Like most days at Golden Gate Park, the morning of the USF Invitational arrived shrouded in gloom. The park grounds, damp with dew and matted in mud, sent several runners to their knees, left leagues more smattered with earth and soiled an imprudently dressed spectator’s brand-new Air Force 1s.
The Cal cross country team was facing difficulties on the home front as well. Injuries and illnesses kept multiple members of the team from competing in Saturday’s season-opening meet and left the women’s squad with only four racers.
But amid the gloom, slips, footwear tragedies and setbacks, Cal cross country accomplished exactly what it set out to do in its fall 2021 debut. Fifth-year senior Meredith Corda, who placed ninth overall and was the first Bear across the finish line, described the women’s team’s success in carrying out its game plan over the course of its 6K, three-lap race around the Golden Gate Park polo fields.
“It went as we’d planned it,” Corda said. “We tried to do a moderate tempo effort for the first two loops, and then the last loop we tried to close hard and finish strong, and that’s pretty much exactly how it went.”
With only four runners able to compete, the Bears were unable to tally an official team score in the women’s race. But for the blue and gold, results at the USF Invitational are an afterthought, as the meet is basically used as a dress rehearsal for higher stakes contests later in the season.
Not being able to post a team score didn’t stop the crew from enjoying the moment, especially not Corda.
“I was so excited to be here,” Corda said. “It’s an experience just to run cross country and for me to be back for my fifth year. We had lots of supporters and lots of alumni that came out, which made this so fun.”
Senior Colin FitzGerald, who placed sixth individually in the men’s 8K race and led the Bears to a second-place team finish, echoed Corda’s sentiments about the thrill of having an opportunity to compete and reacclimate to racing in a laid-back environment.
“It was exciting just to be back out there leading the team, to get back in the swing of things and lock-in, do what (head coach Bobby Lockhart) says,” FitzGerald said.
It was FitzGerald’s first time racing cross country since Nov. 2019, but he arrived at the USF Invitational primed to make a strong season debut and uplift his teammates.
“My job was primarily to make sure that all the guys were with me, and to lead the team and make sure that if someone’s getting a little in their head, I try to keep them going,” FitzGerald said. “I’m a senior now, so I’ve got to lead the guys and do my job.”
All in all, Cal’s trip to Golden Gate Park was a successful one. The men’s and women’s teams accomplished their mission of getting a solid workout in and restoring their racing legs and were able to soak up the atmosphere of their season opener.
The Bears won’t be back in action until Oct. 1’s Sacramento State Invitational. In the meantime, they’ll be working to build upon the performance they turned in at the USF Invitational.
“It’s time to lock in, get our nutrition proper, get our sleep, get our classwork done and all that,” Fitzgerald said. “Now we’re zeroing in and putting our heads down so that we’re locked in for when (pre-nationals) comes around.”
With the way the blue and gold executed in spite of adversity this past weekend, it’s evident that they’ll be ready to compete on a bigger stage when the time comes.
Ethan Moutes covers cross country. Contact him at [email protected].