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Men’s XC Team Look to Prove They are More Than Walk Ons

It’s 37 degrees at 8:00 in the morning at the Vanderbilt track. The sky is clear with wisps of cotton floating along. The track is empty, but the tops of heads bob up and down at a steady clip behind the fence bordering the track. Who would run in nearly freezing temperatures? The tops of the heads become full people as the women and men’s cross country teams file into the track through the open gate at the track’s south end.

It’s SEC Championship week. This year, the championship meet is held in Auburn. The men and women will race on Friday, October 26. The women are a top tier SEC team. They came off a sub par last year and have performed well this year. They have experienced seniors and high performing freshmen. The team is healthy and eager. The program has reached heights of the 2011 SEC Championship and South Region Champs. The women look to improve upon last year, and compete with the conference’s best.

The men’s team is not so different in their make up and motivations, except one minor detail. Not one member is on scholarship. There are 307 teams in Division 1 and 12 in the SEC. All of them share 12.6 scholarships with their Track and Field counterparts. Vanderbilt’s doesn’t. Every one of Vanderbilt’s cross country team are non scholarship athletes. So who would run in nearly freezing temperatures without a scholarship?

Every time I pose a question about the motivations of Cross Country runners, I think back to an answer Head Coach Steve Keith gave me at the beginning of the year, “you’re not a runner are you?”

The men’s team is made up of seasoned upperclassmen who have developed into conference level runners, a handful of standout freshmen, and a fifth year graduate transfer who is a law student.

This year’s team has been led by Nick Laning. Laning is a Freshman from Barrington, IL. He was a standout distance runner in high school with a two mile time at 9:07, and has been the first finisher for the ‘Dores in every meet they have run this year. This year his best time was 24:48 at Louisville. He was also named as an SEC Freshman of the Week.

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The squad has received a shot in the arm from another Freshman, Matthew Estopinal. He is from Huntsville, AL, and was a very good high school runner, as well. His best 5k time was 15:09, and has finished in the top 5 for Vanderbilt in each race.

Combining those two runners with Juniors Aidan Livingston and Harrison Thomas, the Commodores have 2/3 of a competitive program. Evan Suzman would be the elder statesman on the team as the highest performing senior (Suzman ran 25:56 in the SEC Championships last year), but Vanderbilt received a graduate transfer from Stanford.

Patrick Perrier is a fifth year runner and law student from Stanford. He chose Vanderbilt for its top tier law program, and he wanted to run because, in his words to “I’m a type A personality. I don’t want to let anything go.”

As a squad, they are eager to show they are more than a bunch of walk ons. They chose Vanderbilt for its academics, and Nashville is a great place to live, but also because they wanted a competitive environment. They got all of those things and more.

The lack of scholarships for the men’s cross country team is a perfect mix of Vanderbilt’s commitment to academics and the gender equity requirements of Title IX. Vanderbilt holds academics as its highest value, and it expresses that by fielding the minimum number of varsity sports required to stay in the NCAA and the SEC. Because the football team receives the lion’s share of the men’s athletic budget (and scholarships), scholarships on the women’s side must reflect the 50-50 gender demographics of the overall campus.

To offer men’s cross country scholarships, the university would have to create scholarship opportunities for women by making new programs, thus increasing the minimum number.

This isn’t something discussed daily among the team, or even really ever. It is baked into the system. It is understood when they sign up. You will not get money for school, but you do get an opportunity to run.

The is not a limitation as many could see it. Rather it is a motivation- one of many.

Each member chose Vanderbilt because of its reputation as a school. They are engineering, finance, and law students. It seems silly to put into words, but these guys know why they are in school- it’s to go to school. Sophomore Caleb Van Geffen says, “Vanderbilt was always a school of my dreams since I was in middle school, specifically for its academic prestige.”

Freshman Lucas Mowery concurs, “I came to Vanderbilt because it was the perfect mix of academic, excellence, and culture.”

To run, at this level, you have to have an intrinsic motivation. To get into Vanderbilt, and each runner made it without an athletic exception, these students have to be self motivated and high achieving. It means taking on a tremendous academic workload. The workload is twice outside the classroom as it is inside, the sheer time requirements can be daunting.

Sophomore Edward Harpstead says, “I study biomedical engineering, with plans of going to medical school. A heavy course load makes running all the more difficult, with a lot of nights of just barely enough sleep and not enough time to run as many miles as I want to run.”

Fifth year runner and Law student, Patrick Perrier, runs his morning workouts before the rest of the team, sometimes at 6:00AM so he can make it to morning classes.

Even in the summer, students are working internships in NYC or Chicago or in research labs on campus that require up to 80 hours a week when other D1 runners are logging 45 minutes a day to prepare for the season. A 30 minute run seems nice to relieve the stress, but literally there isn’t enough time.

With high achievement comes its challenges on the track, too. Assistant Coach Bekah Smeltzer says that her guys can be too smart for their own good. They are smart and self motivated, but that means they are always looking to for a way to do a workout better or push harder. It is a gift and a curse. Smeltzer says, “They don’t always see the big picture, or how one workout effects another, or what part of the season it comes in.” She knows they want the results, but she encourages them to trust the process.

Smeltzer, is a rising star in the program. Keith raves about her and says that any Head Coach or Director of XC/TF has the opportunity to mentor someone like her will have a wonderful experience. Over the last three years, Bekah has taken an active role with the men, giving them more time and attention than just from Keith. For the team to continue to succeed, she wants them to embrace the art of running, not just the science.

She knows this can be hard for high achieving people who often come about success on their own. But she knows that if they can let go of all they know about the science of running and run the workouts with the feedback their bodies are giving in real time, the racing will come to them. There is a difference between running and racing. Racing takes active presence and response, letting your mind and body embrace the competition and hopefully compete above your head… and below your personal best.

The conference, academics, and achievement matter. They set the trajectory for one’s life. More importantly, though, it will be changed by the people you spend it with in the day-to-day, workout by workout, step by step. Through the challenges and growth they have experienced, the have developed meaningful relationships with each other.

“The men’s team dynamic is really cooperative and light hearted. I think that one of our greatest strengths is how close we all are with each other and how much fun we have when together. We run our best when we love what we’re doing, and having supportive teammates enables us to do just that -- run fast,” says Suzman.

Mowery says, “I have never found a culture of camaraderie and fellowship in my life that quite parallels what you can find on a cross country team. That mixed with the ability to compete is something I thrive on.”

Cross Country can appear to be an individual sport, but the trophies are handed out for team performance. You are only as good as the teammates around you; the same teammates you spend every day running 90-100 minutes with in the wee hours of the morning or mile repeats atop a sweltering August track. They talk with each other along those runs, discussing this and that. The kind of time together that is increasingly rare in a world where the most communal times, like meals, are spent staring at phones. Talking 90 minutes about life everyday? That would cost you a mortgage payment in therapist fees.

Keith knows this, and he says to be a distance runner, you have to be comfortable in your own skin. You have to be willing to go an hour without distraction in your own mind (no music, it’s too dangerous to run this city with headphones in) or in vulnerability with a teammates.

As the program has attracted better runners and its status has improved over the last few years, Keith knows he needs to keep stirring the team dynamic. He says, “I like to get a least one Classics major in there. These guys are mostly engineers or science guys.” He was a Philosophy major when he ran here, and he knows you’ve got to have guys on the team who mix up the conversation and keep asking questions.

Smeltzers says, “they’re a fun team.” Harpstead says, “spending as much time together as we do, the team develops a singularly unique sense of humor. It is this mixture of smart, talented, funny people that makes the team as incredible as it is. “

Some programs, the scholarship motivation can unintentionally divide a team. The daily intensity to perform elevates stress on top of the runner so high that each workout- every warm up run- is filled with tension. In those programs, there is a desire to beat your teammate and hit your time goals, that you don’t care if your teammate is excelling. Yet, at Vanderbilt, there is a focus on making each other better.

They use the lack of scholarships as motivation.

In this day and age, it is easy to dismiss a non scholarship team as not competitive because so much of our youth culture is to find validation through scholarship offers. However, this team looks to prove themselves, on the course and through their times.

Van Greffen says, ”I love the fact that with running, an athlete is bound by a time. In other sports I have competed in at high levels, there always seems to be some sort of politics involved. With running, my time defines how I am achieving, and it is not of subjective opinion how my performance compares.”

It’s an interesting balance. They are good runners, plenty capable of individually defeating scores of other SEC runners. It is not as if they are also rans (pun intended!). Yet, even without scholarship, they recognize this is an opportunity to compete, and they are thrilled to rise to the challenge.

Van Greffen continues, “I believed that the lack of scholarship was not a limiting factor, but more of a chip on the shoulder. Having been granted the opportunity, it has been my goal to be a catalyst of a more competitive Vanderbilt Men’s XC program.”

Perrier told, “I saw the pieces here with these guys. Relative to what Vanderbilt has been in the past, there’s a lot here that can make this team special.”

That’s where they are today. They want to make each other better as they race the SEC Championships. So far, the team has improved as the season has gone one. They have been led by Lanning, Perrier, Estopinal, Livingston, and Suzman. As a team they have beaten LSU and Auburn at Louisville in September. Of course they want to show up and shock the conference. Most likely, they will defeat a handful of conference teams, all of which have scholarships. That will be a satisfying finish to the season. Outside of a miracle, they won’t win the championship. That’s okay with Keith because he knows that their placement is not the only measure of his program’s success.

“I was a runner here. My best friend on the team is still my best friend. I can tell who will be in each other’s weddings.”