The third cross country National Championships that took place on Saturday, November 20th, was the NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer Park. A course familiar to many athletes, this venue in Louisville, Kentucky, saw top DI, DII and DIII teams battle it out earlier in the season at the Live in Lou Classic, Division III pre-nationals race, and the Division I Southeast Regional race.
Considerably cooler than the DI and DII Championships in Florida, the Kentucky course was similarly fast and flat to Tallahassee, boasting some incredibly quick runs. The women’s team title was won by Johns Hopkins, while the men of Pomona-Pitzer defended their 2019 title, the last time the NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships were run.
The women of Division III are not to be underestimated: the top finishers are some of the best runners in the nation regardless of division. The women’s 6000 meter race was won by Kassie Parker (Rosenbaum) of Loras in 20:11, a time that would've won the NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships by 11 seconds and seen her place 56th in the DI championships. Ari Marks of Wellesley finished 17 seconds back in 20:28, just ahead of Danielle Page from Tufts University in 20:30. The Oval caught up with Parker and Page just days removed from their stellar performances.
Standing on the startline, Parker was not satisfied with merely trying to win, and instead had her sights set on breaking the 20-minute mark for the 6000 meter course, a time barrier few DI runners break. While that time eluded her,her finishing time of over 17 seconds ahead of second place makes you wonder what time Parker could have run with more competition pushing her.
With her fresh NCAA title, it seems ironic to think that Parker didn’t start off as a collegiate runner when she first enrolled at the University of Iowa. [Parker later later transferred to Loras.]
KP: My senior year I was debating between Iowa and Loris, DI versus DIII. At the time, I wasn't the best runner, so once I got to Iowa, my plan was to put running behind me. But then for some reason, I had it in my head to keep running and training and I joined the Iowa run club. After running a meet with the club, I realized I had potential. At the same time, I wasn't enjoying the bigger campus feel of DI and I didn't really know what to do training wise. I was already familiar with Loras, and the Coach, Bob, really supported me and made me believe that I could be a better runner.
Despite dominating the race and breaking the NCAA DIII record, Parker was far from satisfied and was immediately analyzing her race with an eye to improve.
KP: I felt like I went out a little too fast. But when I feel other girls sticking with me, I tend to get motivated to push the pace. So that’s what happened and I went out a little too fast. I wish I was able to push it a little bit more during the third mile, to get to that 20 flat goal pace, but I'm still pretty proud of being really close to my PR. I was only one second off!
Breaking 20 is a goal I've been thinking about all season, and I was gonna fight for this race no matter what: I wasn't gonna go down without a fight!
Parker’s pace is hard to keep up with, and, for most of the season, her races have resembled solo time trials after pulling away from the field right from the gun. However, amongst a field of other talented athletes at the NCAA DIII National Cross Country Championships, she found herself in an unfamiliar position through the two mile mark.
KP: I expected to have someone with me for some of the way, and I did up to the two mile mark. Honestly, I was expecting to maybe have someone there through the one mile and then going the rest of the race by myself. But I ended up having maybe five girls with me at the one mile, and then one girl stuck with me through the two mile before I put a surge in there.
Having run times that would put her competitive in Division I, and with plenty of eligibility still remaining, The Oval was curious what plans Parker had for the rest of her time in the NCAA and beyond.
KP: Right now, my roots are pretty secure around Loras, and I wouldn't want to change that. My family, boyfriend and friends are all close by, so I’ll be staying at Loras to do my masters and run for another year and a half.
And then post college, I have given it some thought, but not in too much depth just yet. With another full year, I'm starting to take a look at some distance running clubs in the US like Minnesota Elite.
Unlike Kassie Parker, Danielle Page always intended to run in college, despite being naive to the nuances of the NCAA. Majoring in architecture and environmental science at Tufts University, Page has risen to the top of Division III distance running over the last couple years, but is still looking to level up.
DP: To be honest, I didn't really think much of the divisions coming out of high school. I didn't really know the difference between DI, II and III. I wasn't really paying attention to that. I was getting more interest from DIII schools and I really liked the vibe of the school at Tufts. I wasn't good enough to run DI, but I definitely knew that I wanted to run and I wanted to be in a place where I could make a difference and felt valued.
Finishing 3rd at the 2021 NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships in a time faster than the previous DIII record, Page has not only left her mark at Tufts University, but also in the history books in Division III athletics. Racing against Parker, who had been undefeated within DIII all season, Page knew she needed a solid race plan.
DP: I knew I had to go out hard if I was to stick with Kassie. In a championship race, you can't not go out hard, and that was the fastest I've ever gone out. I haven't run a mile since my sophomore year of high school and in that race my first mile would’ve been a PR! But I also focused on running my own race and being a bit more conservative than some of the other girls because the race isn’t won in the first mile.
Page is an athlete who has clearly benefited from the pandemic, allowing her time to train consistently and develop athletically. With an extra year of eligibility remaining, Page is looking to capitalize on her success and commit to a Division I team before turning her attention towards post-collegiate running.
DP: I'm a senior now, but eligibility-wise I'm a junior. I'm not going to come back for a fifth year at Tufts and I’m trying to go DI for my fifth year. I am wanting to go to a program that's going to push me more than my current program is pushing me. So I’m looking at some DI schools. They’re not winning NCAAs or anything because I'm not there yet, but they are in the top 25 in the country.
And then I would love to run post college. Recently, I was going on a training run with my teammate before nationals, and she was nervous and was like “man, I'm so happy we’re not professional runners, and that like my income doesn't depend on this race.” And I’m thinking: are you kidding me? I wish this was my job!
But it's more of a point of curiosity, I want to see how fast I can get and so I'm going to pursue running post-college. And if that gets me to a point where I can make it more than a hobby, then I would love that, but if it doesn't, I will still keep running.
Get to know Kassie Parker and Danielle Page more!
Only a couple years back, both Parker and Page held similar PRs in the mid-18s for 5,000m and high 10:40s for 3,000m. Later that same year, they finished 5th and 6th respectively at the NCAA D3 Cross Country Championships. Needless to say, they have both clearly shown progression. Their different stories reveal how crucial it is to trust your own path.
KP: I would attribute it to not doing very much in high school at all, and then to gradually being able to reach another level of training each year throughout college. Each time I saw my times coming down, it motivated me to train even more.
DP: The fall of my freshman year of high school I had a stress fracture, and so I didn't get to train at all that semester. And then I was dealing with a lot of GI issues in the spring, and had a couple of trips to hospital to try to figure out what was going on. I really wasn’t able to put training together consistently, even through senior year of high school, until I finally figured out what was going on with my health situation in the summer.
Starting the summer of 2019, I was really able to finally just put together like a solid summer of training. In high school, I'd been known to overtrain a lot, and I wasn't doing that. I was training just enough and resting enough too… I felt like I was in control of my training and able to be really consistent. I think that's honestly what made the biggest difference.
Largely unbeaten throughout the regular cross country season, having finished 2nd and 3rd in the 10,000m at the 2021 NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Parker and Page were familiar names. Going into the cross country championships, both had their eyes set firmly on the podium.
KP: My expectations were to win, because, obviously, going to a national championship, anything can happen. But the plan was to go out at a sub 20 pace, which I did. The first two miles were on pace, but my third mile was the slowest. I'm not sure if that was because we're not too hard, or maybe because of the couple of hills.
I knew people were going to be with me, that was a given, it was just going to be like how long they could stick with me. Something I've been doing race wise, is just getting out early from the gun, instead of holding myself back with second place, and then trying to pass them near the end.
I just felt confident from all the training this season, our time trials and our workouts, that running sub 20 was going to be possible. I actually made a goal my first year when I came into Loras, to run a sub 20 by the time I graduated. At the time, I thought it might be out of my reach, but if I kept working at it, I thought maybe I’ll get there. I still have one more cross country season to get that goal!
DP: This was my first time coming to a big race having run it before, literally the exact same course in the exact same race at NCAA D3 Nationals in 2019. I was trying not to get caught in a comparison between two years ago: a lot has happened in the two years since. I was mainly focused on getting PR, I really wanted to set a PR, and I felt like I'd been just coasting most of the season and hadn’t really been running to my full potential. My main goal that day was to just pour it all out there, and trust that would get me where I wanted to be or close to where I wanted to be place wise. I wanted to finish top three for sure, and a possibly unreasonable goal was to win. But I knew Kassie was just on another level this year, and with place goals, it's hard because you can never control what anyone else is going to do: you can only control what you're going to do.
I was so surprised with how fast everyone ran. If you had told me before the race that I was going to run 20:30 in a Division III cross country meet and not win the race, I would have thought you were out of your mind! It was a very fast day, and I was just really happy to be part of it!
What goals do you have for the upcoming track season?
KP: I'm focusing more on outdoors and trying not to worry about indoors too much. In the 5000, I definitely want to run in the low 16 minutes, and then be in the 33 minutes for the 10000 and possibly go for the DIII record: I’ve had my eye on that for a couple years!
DP: I'm going after our indoor school record in the 5000. Right now it’s 16:31 and I’m trying to run in the 16:20s. I feel like is not it's not unreasonable at this point because I'm a runner and I'm a dreamer too.
There has been an incredible rise in the standard of performance amongst the top DIII women, running times that would have seen them finish near the front of the DII cross country championships and competitive within DI Parker shared her thoughts on the trajectory of D3:
KP: A lot of the girls who were All-Americans, are freshmen, sophomores, and juniors with two more years of eligibility because of COVID. So seeing that the times they’re running are way better than mine when I was a freshman and sophomore in college, I can't wait to see how far D3 will go!
The NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships are memorable for their spectacular and wild team support and camaraderie. The Oval asked Parker and Page about their cheer squads, and it appears even Covid couldn’t keep the supporters away.
KP: Our guys made it as a team, so they were there cheering me on. And then we actually had over 30 people from the women and men’s cross country teams drive down and cheer us on. I also remember my assistant coach, who helps pace me in workouts and trains with me, running everywhere around the course! He was cheering in one corner, and then the next thing I know he was over there on a different part. It was awesome to have all my teammates and coaches there, especially at the finish.
DP: So we have a tradition every year where everyone who's not racing, barring medical and familial obligations, drives to wherever nationals is. We had 35 people get in vans and drive straight down from Boston to Louisville the day before. On race day, they all stripped down to sports bras and spandex and painted themselves blue and were screaming for two hours during the men’s and women’s race, then they jumped in the vans and drove right back!
How did you celebrate your podium finish?
KP: On the trip home, we stopped at a really nice Steakhouse and had a good dinner. Our team has a dry season through cross country, so, of course, I got a drink with dinner: a Tito’s lemonade!
Then we got home kind of late, but we still went out downtown to the bars. A lot of people were buying me shots because everyone knew who I was and what I’d achieved. I remember walking downtown and this guy was like: “Hey, didn’t you just win cross country nationals or something? And you're already back? Wow, that's awesome!”
I feel like D3 has a really good community. Just being at a small school, you know everyone from classes and all the other athletes, who congratulated me too.
DP: After the race that night, my team and I actually put on non athletic clothes! We went into downtown Louisville to dinner at this Ethiopian restaurant, which was really fun. Ethiopian food is cool! They gave you a big platter with a crepe covering the whole thing, and then put different piles of food in the middle of the crepe and you all eat family style, tearing pieces off.
Coming back to campus I found that my result was actually celebrated more when I came 6th, which is kind of funny. I think it's because then I was just starting to get good and it was more surprising; once people expect you to be good, and you are good, then you're just meeting expectations, you're not exceeding expectations and so people don't care as much.
Anyway, I like that running is more about knowing that you're doing it for yourself: you're not doing it for other people.
A favorite with the coaches, Olive Garden had the privilege of feeding yet more podium athletes pre-race! (well, almost!)
KP: My pre race meal was lasagna from the Old Spaghetti Factory in Louisville. But, the night before that, we actually went to Olive Garden. I love Olive Garden, and I’ll have either spaghetti and meatballs or lasagna.
DP: We had dinner in the hotel room and a bunch of people ordered from Olive Garden. I don't really like Olive Garden, so I just microwaved a baked potato and had a can of soup. Nothing super interesting.
Do you have any pre race superstitions or “lucky” things you do?
KP: Oh my gosh, um, my undergarments! I have to wear the same underwear and sports bra for every race. I don't wear them for workouts or any other day, specifically for race day. With my sports bra, I actually don't wash it all season! It's kind of gross, but I only wear it on race days. Don’t worry, my underwear gets washed every time I race.
DP: I wear the same socks and the same sports bra every race, every race since freshman year of college! It's the same kind of socks but I got a new pair, and the same with my sports bra. They get cleaned after each race too: I'm not one of those people who like never washes them!
Yes, not only do Parker and Page have very similar college running progressions, going stride-for-stride on many occasions, they both share sports bra superstitions! With their lucky undergarments clean and fresh, The Oval can’t wait to see what 2022 brings for them as they both threaten the DIII record book.
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