is the first time I’ve seen either of them. They’re the kind of runners who finish amongst the sea of familiar faces at nationals -- for Landwehr, 51st and for Clark, 71st -- and make you do a double take.

That sort of a reaction isn’t as much of a hyperbole as it is an actual event.

In their second invitational last fall, Michigan State finished second at the Roy Griak Invitational in Minnesota with 72 points. Their 1-through-5 spread had only a difference of 16-seconds.

“That’s a race that will always stick out in our heads,” Clark says. “There were a lot of new people and I remember me, Rachele [Schulist], Katie, and Shelby [Jackson] were all together. If I didn’t have them with me, I don’t know if I would have done as well.

“We’re really into helping each other and being there for each other. We never think about ourselves. Whenever we run into issues, we think about our teammates, and we can pull ourselves out of those issues.”

It wasn’t just the Spartans who noticed what was happening. They heard it, too.

“We were running as a group and I remember going by the crowd and someone saying, ‘Wow, Michigan State.’ It was the most powerful feeling ever,” redshirt sophomore Rachele Schulist said. “We were all together and I’ve never felt that much school pride before.”

The front group barrels back up the hill for a third time. Just as they reach the peak, Schulist moves toward the middle of the weathered trail, before tucking in behind her workout partners. The most inexperienced of the group, Schulist covers ground with the effortless grace of a veteran. She gives the impression that she’s run this hill hundreds of times, but this is only the beginning of her young collegiate career.

Talents like Schulist don’t come around very often. Having run 10:57 for 3,200-meters in high school out in Grand Rapids, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would have bet that she’d finish 50th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and ninth at the NCAA DI Outdoor 5,000-meter Championships two years later.

Like every runner who tries to decipher the undecipherable secret to success, Schulist arrives at the Occam’s Razor of conclusions.

“Sitting in this spot last summer, I didn’t expect anything that happened to happen,” Schulist said, trying to find some logic in her meteoric rise. “I was just putting in the work. Nothing super big happened.”

She then tries to explain, in what seems like a vain attempt, to figure out the catalyst in her training. Like every runner who tries to decipher the undecipherable secret to success, Schulist arrives at the Occam’s Razor of conclusions.

“When you think about it, it’s really simple: You can be as good as you want to be,” she said. “You just have to do the work. It’s not going to be easy all the time, but that’s why having this coach and this team is so powerful.

“Coach Drenth talks about people who decide that they want to be committed at the end of their career, but that’s too late. By the time I get to the end, I want to know that I did everything possible just to see how great of an athlete I can be.”

Coming back up for their fourth rep, Schulist is now at the front, flanked by O’Connor to her right. It’s hard to ignore the obvious resemblance between the two -- tall, blond, powerful -- but they’re also wearing matching outfits: O’Connor’s turquoise top is complemented by Schulist’s headband. They’re both wearing their team issued black tights.

The similarities don’t end there. They both have the same pre-race routines: from their general habits to the food they eat, to their careful race day makeup and pre-race playlists of Lana Del Rey and Lorde.

They were both “normal” in high school and never too focused on running, but now, they find themselves at the front of this pack of probable All-Americans. There are even murmurs of a individual national title, but that's neither here nor there.

O'Connor and Schulist's ascent to the top of the NCAA is impossibly fascinating, not just because of where they started, but because they've managed to keep the same balanced lifestyle that's kept them grounded throughout the years.

Whether they're breaking 5:00 in the mile or winning a national title, their post-race reaction is indistinguishable. You know how Taylor Swift is always surprised when she wins a Grammy? That's O'Connor and Schulist, except more endearing.

As they crest the hill for the penultimate time, Sara Kroll has moved to the front. The group passes me to get some words of encouragement from teammates and advice from coach. It’s then I notice a tattoo on her upper left shoulder. It reads:

Be strong and courageous.

Deuteronomy 31:6

By the time I’ve scribbled the chapter and verse down in my notebook, the ladies are already out of view, preparing to assault the hill one last time.

In her last two appearances at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, Kroll, a redshirt senior from Westland, has led the Spartans to a pair of 16th place finishes with her 51st placing in ‘11 and 53rd finish in ‘12.

But when I ask her about her most cherished memory, or rather, her most important moment in racing, it’s not from either NCAA Championship: it’s from the 2012 Big Ten Championship.

With 4K to go, on her home course nonetheless, Kroll found herself a few meters back from the leader, Iowa’s Mareike Schrulle. Using the course and the crowd to her advantage, Kroll would eventually reel in Schrulle, and with 700-meters to go, put her head down, and make a decisive move to win the individual title.

The irony of choosing to relive this race in times of doubt is that it’s bittersweet: Michigan would end up winning the team title with Michigan State finishing second.

“I play that moment in my mind all the time, breaking the tape,” Kroll said, practically reliving the race before my eyes. “It was just such a surreal moment. I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life.”

But cross country is a cruel sport. The irony of choosing to relive this race in times of doubt is that it’s bittersweet: Michigan would end up winning the team title with Michigan State finishing second.

“I was interviewed after that race and they asked, ‘Would you take the team title over the individual title,’ and I said, ‘Without a doubt, the team title,’” she said, with a small twinge in her voice.

There’s a clear distinction between “the best” and “most-cherished” memories. Kroll chooses to remember her individual running at its highest moment, rightfully so, but also is forced to remember a crushing low. It's a pyrrhic memory, of sorts, because Kroll won the battle, but the Spartans lost the war. The race serves as an important reminder that not every ending is meant for storybooks.

“A swift breeze can extinguish a flame,” my college coach once waxed poetically, “but it can breathe life into it, too.” Michigan State came back to win the team title the next year, but were they motivated by the desire to win or fear of defeat?

Right now, that didn’t matter.

While Kroll is the elder of the front pack, there’s another fifth year who has also patiently bided her time. As a precautionary move, Julia Otwell abstained from the morning’s workout due to an aching knee. She’s fine, otherwise, knowing full well that November is a long way away.

For Otwell, Glen Arbor doesn’t have the allure as it does for me. I’m gawking at the sheer greenness of the endless forests and taking long exposures of the sun setting on the lake’s horizon.

"I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to run in college, but the reason why I stayed and it’s been so fun is because of the team atmosphere. I don’t know if I would have done it if it wasn’t for the team."

But for someone who went to Traverse City Central High School, a mere 38 miles away from the campground, pre-season has been the same for the last nine years and I’m not talking about just scenery.

“My high school team was always about the team,” she said. “Everything was team oriented. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to run in college, but the reason why I stayed and it’s been so fun is because of the team atmosphere. I don’t know if I would have done it if it wasn’t for the team.

“When I was younger, we had so many examples of people who worked really hard and bought into what he wanted to do and had a lot of success. I was never like, ‘I couldn’t do it.’ That’s helped a lot.”

Whenever the ladies talk about their teammates, or hard work, or anything positive for that matter, they ask me if I’ve already talked to Melanie Brender.

The first time I see Brender is later that night at dinner, where she’s dining with a table full of anxious, but attentive freshmen. Her roommates, and closest friends, are sitting a few tables away. But this isn’t some subtle ploy by the coaching staff to make the team more inclusive: it’s genuine. It makes perfect sense that she’s affectionately been nicknamed as the “grandmother” of the team.

“I want to be someone who feel comfortable as a teammate and a teammate is just so many things,” she said. “I want to just be someone that people can say that they’re glad they went on a run with me or they’re glad they talked to me. That’s the most fulfilling thing.”

Brender can empathize to the lonely world of freshman year. When she first joined the cross-country team, camp, along with running with the team, was a struggle.

“I came on as a freshman and I was a nobody,” she said. “There were workouts where I was one of the last people coming in or I was getting pulled out early.”

Having set the far-reaching goal of making varsity after her freshman year, the coaching staff invested in Brender long-term and she returned the favor by progressing beyond, or maybe right at the level, of her wildest dreams.

Building off strong cross-country and indoor seasons, Brender was amped up for the spring. Her 10K training partner Otwell was healthy, and the 5K runners on the team had begun to showcase their fitness. It was easy to feed off the positive energy.

Brender is the physical embodiment and soul of this team: no single girl is alone in this family.

Brender’s season debut came at North Carolina State’s Raleigh Relays 10K. She ran 34:32.10, a near personal best, but landed in the emergency room the next day with a kidney infection. It’s there that she received a phone call and immediately went home. Three days later, her mother, Kristin, passed away after her two-year battle with uterine cancer.

She’s telling me this story with such strength. Here I am, sitting high above Lake Michigan with her, with a lump in my throat, absolutely stunned, not really sure what to do next, other than to shut up and listen.

I ask her if she was, if she is, alright. She cheerfully smiles. I forget how powerful faith, not just in a greater power, but in others, can be.

“My faith, in addition to my support group as my teammates, played a huge role in me to continue to keep running, despite my loss of motivation,” she says. “If I didn’t have my teammates coming to the funeral, and keeping me in the loop, and the wonderful coaching staff, having them made me realize that these are people that care about me outside of running.

Brender (right) leads the second pack.

Brender (right) leads the second pack.

“I don’t just owe it to these girls to train hard, but I owe it to these girls to be there for them when they’re having struggles outside of running.”

I’ve never seen such a young, loving grandmother before. Brender is the physical embodiment and soul of this team: no single girl is alone in this family.

With that, the five ladies stood atop the hill, gathering themselves for their final descent. There was one more 800-meter repeat left, and like a prize at the end of a workout, it was downhill.

I was lugging a decent amount of equipment, as I thought I’d be stationary for most of the morning, but there I was, darting down to the start to try and snap my final few shots. With every step, I grew more anxious that the ladies would blow by me without warning.

Preparing for the worst, I stopped 50-meters before the end of the woods, and with the literal line drawn in the sand within my reach, I waited.

The only people still left on the looping course were the five women, Drenth, and Assistant Coach Lisa Senakiewich. In a morning full of chatter and barked commands, this was the first moment of complete tranquility.

The first sound was the chirping of a nearby, perched bird. The next was my camera’s lens adjusting for the perfect shot. The third was the pitter-patter of Drenth’s 2011 Volvo XC60 as it made its way down the trail, or so I thought.

In the distance, I could see the final few, five abreast, streaking to the finish. Compared to my awkward lumbering, they made it look so easy.

“They’re really moving,” I thought to myself, before they all came into the shot, glanced over to me, and all flashed a quick smile. Maybe someone said something witty, or maybe they just wanted to show how easy they could make it look, but by the time I made it down the hill, there were congratulatory hugs and high fives all-around.

The first workout of the year, technically speaking, was in the books.

The next day was filled with just as much adventure, albeit not during the run.

After such a voluminous workout, the Spartans were scheduled an easy day out on the maze of dirt roads outside the campsite. The five ladies in the front group, plus seven others from the second group, head out for an easy run of nine miles in 65 minutes.

I thought the day would having nothing in particular to note, except for the evening’s team meeting.

That night, Michigan State gathered for their second team gathering of the weekend, which I later titled “All of the questions you were afraid to ask as a freshman and more!”

In the small auditorium connected to the cafeteria, nearly 80 student-athletes from both the men’s and women’s team shuffled to find space. Drenth stood at the top of the stairwell that connected the two rooms and reads off a list of questions submitted anonymously by the freshman class. He’s like a clergyman giving his annual oration to his congregation.

Each question is spoken out loud to his team with an equal amount of humor and seriousness for the naiveté of what’s been submitted.

The second best part of the meeting is that whenever he spouts off some of his timeless wisdom, everyone is attentive. There are no murmurs or light tapping of cell phone keyboards: the entire room is silent.

Although the idioms and advice are some that the team has heard for up to five years, they all treat it like it’s their first time hearing it, like it was the doctrine of some sort.

The best part about the meeting is that Drenth tries to do as little talking as possible. Why speak when others can speak for you?

The best part about the meeting is that Drenth tries to do as little talking as possible. Why speak when others can speak for you?

As often as he can, which is every few questions, Drenth calls upon a more experienced member of the team to explain answers that the head coach could answer, but chooses not to.

“You’ll never get to experience a family like this ever again,” someone chimes in, “so embrace it early. Embrace it while you can.”

“We don’t talk about winning,” says another. “We talk about the process.”

And, after talking to each woman on the team, this is exactly what I took away. The phrases “conference champion” or “NCAA championships” seemed to be trademarked, as no one really went into detail about either postseason race, or mentioned them in casual passing. It was almost as if the topic was taboo.

The silence was deafening, though. All of the women knew what to expect this season, but also knew that it doesn’t have to be said.

For a team so self-effacing, why would they have to say it instead of quietly doing it?

The Wolverines

I couldn’t ask for a better view as I drove to Pellston, Mich. For the entirety of the drive up north, I could see the glistening shores of Lake Michigan from the driver’s side window. Though the weather had been overcast for the duration of the trip, it didn’t matter, because the gray skies matched the restless waters, giving the illusion that if a ship were to set out to sea, there’d be no end in sight.

Coincidentally, the University of Michigan women’s cross country team used to hold their pre-season camp down in Glen Arbor as well. But six years ago, after a 17-year-long annual stay, the team moved up north to the University of Michigan Biological Station. Located on the edge of Douglas Lake, the Wolverines had access to nearly every soft surfaced trail you could ask for.

Like Michigan State’s camp, Michigan’s home for the week was an oasis tucked away inside an oasis.

Like Michigan State’s camp, Michigan’s home for the week was an oasis tucked away inside an oasis. In order to get there, you had to veer about seven miles off the already vacant highway, and travel uphill, for what seemed like an eternity, through a symmetrical forest that gave way to a perfect view of the nearby town.

By the time I pulled into camp, the Wolverines were already preparing for their morning run in a dormitory building nicknamed “The Hooch.”

Everyone laughed when I asked the meaning behind the name, but no one actually knew the answer, except for McGuire.

Some things are best left unsaid.

Everyone is as attentive to their foam rolling and last-minute stretching as they are the morning’s instructions. One group, mainly comprised of freshmen and other underclassmen, will head off for a progression run. The other, more experienced half, have just a recovery day on the docket, which could be divided in two with a second run later today.

The girls welcome a recovery day with open arms. Yesterday’s workout, an eight-mile progression that got down to roughly 6:00 pace for the last few uphill miles, has some of the group just a tiny bit sore. Though they’ll be running the same trail along Burt Lake Road for today’s run, I feel like they could run this path for the rest of their stay and they’d be alright.

Burt Lake Road, which is the road I took after finally getting past the initial uphill, is a secluded, winding, paved road with a fine gravel trail in the place of sidewalks on its side.

They cross the road and, in some sort of brilliant synchronization, strip off their singlets so that they can all run in their also team-issued adidas sports bras.

I hop in the van with the coaching staff and some of the younger ladies and travel about two miles down the road to meet the 12-woman varsity pack. When we stop and unload, the road is shaped like an S-curve, with a shaded dirt road located on the upper part of the lower curve.

The pack emerges from there. All of the girls are wearing some combination of their team issued Michigan jerseys and tights. They cross the road and, in some sort of brilliant synchronization, strip off their singlets so that they can all run in their also team-issued adidas sports bras.

It’s humid and I already regret running 10 miles earlier that morning. “What’s a few more easy miles on the bike,” I thought. But, again, I had brought too much equipment with me, and would soon be deceived by the ease it took to drive down Burt Lake Road. I am not a smart man.

The trail can only accommodate about four ladies shoulder to shoulder, so everyone shuffles around to find some comfy running room.

She was already at the back, so Erin Finn is content to slide into the rear of the group. The diminutive sophomore entered Michigan with a trophy case filled to the brim with prep accolades, but has never rested on her laurels. When someone is so naturally gifted, performances that defy logic aren’t as unimaginable as they are the norm.

In one year at Michigan, Finn set school records in the indoor 5K (15:52.11), outdoor 5K (15:26.08), and outdoor 10K (32:41.65), and was All-American in the fall (30th), indoor (5K), and outdoor (10K) seasons.

But when I ask her to summarize the so-far-crowned jewel of a still-blossoming career, she doesn’t talk about herself. She doesn’t even mention a race; she just talks about her teammates.

“[The team] is hard to describe,” she said. “It’s more of a connection or an energy. I think it’s really cool how we all come from different backgrounds. We all started running differently and are into an assortment of things, but we can still come together as a family and a team.”

One of the most heavily recruited high schoolers of the 2013 class, Finn could have gone to any powerhouse program in the country. Having grown up 45 minutes away from campus in West Bloomfield, why would she travel down the road with a busload of her high school classmates?

“When I first started looking at schools, I initially threw Michigan out the window,” she said. “It’s just Michigan. So many people from my hometown go there.

“But as time went on, and I visited more schools, I kept comparing everything back to Michigan. I could tell in my heart that Michigan set the standard. Why would I go anywhere else?”

After adjusting to life as a college freshman, Finn quickly found herself at the front of Michigan’s pack. However, before she arrived on campus, Michigan had no real, predetermined number one runner, and now, were being led by someone they barely knew.

“Hopefully someday, I can run under 15 minutes too,” she added with a sly grin.

Other teams of less conviction might have faltered when their entire foundation was flipped upside down, by a freshman, nonetheless. Runs that used to be 7:20 pace dropped down to 6:40. Work became that much harder. But over a relatively short period of time, the culture changed, and so did Finn’s aspirations.

“I knew that I had a lot of growing room in the 5K,” she said. “Senior year, at New Balance Nationals, I thought I’d be about 20-seconds faster. But I didn’t expect to run 15:26.08 at Payton Jordan. A year before, I couldn’t do two miles at that pace.”

Had she been born 43 days earlier, Finn would have broken Molly Huddle’s American Junior 5K record of 15:36.95.

Semantics aside, Finn is aware of her potential. For a reference point, she’s read Huddle’s statistical biography on Notre Dame’s website, and even knows what kind of work and preparation lies ahead.

“You dream of running fast times,” she said. “It’s a big honor to even be mentioned in the same sentence as Molly [Huddle].

“Hopefully someday, I can run under 15 minutes too,” she added with a sly grin.

While Finn isn’t entirely comfortable running amongst the pack -- she feels easier running alone, from the front – she’s learning. A few miles into the run, she’s situated herself on the edge of center of the group, sort of dipping her feet in the water before she plugs her nose, closes her eyes, and cannonballs into the sloshing pack.

To her direct left, looking a little bit more at ease, is senior Brook Handler. She takes a quick glance over to Finn before turning back to the winding trail.

“The great thing about Erin is that she has more confidence in me than anyone else ever has. It’s really awesome to workout with her and talk to her before the race because it’s a different feeling,” she said.

From Rochester Hills, Handler is more of a speedy miler than cross-country grinder, but Michigan has built itself on athletes like her. In 2012, Michigan’s top three at the NCAA Cross Country Championships were also a part of the national championship distance medley relay squad that winter.

Michigan has named four captains for the upcoming fall, three of whom are fifth year seniors. Handler, a true senior, has grown tremendously over the last four years. A standout in high school, Handler came into Michigan wide-eyed, setting her expectations to that of a big fish in a small Michigan pond. But after a few disappointing races freshman and sophomore year, she began to lose faith.

“That’s the biggest thing that happens when you get older: I can’t give up when it’s not going perfect. I need to push through it.”

“The biggest difference for me was being able to get in races and compete hard when it’s not going as well as you want it to go,” she said. “When it would be clear that I wouldn’t be able to do as well as I wanted, I would give up.

“That’s the biggest thing that happens when you get older: I can’t give up when it’s not going perfect. I need to push through it.”

Though Michigan has started to move away from the “converted half miler slash All-American cross country stud” mentality, there are still some remnants of that philosophy.

Osika leads some quick post-run strides

Osika leads some quick post-run strides

Also in the back is Waterford’s Shannon Osika. The junior has the stride seen in either professional models pretending to be runners or professional runners pretending to have perfect form. Her forefoot strike is something that milers, which is Osika’s specialty, can’t all emulate. She skips along the trail, showing no signs of exertion, looking as smooth at the end as when she started.

After missing the first half of last fall with a rotation injury, Osika decided not to redshirt, and came back for the postseason. She was Michigan’s third finisher at Big Tens, second at the Great Lakes Regional, and second at Nationals.

“I don’t regret racing at all,” she said.

I’m still searching for the meaning of the Big Ten Championships; the certain je ne sais quoi that gives the conference meet its own aura. In order to truly sympathize, or just understand the emotional roller coaster of a conference championship, it makes sense to have a junior explain it to me.

Her freshman year, Osika was a part of Michigan’s winning squad that defeated Michigan State on their home course. Then, the next year, Michigan scored the same amount of points (55), but swapped places with MSU.

“I really want to have that feeling again, that championship,” she said. “I know how it feels to have it and I know how it feels to not have it. Now, we’re hungry for it. We want the winning feeling again.”

Like many naturally talented runners, Osika’s entire family is invested in the sport. Her older sister ran for Ferris State. Her brother runs at, of all places, Michigan State. Her little sister is going into ninth grade and is already showing promise as a middle-distance runner.

“Of course, the parents ran too,” she said. “They both went to the Olympic Trials. I even remember when they would go to the track. They would set up a little playpen. We would all sit in there and watch them do laps. I’ve been around running my entire life.”

A set of athletic genes, coupled with the fact that Osika danced competitively for 15 years, explains why something like running comes to easy to her.

Every time she kicks her heels back in a quick, looping fashion, I notice her pair of ankle socks. They’re white and turquoise with the word “Defeat” scrawled across them in black lettering. Osika would proudly win Michigan’s highly coveted award for “Best Socks” if not for Taylor Manett.

The other junior on the team is sporting these socks so good that I’m compelled to dedicate this next sentence to them: They depict a lush green meadow with a neatly drawn rainbow in the background and unicorn prancing in the foreground.

Back to Manett the sock fashionista. Though effervescent would be a fair adjective, it would be a disservice to describe the junior from Rockford as anything other than a cross-country specialist.

She’s represented Team USA twice at the twice at the Bupa Great Edinburgh Challenge. Last fall, she finished 57th at NCAAs, one spot behind Osika.

“I keep trying at track,” she says, having run “only” 16:40.72 for 5K, “but cross country comes more naturally. It’s my first love. I always do better in the fall.”

After a rough start to her 2013 cross-country season, Manett kept the faith, and had everything fall into the place toward the end. Resiliency isn’t something you can teach, let alone count on being a major component of any national-class team. It not only takes soul-crushing failures to develop, but cognizance to learn from those lows, too.

“Our team is really good at bouncing back because we all know that we work so hard together everyday in practice,” she says. “We know that if we have one girl injured and won’t be able to be with us, we have someone who can come up and step up and fill that place.”

The pack, now switching leads every so often, is being lead by Taylor Pogue. The fifth year senior from Goodrich, affectionately dubbed the “mother” of the team, was Michigan’s top finisher at two early season meets, before dropping back to the team’s third finisher at the Pre-National Invitational. That’s when things started to go downhill.

Imagine you’re building yourself up for this single race, not just during that season, but for years, and then, “BAM!”, someone comes sprinting up behind you while you’re on the starting line and sucker punches you in the gut.

“Around that time, I picked up a foot injury. It was a stress injury,” she said. “We tried to keep it together for a few weeks and kind of finish out the season, but it just didn’t happen. In the end, we decided it would be better if I stopped.”

The decision was made the morning of the Big Ten Championship. The team caught wind of it on the bus ride over to the course.

Everyone was shocked. Imagine you’re building yourself up for this single race, not just during that season, but for years, and then, “BAM!”, someone comes sprinting up behind you while you’re on the starting line and sucker punches you in the gut. Then the gun goes off. You have no choice but to move forward.

In the darkest of times, Manett goes back to the team’s resiliency.

“When it was clear that Taylor wasn’t running for the rest of the season, we sat everyone down and said, ‘We’re not going to have this piece of our team. We’re going to bounce back and have someone step up and fill that place,’” she said. “We can’t really get hung up not things that happened in the past.”

Pogue, another of the team’s four captains, speaks with incredible candor. The kind of woman where, if you brought her a problem, she’d give you the correct answer, even if it wasn’t the one you sought, but you took it anyway because you trusted her. She’s the moral compass of Michigan.

This observation isn’t coming from me, though I did get that inclination as she spoke of her supportive teammates. It actually came from another captain, Alex Leptich.

A fifth-year senior from Brighton, Leptich is the most candid of anyone I spoke to all weekend. Along with her description of Pogue, it seemed like she had prepared dossiers on everyone on the team. Like some kind of sage, she describes each of her teammates in parables. She also loves to tell embarrassing stories, all of which I scribble down in my notebook, but decide to leave on the cutting room floor for reasons unknown.

She’s kind of like Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting, where the late actor explains how those little imperfections, those little idiosyncrasies, are what makes people special. They’re what makes people grow close.

“Oh she had the goods on me too, she knew all my little peccadilloes,” he said. “People call these things imperfections, but they’re not. Ah, that's the good stuff.”

Almost all of the seven women come from different backgrounds, started running differently, or are into different things, but it’s the bond, not the fact that they’re close, that makes them a family.

“You can have seven runners cross the line and have five scorers to place well, but it’s hard to get all seven, even back to 10, be happy with what they did and be happy about what you did and never forget it for the rest of your life,” Leptich said.

But, like the rest of the team, you have to drive through a few swings and roundabouts on the road to captaincy.

Fifth-year seniors are intriguing in the sense that that they’re all-in. The other younger ladies are just as committed to the task at hand, but there’s something about standing at the base of a cliff, with no mulligans or do-overs in your pocket.

Injured her sophomore and junior year, Leptich has yet to be a part of a Big Ten championship team. Even still, after running 10:03.43 for the 3,000-meter steeplechase early last spring but bombing out of the NCAA Outdoor Championships, she wants nothing more than an All-American honor.

But, like the rest of the team, you have to drive through a few swings and roundabouts on the road to captaincy. Leptich could have been named captain last year solely based on talent, but the desire to be good didn’t match her training. That’s all changed.

“Looking back at last year, and looking at my personality, it’s really exciting to see how much that’s evolved,” she says. “I was a good runner, I had come off good talent, and that’s probably why I’m able to pull races out of my butt. But as for my mentality and my desire to train for cross country, it’s changed a lot from last year. I think that’s what he wants to encourage throughout the entire team and I’m happy to do so.”

Of all the stories Leptich shares with me, the most endearing, and embarrassing, is about her co-captain and one of her closest friends on the team, Megan Weschler. As I mentioned earlier, that story won't be shared here, so instead, here is some background on Weschler.

The walk-on from Wyandotte, who had run 5:16 for the mile as a junior, is the byproduct of determination. Who would have thought an athlete with her high school resume would develop into a 10:11.56 3,000-meter steeplechaser and fourth-place finisher in the Big Ten indoor mile?

Note: McGuire “recruited the heck out of her.”

And, in that same fault, this is what makes Michigan more of a Swiss-made toolbox than a fine-tuned racecar. Come race day, almost every teammate is interchangeable.

At first, she seems a bit more reserved than the bunch, but I later discover that she’s incredibly pragmatic, both in the way she details her last season and teammates’ characteristics. She’s also determined, too, as she’s somehow fitting in time to study for the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) while at camp.

It’s hard to pinpoint Weschler’s role on the team. And, in that same fault, this is what makes Michigan more of a Swiss-made toolbox than a fine-tuned racecar. Come race day, almost every teammate is interchangeable.

“Last season, I would go from [being] our second runner to our fifth runner,” she said. “It’s really special, how we can all switch positions within the team. As long as we’re all giving a solid effort, we end up doing really well.

“Some people fill in the shoes of others who may not have had a great race. That’s what contributes to our success.”

While Weschler started off the season well, and then had her two best races at Big Tens and the Great Lakes Regional, she faltered at Nationals, slipping to the team’s sixth finisher.

“I don’t have any excuses,” she said. “It was not a great end to the season, but I’m back for a fifth year, and hopefully I can redeem myself.”

Beyond her disappointing result, Weschler finds solace in the team’s podium finish. She talks about how Finn rose to the occasion, albeit falling three times, to lead the team to fourth. She talks about the junior duo of Manett and Osika, who went out hard and easy, respectively, but finished with the same time, literally. She talks about how Handler bounced back from a tough Big Ten to end the season on two consecutive high notes.

But the last woman she mentions, the one woman that everyone mentions, is Anna Pasternak.

Which is sort of funny, because by the time I sit down to chat with her, I’ve talked to most everyone else, so I have an idea of her story from NCAAs. But if I had talked to the redshirt junior from Brighton first, I would never have realized the full reverberation of her spectacular run in Terre Haute.

She’s like the cook who could make the world’s best humble pie, and you would never even know. I guess that’s the point.

She’s like the cook who could make the world’s best humble pie, and you would never even know. I guess that’s the point.

"Coach calls last fall at Nationals the race of my life," Pasternak says.

“I remember when I was in scoring position -- I ended up fifth for us -- and Coach yelled something, I don’t even remember what it was, but when it hit me. I thought, ‘Oh my God. I’m actually going to contribute to the team’s score.’

“It hit me. I’m our fifth scorer. My place is going into our score. We were shooting for top four. It has to be my number. It has to go into that.’”

Pasternak finished 105th overall, 78th in the team scoring, and closed the door on Michigan’s fourth-place, 215-point finish, sandwiched between Butler University (200 points) and Georgetown (226 points).

It was the first time she had ever scored points for Michigan.

It’s the kind of moment that defines a person, not just athletically, but for the rest of her life. Everyone wants to be that pinch-hitter called up to the plate in the World Series to hit a game-winning home run, but the call rarely happens. It’s even more exceedingly rare for the home run to actually happen.

But at NCAA Cross Country Nationals, it did happen. Even in times of doubt, it’s something that’ll live with Pasternak forever. 

“If I’m ever losing confidence in myself, I find myself thinking back to Nationals because I know that I can be as good as I was during the race,” she said. “I’ve done it. It’s possible to be at that level again.”

The run ends back up the road at the team van. The ladies are running next week at the Michigan Open, so to get their calves a tiny bit adjusted to the footwear, they all switch into their maize and blue adidas spikes and head out for some quick strides.

Like Michigan State’s easy day, there’s nothing to really note about this run. The fact that it was highlighted by someone finding a baby turtle should be evidence enough that it’s just another recovery run, one of many, for the Wolverines.

After the run, and lunch, comes more running. But it's not what you'd think.

The seniors, who always seem to be scheming, put together an Amazing Race sort of puzzle for the team. It’s the least-serious activity the team will do this week, but it’s perhaps taken the most seriously. For something that has no prize, other than the satisfaction of coming in first, everyone wants to win. 

Later that night, there’s even more scheming. After dinner, the freshmen were led out from the cafeteria down the road to the Hooch, where they were blindfolded and placed in a single-file line. With only their right hand on the person’s shoulder in front of them, they were lead by the seniors into the woods for one of the most ingenious summer camp lessons, ever.

Here, away from the rest of the camp, the veteran members of the team had constructed a rope maze. Tied around various trees, all the freshmen had to do was follow each individual string until they reached the end of the maze. When they completed the task, they could remove their blindfold.

The nefarious caveat was that the maze was a loop. There was no end.

The only other stipulation the freshmen were provided with before they started their Sisyphean task was that if they needed any help, they were to silently indicate they wanted it.

By the end, everyone had asked for help, which was, in a loving way, the moral of the activity: don’t be afraid to ask for help because your team will always be there for you.

When the freshmen realized that the task was impossible, or, like most freshmen, just had a general question, they would raise their hand. Someone would then walk over, remove the blindfold, and have them stand on the side to watch the rest struggle with their own stubbornness.

By the end, everyone had asked for help, which was, in a loving way, the moral of the activity: don’t be afraid to ask for help because your team will always be there for you.

The Long Run

The next day, I meet the ladies at the Hooch, this time for a long run. The large group that ran together yesterday split up into two groups, based on preference for terrain.

Weschler, both Taylors, Handler, and Pasternak are looking to run on some trail, one of many, just north of the campsite. They head out for a 14-miler, starting easy in the 7:30 range, and working their way down to 6:15s on the way back.

I’m convinced to hop in the team van and travel with the other half, Finn, Osika, Leptich, and redshirt junior Devon Hoppe, plus all of the underclassmen. We drive for roughly 15 minutes, but with the rolling hills lined with trees taller than the iconic red barns perched on the fields in front of them, time gets a bit diluted. When we finally arrive at an old cabinet shop, which will be the starting point for the run, I feel like we’ve been driving for an hour.

The rail trail accommodates the entire pack as we head over a bridge and into the unknown. Everyone starts together, running around 7:30 pace, but the front group is feeling rather spry after yesterday’s recovery run, and starts to accelerate ever so slightly.

I’ve seen enough forested trails on this trip to last me a lifetime, but toward the 5-mile mark, we emerge from the tunnel of trees to a road with a perfect view of the lake. So, of course, I have to stop to take some pictures and wait until the ladies make their way back to start.

Osika, Addison, Leptich, Finn, and Hoppe (left to right)

Osika, Addison, Leptich, Finn, and Hoppe (left to right)

The first pair to come into sight is Hoppe and Osika, who are cheerfully both running 10 miles.

Soon enough, Finn and volunteer assistant coach and former Michigan standout Becca Addison, come into view with Leptich right off their backs.

Leptich is doing 12 miles today, which means that Finn, who’s running 14, is either flying right now or has to add on once we get back. The latter proves to be the truth, but based on my quick calculations, the former could have been right as well.

Taking a glance at her Garmin watch every so often, she notes that a run that started at 7:30 pace, got down to 7:00, and has now just dipped below 6:30.

Finn, now running solo, has been progressively clicking off faster miles at almost every interval. Taking a glance at her Garmin watch every so often, she notes that a run that started at 7:30 pace, got down to 7:00, and has now just dipped below 6:30.

For the last two miles, she’s started to run even faster. But before things get out of hand, McGuire tells her to back off just a bit. Finn is happy to abide, but from the casual conversation we had for the last four miles -- her chatting away about the upcoming season, and me, trying to muster half-breathed sentences on the bike -- make you wonder how fast she could have run if the reigns were let loose.

After the long run, I graciously get some lunch with the team, and make my way back down Michigan, all while listening to everyone’s audio interviews in the long car ride.

The Michiganders

Looking back on my five days in Michigan, the parallels between both pre-season camps were uncanny. Perhaps it’s the fact that both teams possess the characteristics of a national-level squad, or maybe it’s because they’re (almost) all from Michigan.

It’s the way all the women describe their team. It’s the first question I ask everyone, and though the responses are similar in some regard, it’s the initial reaction from each woman that was the same.

Everyone smiles, tilts their head slightly to one direction, and does that sort of laugh when you make that one puff out your nose.

“How to describe our team,” they say, rhetorically, before launching into a rapid firing of adjectives.

Family. Hard workers. Sisterhood. Progression. Tight knit. Tough.

It’s what you expect from any team, really, but it’s the way that they go about describing little personal stories or training sessions that makes you wonder if they know each of their teammates better than they know themselves.

It’s what you expect from any team, really, but it’s the way that they go about describing little personal stories or training sessions that makes you wonder if they know each of their teammates better than they know themselves.

It’s the way all the women describe the upcoming season. It’s the second question I ask everyone, and though the responses are similar in some regard, it’s the initial reaction that’s a common denominator.

Everyone smiles, tilts their head slightly to one direction, and does that sort of stare-into-the-distance-because-it’s-a-loaded-question-that-requires-tact-and-succinctness.

“This fall,” they say, rhetorically, before launching into a well-rehearsed answer.

Lindsay Clark gives the best answer and reaction. "We’ve never had anything given to us," she starts before trailing off. She flashes a smile that matches her pearl earrings. She almost gives the answer I want to hear, but that reply would go against her nature. Instead, she gives the correct response.

One meet at a time. Progress. Worrying about ourselves. Being the best we can possibly be.

When I hear about both team’s living situations, I can’t help but laugh. I expected both programs to live together, that’s a natural thing amongst teammates in any sport, but I didn’t think even the alliterative names would be the same.

Michigan State has Marigold Manor, which houses O’Connor, Schulist, and Clark. They enjoy big dinners, and movie nights, and hosting team-bonding activities. Next door is Otwell, redshirt senior Emma Drenth, redshirt sophomore Alexa Rumsey, and Landwehr.

Michigan has McKinley Manor. The tenants are redshirt sophomore Geena McNamara, redshirt sophomore Hailey Middlebrook, Manett, Osika, and a few other former Michigan runners. They enjoy big dinners, and movie nights, and hosting team-bonding activities. Maybe a 10-second walk down the street is a house of Michigan sophomores.

They know about the other team’s house, too.

It’s the way that, when describing the foundation of the team, they spend more time focusing on the team’s hardworking members than the team’s front few.

It’s the way that, when describing the foundation of the team, they spend more time focusing on the team’s hardworking members than the team’s front few.

Everyone from Michigan State mentions Brender and her struggles and triumphs. Everyone from Michigan mentions Pasternak and how years of work culminated in a clutch performance.

It’s the racing philosophies of both squads. Michigan State emphasizes that if you start to struggle, find someone to help. There’s no better way to race than that.

Michigan touches on the interchangeability of the team. They know each girl has everyone’s back at all times. There’s no better way to race than that.

It’s the way that both O’Connor’s & Finn’s running are both encouraged by their faith. If you put their interview transcripts side-by-side, and were asked to guess which one belonged to whom, it’d be impossible to answer correctly.

“I think I realize that running is a gift and being where I am is what He wants me to do,” says O’Connor.

“I try to and be very gracious and thankful for the opportunities that I get,” says Finn.

It's the way that both teams have a motherly figure -- Brender for MSU and Pogue for UM -- who guide their respective team with a similar set of principles.

It’s the way that Michigan State held a team meeting for the freshman to ask anonymous, freshmen questions. It’s a safe environment. Their best teams have taken care of one another.

It’s the way that Michigan had their freshman go through an elaborate parable to realize that their teammates, their sisters, are always there for them. It’s a safe environment. The best teams have taken care of one another.

If they hadn’t been separated into two camps, just down the road from one another, I’d be willing to wager that these women would be the best of friends.

It’s the way that both coaching staffs, despite being incredibly insightful and accommodating, would rather me talk to their team than to them.

Why speak when others can speak for you?

Even after all of this, after spending the large majority of five days at the two camps, I still don’t have an exact answer for why Michiganders are so successful at cross country.

Perhaps it’s the harsh Michigan weather, that calluses the women, until the opportunity for good racing conditions, or better yet, awful racing conditions avails itself. Late November in Terre Haute, the home to the NCAA Cross Country Championships, isn’t for the warm-blooded. Neither are training sessions when it's - 32 degrees on the track.

Maybe it’s that the high school coaches in the state are simply outstanding, providing a constant feeder of superbly talented athletes filled with potential to the two in-state schools.

Maybe it’s just all a coincidence. Maybe it’s just the nature of Michiganders.

I went looking for a cutthroat rivalry, but instead, found two seemingly identical teams, eyeing not just a conference championship, but a podium spot, and perhaps, a national championship.

This fall, Michigan State and Michigan have the in-state talent to win everything. Either team could go all the way. But squads like these are rarities. They’re hard to appreciate. They’re like a setting sun over the lake.

All of these things, of course, can be found in Michigan.

Mitch Kastoff is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Contrary to popular belief, he did not invent the high five. If you enjoyed these ramblings or have any comments, questions, or concerns, feel free to reach him on Twitter or by email.