Sam Lenze was not fazed by any of it.
Not the road course. Not the snow or the ice patches along the race route. And certainly not by the Jeep that he and his teammates encountered as they neared the finish line.
The IUP senior was just thrilled to race again after the COVID-19 pandemic forced a shutdown of the fall season and move to spring.
Competing in their first team event since Nov. 9, 2019, the IUP cross country teams hosted the Welcome Back Mini-Invitational on Sunday at Blue Spruce Park. With only four schools participating and 53 total runners — men’s and women’s — it was a relatively small affair, but it felt bigger to those partaking in the meet.
“It was just a crazy week leading up to the race,” IUP coach Joey Zins said. “You’re just wondering ‘Can we actually get to the starting line? Can we get to 1 o’clock on Sunday and have the race happen?’ We were supposed to race on Saturday. We had to push it back a day due to weather, and we were supposed to have two other teams come here.
“When the race started, I was like, ‘Oh my God, we actually got here. We are actually having a race for the athletes.’ It’s not how I ever would have imagined it, but it’s something because they’ve had nothing for a year.”
Originally scheduled to be run at IUP’s South Campus Course, the meet was moved to Blue Spruce Park last week due to the deep snow on IUP’s home course.
The move presented some unique challenges for the runners. For starters, they ran a road race on the paved roads surrounding park grounds. Furthermore, despite the sunny conditions Sunday, parts of the course remained icy, and the park grounds strangely remained open to vehicle traffic.
With a quarter-mile remaining in the race — as Lenze and teammate Marco Cardone chased the eventual winner, Seton Hill’s Benton Bickerton — a Jeep pulled out of a pavilion some 200-300 feet in front of the IUP teammates and turned in the direction of the oncoming runners.
“I don’t remember any of it,” Lenze said. “When you’re racing, especially when you’re that close to a kid, all that matters is how far away he is.”
After a pause, Lenze added incredulously, “I don’t remember the Jeep. Was there a Jeep?”
“I do remember seeing that Jeep, yeah,” Cardone said in response.
A freshman, Cardone finished second in the men’s race with a time of 16 minutes, 16.2 seconds, and Lenze took third in 16:22.6 as IUPclaimed the team title with 22 points. The Hawks placed their top five runners among the top seven finishers.
Indiana High School products Evan Weaver and Isaac Evans finished fourth and sixth, respectively.
On the women’s side, Jessica Jones (19:32.7) led the Crimson Hawks with a second-place finish, and Brianna Herr was third (19:42.5). IUP finished second with 30 points, two behind Seton Hill.
“We’re rusty,” Zins said of both IUP teams. “I’m sure the other teams are rusty, too. You could tell we haven’t actually competed in a long time. We did a few time trials in the fall, but it’s just not the same. … Being back out and just having the uniform on and competing was the most important thing. But, you know, it’s a race, so we wanted to do well. … I know if you talk to any of them, they would say that they all wanted to do well.”
As much as the results mattered to the IUP runners, getting to race for the first time in 16 months mattered just as much.
“It’s the most excited I’ve been in a long time,” Cardone said of his pre-race mood. “But at the same time, it’s not like you’re just going to come out here, get it over with, and it doesn’t matter what time you run. You still want to do the best you can, so in that sense, the results do matter.”
“The feeling of getting ready to race has been hyped up a couple times now, and I guess we’ve been let down,” Lenze said, referring to the cancellation of the fall season. “The time trials are good, and this wasn’t too different from a time trial just because there are so few teams here, but I kind of woke up this morning going, ‘Well, until I’m standing on the starting line, anything could happen.’”