Forging ahead through the crowded field of the Wisconsin Invitational last Friday, juniors Alejandro Arroyo-Yamin, Tyler Udland and co-captain Chris Bendtsen worked together to fight toward the finish line, leading the rest of the men’s cross country team. No longer led by Olympian Donn Cabral ’12 and the rest of the Class of 2012, the Tigers begin a new era. By forming a pack and pushing each other at the front, the three juniors and the rest of the Princeton men behind them hope to make their team more than just the sum of its individual parts.
“It’s definitely a bit of a different approach this year without Donn and Brian [Leung ’12]. This year it’s about the pack and running together,” Udland said. “The big thing for us this year is that our spread has been tight for the past few races, and that’s going to be key for us for succeeding later in the season, as opposed to having someone like Donn finish up in the top 10 in every race.”
The field in Wisconsin was talented and hundreds of runners deep. With a huge number of the nation’s top-ranked teams amassed on Wisconsin’s cross-country course in Madison, the competition was fierce and aggressive. Struggling to stick together in the dense pack, Udland, Arroyo-Yamin and Bendtsen gradually moved up after starting out conservatively.
“The plan was for us to pack up in the early stages of the races and try to move up together, but Wisconsin was kind of crazy in that there were just so many people that there was no way to really maneuver,” Udland said. “If Chris got a few steps ahead of us, it was hard for us to find him until later in the race.”
As the leaders started to hammer toward the middle of the race, the Tigers were able to start getting into a rhythm as the field stretched out. Increasing momentum throughout the race, Arroyo-Yamin moved up in the final kilometers of the 8K course to finish 29th in a new personal best of 23 minutes, 52 seconds. Coming in close behind him, Bendtsen and Udland finished in 24:05 and 24:09, respectively, for 59th and 73rd place.
Despite a 24:13 average and a tight 47-second spread between Arroyo-Yamin and Princeton’s fifth runner, sophomore Matt McDonald, Princeton placed 14th overall, as No. 8 Stanford, No. 5 Iona and No. 4 Oklahoma took the top three spots, respectively, out of the 45-team field. Going into the meet ranked No. 11 nationally, the Tigers left Wisconsin unsatisfied but levelheaded.
“Coach likes to use meets like Notre Dame and Wisconsin as learning experiences,” Arroyo-Yamin said. “Yes we’re going to run; yes, we’re going to give a hard effort — but we’re going to try to practice ways to go out, ways to run the race, things that will be important toward the end of the season when there are races that actually matter.”
Individually, Arroyo-Yamin is having a breakthrough season. After a tough season last fall, he has consistently improved over the past year and now has stepped up into the lead alongside his classmates. In all of the meets so far this year, Arroyo-Yamin has placed first for the Tigers.
Still, along with Bendtsen and Udland, he knows that work remains to be done before they reach the level they need to achieve to meet their goals.
“For me it’s been a little bit of a shock, to be honest. Yes, I’ve been putting in the training and working toward stepping it up, but it’s been different compared to my two past cross seasons,” Arroyo-Yamin said. “This year I’ve been running some fast times and setting some PRs — it’s been great so far. But obviously there’s work to do and things to improve. There’s time — there’s a month or so until nationals — but we need to work.”
While Arroyo-Yamin, Bendtsen and Udland have set the pace for the Tigers so far, the rest of the team is not far behind. Training in some of the largest workout groups they’ve had in a long time, everyone is pushing each other and tapping into the synergy that fuels running in packs.
“It’s been great just heading to the cross-country course or the tow path for tempos or repeats and having a pack right there with you,” Arroyo-Yamin said. “I don’t see the atmosphere as being competitive — I feel as though we’re there to push each other and make sure we’re giving a good effort. It’s nice to look around and have all your teammates right there with you.”
Teamwork has always been a strong value among the guys on the team. On and off the cross-country course everyone does his part to help lead and to work on forming the team into a machine of interchangeable parts.
“What’s good about our team is that there’s not one leader,” Bendtsen said. “The whole senior class is a group of great guys that I and everyone else look up to, and the junior class is a good group of leaders as well. I think that’s what makes the team so special: Everyone is doing his job. That’s how it was with Donn and Brian, and that’s the way it goes.”
With a hard two-week stretch approaching, such universal leadership will be crucial as the team prepares for the Ivy League Championships at home after midterms.
With Columbia looking dangerously strong with a fifth-place showing in Wisconsin, the Tigers have to be disciplined and keep things under control if they are going to retain their title on Oct. 27.
“I think everyone on the team has emphasized the obvious stuff — that is, staying on top of your work,” Udland said. “Just because it’s midterms doesn’t mean you can let yourself stay up until 2 in the morning. Everyone is stressing that we need to stay on top of our stuff, be efficient, finish our work early and remember that we do have Heps in two weeks, so sleep is important.”
As the men continue to sharpen their speed and gain fitness, they are eager to bounce back from Wisconsin and prove their worth as one of the top-ranked teams in the country. Starting with Heps and going all the way until Nationals at the end of November, there are only championship races on the schedule.
“We’re trying to keep our eyes on the prize that really matters. We know what matters, and it’s not Wisconsin,” Arroyo-Yamin said. “By racing Wisconsin, we know where to improve; we know what to work for. We don’t care about how other teams did — we focus on ourselves and on what we can do to get better to perform when it really matters.”
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/17/31541/