'This Could Be The Last Race Of Your Season'

* Marcus athlete Colten Castaneda readies for the mile

Photo Credit: Evan Luecke/EvanLueckePhoto.com

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"I've been having a hard time coming back since last winter and trying to prove my worth and prove to people that I'm back and faster than ever." -- Grant Wilcox, Plano East

DALLAS, TEXAS -- If this was the last race of Grant Wilcox's season, there was nothing he was leaving on the track. And, well, you could see it, the way his legs were wilting in the final meters on Saturday, the exact moment he collapsed in exhaustion.

But if this was his last race, he also left satisfied. The Oklahoma State signee and Plano East High School senior crossed the finish line in 15:10, in his first -- and what could be his only -- outdoor 5K. 

"I've been having a hard time coming back since last winter and trying to prove my worth and prove to people that I'm back and faster than ever," said Wilcox, who was 12th at the UIL Class 6A Cross Country Championships and opened his outdoor season with efforts of 4:29 and 9:29 for 1,600m and 3,200m, respectively. "It's kind of hard knowing that I may not have that chance. But again, I can still do what I love and train and run with some friends. That's what it's all about."

Perhaps the uncertainty of the season was what willed most high school athletes to the 'Uncanceled Nomad Coronavirus 5K' on Saturday at Germany Park, even as federal health agencies and state officials pleaded for the public to respect social distancing policies as cases of COVID-19, now nearing 3,000 in the United States, continue to raise globally to over 140,000. It was about getting your paces in, when everything around you was shutting down. 

Some well known athletes in the area, while expressing interest, chose to stay home.

The six-lane oval, which was sandwiched between an affluent Dallas suburb near Southern Methodist University, offered something they couldn't get anywhere else: A decent run with competitive athletes. And there were handfuls of athletes in attendance, roughly 50 high schoolers in all. 

"It's a lower pressure environment," said Jarrett Kirk, a Flower Mound senior and Princeton University signee who ran the 5K. "Don't get me wrong, we're going to take it seriously but I think this is just a good stage for us all to compete with how the season is. We're going to have some pacing to help us through." 

In recent days, the Texas Distance Festival -- an event many of which had been anticipating -- was canceled, as were future events like the Jesuit Sheaner Relays, the Victor Lopez Classic and the Texas Relays. While many were optimistic that the outdoor track and field season would be back by April, most weren't guaranteeing it, either. 

"This could be the last race of your season," I overheard Allen's (TX) Jonathan Chung tell a friend. 

Photo Credit: Evan Luecke/EvanLueckePhoto.com

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Which was why Saturday was so important. And if it was supposed to feel strange, it didn't. Instead, it was refreshing to see the community embrace an idea so quickly. 

The event, frenetically drawn together after a public wave of major cancellations of sporting events, was hosted by the Nomad Running Company, a boutique running club in Dallas. One of the key ignition-starters was Colby Mehmen, a graduate of Stephen F Austin and 2018 Dallas Marathon winner whose pursuit of an U.S. Olympic Marathons qualifier was profiled by Runner's World last May.

"Seeing everything that was happening, we wanted to give runners an opportunity to race," he said. 

And maybe the idea was right. A final reminder that runners could overcome through competition. But the vision was soon met with reality.

"I thought there would be like 20 people show up," he said. "And then it blew up." 

By the morning, there were roughly 75 to 100 people in attendance, with around 66 runners on the line across a mile and three heats of the 5K. That stood up against public and state government cries for quarantining as efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus wage on. As polarizing as the view on the virus continues to be, the decision to continue racing with such a large group was met with some criticism online. 

"This might be the last chance we have," said Colten Castaneda, a junior from Lewisville Marcus who ran the mile and finished in approximately 4:45. "I'm glad it was here."

And yet, this also represented an opportunity, one most didn't want to give up.

In recent days, independent school districts in Texas extended spring break and the UIL determined it would postpone its spring season until March 29. That meant team practices -- the gathering of teammates and friends for long runs and workouts -- could not be held under school guidelines.

So sure, the crowd on Saturday was maybe a little larger than anticipated -- and that presented its own set of problems with a public health crisis moving rapidly. But few runners were really worrying about that.

"Not at all," Wilcox said. 

Some of the Metroplex's best athletes traveled near and far to compete. On Friday, Duncanville's Martin Chavez began to spread the word. By 9 a.m., athletes were ready to race, especially Chavez. 

"I really wanted an opportunity to show what I could do," he said. 

* Grant Wilcox talks about the impromptu 5K event in Dallas

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Some of the best runners in the area showed up: Flower Mound teammates Jarrett Kirk (2017 UIL Cross Country Champion) and Johnathan Flint, Plano East's Wilcox, Marcus teammates Greyson Gravitt and Castaneda, Lucas Lovejoy's Will Muirhead (though he did not run after a 10-mile progression workout the previous day), Celina's Adele Clarke and Gavin Frick and Dallas Ursuline School's Amanda Hogan

A sophomore at Celina High School, Clarke had big hopes for her 2020 season, like breaking 5-minutes for 1,600m and dropping a sub-11:30 time in the 3,200m. But now everything seemed a little tenuous. 

"I wanted to really get a race in," Clarke said. "And then TDF got cancelled, so I was looking for something to do." 

She did not hesitate when the 5K approached. 

"The season is out of our control," said Clarke's mother, Melissa. "We're kind of hoping the season continues to go on, but she'll keep going. We're not worried."

Neither of her parents were worried very much about the virus, either. They said pleas to wash hands and to stay away from those who are sick were continually reminded of their two daughters. 

With the humidity rising and the temperature moving just slightly, the men's 5K began with a cluster, and a pack broke away right away, coming through in the first 400 meters in roughly 66 seconds. 

Kirk led the field through four laps in roughly 4:40, looking confident, though others like Chavez and Wilcox held on. It was smooth sailing through 3,200 meters, as a pack of five came through in 9:26. 

By the next 200 meters, however, Kirk -- who wanted a bounce-back race after the Coppell Relays, where he said he was on pace for a sub-9 time in the 3,200m, before a bad lap bumped him off it -- started to fall off.

"I felt like I was jogging," he said. 

Photo Credit: Evan Lueke/EvanLueckePhoto.com

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Then it was Cameron University runner James Majenge's turn to take over. The 23-year-old was comfortable up top leading the field, and he kept the pace honest at under 15 minutes. Both Chavez and Wilcox continued to hold on. 

With one lap left, Chavez stayed with Majenge as Wilcox dropped and then the Duncanville junior found another gear in the final 200 meters, finishing just a second back of the winner in a new PR of 14 minutes, 50 seconds. 

Photo Credit: Evan Lueke/EvanLueckePhoto.com

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His time was nearly a minute faster than his cross country best and it marked one of his best efforts on a track overall -- even though it wasn't official.

Wilcox followed in third, in roughly 15:10, while Kirk wasn't far behind after re-gaining his composure on the final laps. 

"I'm so glad I was able to get out here and compete with these guys," Chavez said. "You know, I didn't race exactly how I wanted. I was shooting for the 14:30s, but I think that was a good effort overall." 

The race ultimately represented a lot of things for a lot of different people.

For Chavez, it was a validation that his work was paying off and a sign that, as a high school junior, he has what it takes to potentially compete with the best athletes in Texas. Clarke and Hogan both broke 19:30.

Wilcox, wanting to race a distance he could see himself competing in at college, found the gratification he needed on a day that was less than ideal. 

And Kirk, while racing a little uneven, knew there was still more to work on.

"It's been a hard senior year," he said. "Sometimes I see my teammates and they're leaving everything on the track. I wonder why I couldn't have had that kind of race. I haven't figured it out yet, but I know I can." 

So for Kirk and others, the races on Saturday were important, if uneasy, to register. 

While the season is still undetermined, they're all still hoping for another chance.  

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