Coach Mark Bomba. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall

© Copyright – 2016 – Athletics Illustrated

It is rather poignant that the Plains of Abraham, which lie in the heart of Quebec, are referred to as the lungs of the City by the National Battlefields Commission, because on Saturday, November 12th it was the battlegrounds for the newly-minted 2016 U Sport Cross Country Championships.

It is also appropriate that it was the host, Université Laval that won the men’s team event. Laval has hosted the championships at least four other times. Until this year, they have never won, at least as far as the records go back to 1963. Over the past three championships that they have hosted, they were in tough as the University of Guelph dynasty was overrunning the entire country. Guelph won nine years consecutively from 2006 to 2014 and 13 of 16 years, broken only by three Windsor victories. The nine-consecutive streak was broken by Victoria in 2015.

Three of the top-six finishers were Laval athletes including the winner Yves Sikubwabo, who won in the time of 30:51. Fifth was Antoine Thibault, who finished in the time of 31:06.70, while Alexandre Picard crossed the line one position back in 31:10.70. As Lakehead University only had one athlete, fourth place finisher Kevin Tree, he was removed from the team standings, therefore Thibault and Picard moved up one position.

Laval men have had an incredible year and were full value for their win, but what about the Trinity Western University teams? They finished second and third, and the men surprised everyone, including their own coach, Mark Bomba.

“Shock,” said Bomba, when asked about the result. “When our guy, who is anywhere from our 3rd, 4th or 5th-best guy, got injured two weeks ago, I thought we might get top-5 at best.”

And then Joel DeSchiffart got injured.

“Yeah DeSchiffart dislocated his shoulder and things got even worse. Fortunately he was able to come back and finish better than I expected. He ran amazingly and gutsy and went out there and got his first U Sport podium finish, so I was super-happy for him. Declan (White) honestly, just did what I thought he’d do and that was finish top-three. He has learned to be a more patient and mature racer over time and with another year behind him; he will be a force next year.”

DeSchiffart had down time leading up to the championships due to the injury and wasn’t sure of his confidence for race day, but as it turns out the shoulder wasn’t going to stop him. For a rag-tag group of dedicated runners of various abilities, they ran an awe-inspiring race.

“On race day it didn’t bother me much, but it was something that I was always conscious of,” shared the native of Nanaimo. “To finish back in the top-10 was a great way to cap off five great years of cross-country in the CIS/U Sport, but to finish second overall as a team nationally and to win the Canada West title was a dream come true. The moment we found out that we had come second as a team was surreal.  It was a moment of pure joy and happiness. To be honest I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Mark so happy for the guys as he was that day. It was literally a dream come true and an unimaginable way to cap off my university cross-country career.”

Declan White

Bomba doesn’t mind pushing the distance that his young athletes train over, to develop their engine, so that during the business end of a race, they have the oxygen carrying capacity to continue to run hard. In fact he sometimes needs to hold them back.

“I love the process, I loved slugging out over 1800K on my feet and 3100K on my bike, and I love striving with my teammates in the fall rain and wind storms and the brisk morning air. I love eating upwards of 4,000 calories a day and I love honing my skill and pushing my body to its limits,” shared White, who finished second to Sikubwabo. “And I love the pursuit and the glory, I love god, I love the opportunity to do what I love to do every day. And if I die tomorrow, I would love the life I’ve lived, saying that, I am going to be ready for Victoria in 2017.”

The TWU men finished 2, 7, 17, 19 and 44th with the injured DeSchiffart finishing eighth in the individual results.

“Our guys flat out ran off the charts in that sort of environment. Caleb De Jong and Nick Colyn really had breakthroughs mentally and I think big things can be expected of them next year. I am sure that our top four will tell you that none of this would have been possible without our number five guy James Lam. His best BC high school championships position was 40th and in his first U Sport nationals, he was 47th. He simply got out there early, handled the rough parts in the middle (he’s an 800-metre guy), and hung on during the last mile,” added Bomba.

TWU have been improving each year. First it was the women, who came out in 2013 and finished in fourth up from 13th the year before; it was an impressive jump in the team standings. The following year in 2014 as well as in 2015 they finished second. In 2015 they made the race very interesting finishing with 81 points to Guelph’s 64. This year they finished well, but ran into a couple of minor hiccups, starting with an under-the-weather Mirelle Martens.

Guelph won again, their 12th consecutive time, this year with 71 points. Queens University ran particularly well to finish second and just five points behind the Gryphons. The Spartans finished third with 103 points, even though the women are a little disappointed with not getting at least second for the third year in a row, they were invisible just a few years ago. Victoria-2017 will be another excellent championships for them and the race takes place within their own time zone and climate.

Lisa Brooking at 2016 BC Cross Country Championships

Lisa Brooking and Regan Yee finished 4th and 5th individually, in the 6K race.

Bomba told Athletics Illustrated, “I knew we’d be in tough and everything had to go according to plan, but unfortunately our number three runner Mirelle Martens was sick the night before and you just can’t prepare for the these sorts of things. U Sport is just much more competitive at the upper end than it was only a few years ago. On a plus side we had two first team All-Canadians and our team captain and senior Meg Harradine finished in the top-30, which is better than she ever placed at the BC HS champs. The nice thing for our girls is that we get back our number 2, 3, 5 and 6 runners next year, so we will have another chance at a Western title and podium finish is realistic.”

Both the men’s and women’s teams won the Western title this year.

For the athletes to run on the historic battlefields, it was very inspiring.

Regan Yee

Regan Yee told Athletics Illustrated, “Racing on the Plains of Abraham among such a deep field of ladies was an incredible experience. I’m happy to say I put it all out there on the course and was able to hold my own against some of the fastest women in the country. I have my eyes on the podium for Victoria 2017.”

Asked about the team experience and the third place results she added, “I couldn’t be more proud of my teammates. We came in prepared to challenge for the U Sport title, and while we fell short, every girl ran to the best of her abilities on the day. If you’re not dyin’, you’re not tryin – and we were pretty dead after.

Lisa Brooking and Yee battled hard at the BC Club Championships on October 29th in Nanaimo’s Beban Park. They finished 1-2 at the meet against a very strong field that included Vancouver’s Rachel Cliff, Lindsay Carson from Whitehorse and the quickly-rising teenage phenom Hannah Bennison of Vernon.

Brooking was pleased with her BC win; but she felt she could have performed better at nationals.

“I am pleased that the U Sport championships were held on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec, as it’s a true cross-country course and I have good memories of racing CIS there back in 2008. Although the course was slightly altered from 2008 to accommodate the new distance of 6K, it was still challenging.

While I often embrace a tough course and less than ideal weather conditions, Saturday simply wasn’t my day both mentally and physically. I was slow off of the start line but managed to work my way up to the lead pack within the first mile. Overall, the first loop was quite slow with the pace increasing with each loop. I think I became too complacent sitting in the pack and not aggressive enough by pushing the pace mid-race. I also lost a podium finish in the last 20-metres, which stings a little. Though, it definitely motivates me to fight harder at Canadian Club nationals next weekend.”

Cross country is a team sport and placing is more important than time. Brooking led the Spartans to a third place finish with her fourth place individual effort. She finished 14.5 seconds off the lead and less than one second from third place, against a very strong field. The top three women were Claire Sumner with Queens, Emma Cook-Clarke with Calgary and Katelyn Ayers of Guelph.

“I am happy to have led the Spartan women to a bronze medal team finish! We also had many personal best finishes among the team, which is something to recognize. I’m so proud of all my teammates!”

The building process for Bomba has included a combination of excellent recruiting with current and former coaching staff bringing in talent and developing it further, sticking to their process for both the men and women. For example, Alumna Fiona Benson had a good collegiate career, and then lit the Canadian running scene on fire last year in the 800-metre and 1500-metre events, making it all the way to the Beijing world championships in stunning fashion.

Scot, Sarah Inglis has been a very strong runner for the Spartans. She won the BC championships last year, leading from the gun. She is a strong frontrunner both on the track and in cross-country; she hasn’t competed for TWU yet this year.

“Our girls have gotten to the point where they expect to be competitive at nationals, but our guys have had some bad luck the past few years, for example Captain Blair Johnston went down in the first 100m of last year’s race and never recovered, so when we heard that we finished second this year, we all lost it emotionally.”

“So this was extremely satisfying all around. I never thought much about it until Dave Scott Thomas (University of Guelph coach) came up to me later in the day and congratulated me on us having the best overall cross-country program for the year (adding up the placing of our girls and guys together). Guelph held that position for well over a decade (probably more like 13-14 years) and that was when things really hit home for me and what our athletes had achieved,” shared Bomba.

Trinity Western University Spartans may be able to challenge for a double podium in 2017 at the Victoria-hosted U Sport Cross Country Championships. The confluence of the process and team-building is coming to a head just in time.

“People sometimes ask what’s going on. It’s pretty simple really. We have had athletes in the past like Blair Johnston for example, who quite simply challenged the new athletes to be better than them and that has grown and grown within the culture of the team over time. Mix it in with a decent amount of talent and things take off. Our gang does’t think of two hour runs as abnormal and often they are disappointed when I tell them they can’t go that long for the week.”

Regan Yee Video #WeAreSpartans