With all the setbacks the pandemic has created for the world of collegiate sports, the successful conclusion of an abbreviated cross country season is certainly something to be celebrated. The feeling of satisfaction the end of a season brings is not lessened by the fact that Cal cross country only had two opportunities to compete against other teams this spring.
Last Friday at University Place, Washington, the Bears concluded a two-race season with strong individual and team finishes. Nine runners set personal-best times at the course, while both the men’s and women’s teams finished seventh among fields of nine and ten teams, respectively.
Senior Steven Khan was the first member of the men’s team to cross the line for the 8K, earning a new career-best time of 23:53.1. Senior Ben Harper and freshman Gabriel Abbes were close behind with times of 23:58.9 and 24:00.6, respectively. Abbes coming in as the third runner for the Bears at his very first collegiate race foreshadows more success to come.
The spread of the 6K times on the women’s team was extremely narrow, with the top five runners for Cal finishing within 32 seconds of each other. This achievement highlights the team’s ability to work together and the depth of talent the women have. Such a narrow spread would normally give the Bears a huge advantage at a larger competition, but since the Pac-12 championships was a smaller race, it had less of an effect on the team results.
“We were disappointed there weren’t any other races, because usually in a bigger race that (spread) helps you a lot,” said junior Marea Zlatunich. “Teams that beat us at Pac-12 in a smaller field might have lost to us in a bigger race because their spread was much larger than ours. Our fifth girl was really close to our first girl.”
Senior Annie Boos finished first for the women’s team with a 6K time of 20:41.1. Zlatunich finished second for the blue and gold, with a new personal best time of 20:53.2 at her first and only race of the season.
Zlatunich is an accomplished veteran with many races under her belt but missed out on competing at the Dave Murray Invitational due to a setback at the start of her training. Luckily for the Bears, Zlatunich was able to compete at the Pac-12 championships after returning to Cal in early February.
At Zlatunich’s first race of the season, she kept graduating seniors Chloe Hansel and Boos in mind, as the Pac-12 Championships was their last cross country competition with the Bears. This closeness between teammates and knowledge that two of the top six runners won’t be with the team next season contributed to the group’s success. Throughout the race, Zlatunich prioritized staying relaxed and focused on doing her best, given the circumstances.
“I tried to not put a lot of pressure on myself,” Zlatunich said. “Not racing for a year is hard and my training hasn’t been that consistent. Before the race I was just thinking about how I wanted to have fun with it.”
The spring 2021 cross country season is over, but many of the long-distance runners will now transition to outdoor track, giving them more opportunities to compete in-person and prepare for next fall when cross country returns. Zlatunich looks forward to the opportunity to compete again, even if it is on a track instead of a cross country course.
“I love racing, and this race reminded me of that,” Zlatunich said.
Mia Horne covers track and field and cross country. Contact her at [email protected]