All the things that make cross-country running so difficult, things a runner might encounter individually at one time or another, seemed to come together against Devin Nihill on Saturday. The O’Connell senior was already contending with one of toughest courses in Virginia, but a deluge before her race turned dirt into shoe-sucking mud. During her race, frigid air bit Nihill’s hands through her gloves and caused specks of ice to collect in her hair.
But Nihill kept her composure at the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championships. After a pair of runner-up finishes in 2009 and ’10, she finally broke through on the 5K Lake Fairfax Park course, putting away a talented field before grabbing the title in 21 minutes 24 seconds.
“I feel like I’m out of body,” Nihill said, shaking from the cold. “I’m looking at my feet and my hands and I can’t feel anything. I’ve never raced in anything like this before.”
The WCAC hadn’t seen anything like the girls from O’Connell before. Behind Nihill and Emily Blagg, who was third, the Knights hoisted the championship trophy for the fifth straight year. They finished comfortably ahead of Good Counsel, Paul VI Catholic and St. John’s.
Good Counsel plucked the boys’ championship trophy away from three-time defending champion Gonzaga. Sparked by Jack Riely, who was second overall, the Falcons put all five of their scorers in the top 10 to get past Gonzaga, O’Connell and Paul VI.
Mike Crozier won his first individual WCAC title in 17:36, an impressive time considering the nasty conditions. The Gonzaga senior had company through the first mile, but no one could keep up with him after that and he glided to an almost 30-second victory. Crozier looked behind him after crossing the finish line, but put his head down and kept walking after realizing there was nobody else there.
“My legs didn’t hurt. My lungs felt fine,” Crozier said, mud streaking across his legs and across the back of his uniform. “It was just tough because it was freezing cold.”
Lake Fairfax Park has been the site of the WCAC championships for a number of years, but none of the athletes knew quite what to expect when they toed the line Saturday.
Several of them underestimated the depth and force of the creek that runners are forced to cross during the first mile. The water was higher than usual, almost knee-deep in some places, and they face-planted as they searched for the bottom with their feet.
Runners either gained or lost position on a steep hill near the finish line, depending on how they negotiated the mud. Some of them abandoned all form and intentionally dropped to the ground before sliding down the hill on their bottoms.
Nihill got company late from Paul VI senior Meghan Blackstone, but used that final hill to pull away for a five-second victory.
“I was glad I could hold her off,” Nihill said. “With everything that was going on on the course, it’s crazy. But it’s not just me, so you just have to make the best of what’s going on.”