By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
BROOKLYN — Kirsten Olling couldn’t understand why the fast times she was running all summer weren’t translating to the cross country course in the fall.
The Breckenridge junior, whose personal best of 17:17.54 was set in last year’s Regionals, failed to break 18:06 in her first five races of the year and barely dipped below 18 minutes only three times all season.
A visit to the doctor three weeks before she was set to defend her title in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 meet revealed an iron deficiency, which was quickly corrected with an iron supplement and a diet of hamburgers.
With the problem corrected, Olling won her third straight championship Saturday at Michigan International Speedway with a time of 17:59.6.
“A lot of coaches thought I had (an iron deficiency) at the beginning of the year, but nobody really said anything,” Olling said. “They just figured I was having bad days.”
Frustration began to mount for Olling, who figured she was ready for a huge season after running well all summer.
“I was really upset,” she said. “This summer during road races, I’d be running 17:17, 17:20s consistently. I was like, ‘Oh, yes, this should be like the best cross country season.’ No, I jinxed it. So, I’m never going to say, ‘It’s going to be the best cross country season ever.’ You’re going to jinx it.”
With her health turned around, Olling had to only tackle the mental side of running. Even having two MHSAA championships to her credit didn’t completely calm her nerves entering Saturday’s race as she won by 22.1 seconds over runner-up Holly Bullough of Traverse City St. Francis. Tessa Fornari of Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes was third in 18:38.8.
“I was actually worried I was going to lose it,” said Olling, who was never threatened Saturday. “I was really worried today.”
One of the mental tricks Olling used to push herself was basically to have teammates lie to her during the race.
“I told everybody to tell me someone’s right behind me,” Olling said. “That way when they tell me that, I’ll go faster. I had four different teams tell me that. They made me run faster.”
Homer, which made the top 10 for the first time with a sixth-place finish last season, won the team championship by a 118-142 margin over Bear Lake.
Homer placed three girls in top-30 all-state positions, with sophomore Jessica Reagle taking ninth in 19:26.3, sophomore Bailey Manis 19th in 19:59.6 and junior Amanda Reagle 23rd in 20:04.9. Rounding out the scoring were freshman Kayla Kline (45th, 20:37.3) and senior Johnica March (70th, 21:01.4).
PHOTO: Breckenridge's Kristen Olling leads the pack again on the way to her third MHSAA championship. (Click to see more from RunMichigan.com.)
BROOKLYN — Emily Tomes of Grand Rapids Catholic Central might be the first MHSAA cross country champion to go all season without winning a meet until it mattered the most.
There are two good reasons for that.
First, she runs in the Grand Rapids area, which is a hotbed for high school cross country. Her biggest league rival, Selma Anderson of Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills, was the runner-up in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final on Saturday.
Second, she was adjusting all season to a significant change in her training volume.
As a result, she had five second-place finishes in nine races and didn’t run faster than 18:25.5 until her conference and Regional meets.
“I ramped up my miles, so my legs felt tired for a lot of my races,” Tomes said. “So, that’s why I recently started running sub-18. My legs started to get used to the mileage. I was just trying to wait until this meet. This is when I was going to try to run my best.”
Tomes was the Division 2 champion, running a time of 17:31.4 on a Michigan International Speedway course that yielded fast times all day.
She won a kick down the stretch against St. Joseph senior Gail Vaikutis, who took second in 17:33.6.
“I feel like I do rely on my kick quite a bit, but I just knew it could help me pass those girls and it gives me a lot of confidence moving forward, ” Tomes said. “I have a couple postseason meets, so I’m really looking forward to those.”
It was anyone’s race when a pack of five runners reached the two-mile mark within one second of one another. It was a two-runner race coming down the straightaway, with Tomes passing Vaikutis in the final tenth of a mile.
“I don’t normally run in packs,” Tomes said. “This season kind of started off slower for me, so I wasn’t used to racing with these girls. I know they know how to run really fast. If I could just let them carry me along, it would help me out.”
Grand Rapids Christian won the team championship with a score of 112 points. Last season’s champion Otsego was second with 131.
The Eagles won their seventh MHSAA championship and first since 2014.
Senior Natalie VanOtteren, who defeated Tomes by 17 seconds at Regionals, led Grand Rapids Christian by placing fifth in 17:58.2. Sophomore Lilah Poel was 20th, sophomore Ellie Scholma 30th, senior Payton Holtz 31st and senior Naomi Nelson 65th for the Eagles.
PHOTOS (Top) Grand Rapids Catholic Central's Emily Tomes, left, breaks away from St. Joseph's Gail Vaikutis during the closing stretch of the Division 2 Final. (Middle) Natalie VanOtteren leads Grand Rapids Christian's team title run with a fifth-place finish. (Photos by Dave McCauley/RunMichigan.com.)