Standing at the ready, the University of Memphis men’s and women’s cross-country teams calmly awaited the starting gun to go off. Anxiety built as they watched their foggy breath float in front of themselves. An entire season of preparation led up to the start of the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Championships that were held at Shelby Farms Park Friday morning. The UofM gets the opportunity of hosting conference once every thirteen years; this year was its first.
Kevin Robinson is the head coach of the cross country and track and field teams at the UofM. Robinson believed that hosting the meet was beneficial for the teams, especially because of how unique the opportunity was.
“It’s great to be able to compete in front of friends, family, and teammates.” Robinson said, “Anytime there is a conference competition, it is going to be an intense moment.”
The intensity of the moment was not an afterthought for sophomore Zachary Wyatt. Keeping composure and a consistent routine is important according to Wyatt.
“I wake up three hours before the race, eat a nice breakfast, I run five miles the day before, just try to stay relaxed as well.” Wyatt said, “I find that if I have a lot of nervous energy before a race that I don’t perform as well.”
The team found out that conference would be hosted at Shelby Farms last spring. From then on, they realized a lot of their training would take place there. Sophomore Payton Gleason is one of the team captains on the men’s team. Spending lots of time training on the course helped prepare the team for many different conditions on the course Gleason said.
“We knew the course well,” Gleason said, “I think it calmed me down a lot and made me feel more at home.”
The AAC had many competitive runners in both races. The men’s race was won by Aaron Bienefeld with a time of 23:43 for eight kilometers, which is just under five miles. Bienefeld’s time was the fastest time ever recorded on that course.
The team battle was won by The University of Tulsa, they scored a record low of 20 points and had a spread of only one second between their first runner’s finish and their fifth runner’s. Tulsa’s men’s team is currently ranked sixth in the nation. The Tulsa women’s team also won the team battle in their respective race. Individually, Winny Koskei won the women’s race in 20:14 for six kilometers, which is 3.7 miles.
Competition like this did not scare the Tigers going into the race. Robinson reminded the team that they have to run their own race.
“It really comes down to the person who can handle the moment the best in a championship.” Robinson said, “That is the person who is going to be successful.”
The UofM men’s team placed seventh out of ten teams. Gleason was the only runner to earn All-Conference honors, placing ninth with a time of 24:28. Although the men’s team consists of only freshmen and sophomores, Wyatt believed the performance was not quite up to par.
“There were a few unfortunate events leading up to this. Jake was injured and Tate was feeling sick.” Wyatt said, “I think a few of us under-performed today, but a couple of us stepped it up.”
The talent is there, as the team showed promise early in the season--even earning a top ten regional ranking. Gleason stressed the impact that age had on the team Friday.
“We are young, and I think we performed as a young team today.” Gleason said, “I think we have a contention to win it all when we are juniors and seniors.”
Although the idea of having a home field advantage was beneficial, Wyatt believes that it ultimately contributed to the under-performance by the Tigers.
“We all felt confident because we have been training on it all season; but, I feel like we might have gotten overconfident.” Wyatt said, “I think it also put extra pressure on us to perform because this is our backyard.”
The UofM women placed seventh out of twelve teams Friday morning. Led by freshman Brook Mussche in 29th place, they are also a young team. Gabrielle Bydas is a senior team captain. She believed that racing in Memphis held a large advantage.
“We’ve done countless workouts on this course,” Byndas said, “We know it backwards, forwards, like the back of our hand, we could run it with our eyes closed, we know every foot hole, where to step, where to push it, and where to lean--it’s our home.”
Although the race did not go according to plan for the women either, Byndas thinks that the season was a great season as a whole.
“I wouldn’t say it was our best, but everyone has performed all season, especially compared to last year, and we all belonged on that course today,” Byndas said, “Individually, I’m trying to focus more on the season as a whole than just this race and focus on how lucky I was to toe the line with this group of girls.”
With a young, developing team, the men and women are both looking ahead to developing and learning from races like these.
“I only see us going up from here, this is going to be our worst season compared to the next three years.” Wyatt said, “It was a worse finish at conference than I expected, but I’m extremely optimistic about the future as we continue to develop and become more consistent.”