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Entrenched on the finish line at St. Olaf

November 3, 2008

by Stephen Wiblemo

I have never had to pleasure of covering a state cross country meet before, so when I arrived at St. Olaf College the morning of Nov. 1, I admit I was a little surprised.

It wasn’t so much the massive crowds that surprised me, or the course itself. No, instead it was the spectacle of seeing 160 of the best runners the state of Minnesota has to offer race it out in a pedal-to-the-metal atmosphere that literally left many of them gasping for air.

I never knew how taxing of a sport cross country running could be until I sat at the finish line of the Class AA state meet.
The way it is set up is that there are two mats that runners had to cross. Those mats would detect a small chip that each runner had on his persons and that allows for more accurate timing of finishing times.

After the runners finished, they were herded into another gated area where they could get cups of water and recuperate from the race.

I was strategically positioned on the left side of the finish line so that I could lean out over the mats and take pictures.

As the first runner came in, a Moorhead kid named Lukas Gemar, he had a good lead and was easily going to finish first.

But, as he came to the final 20 feet of the race, you could clearly see his body beginning to shut down as he started to stumble ahead with his back slumping and his arms hanging limp in front of him.

Less than a second after crossing the finish line, before he could get off the mats, Gemar collapsed a couple feet from where I was crouching.

His body just turned off and he went down like a sack of potatoes.

As officials quickly scooped him up off the floor before other runners got to the finish, I heard one say “Good race Luke – keep your eyes open.”

This was just a precursor to how devastating the scene would become.

As another group of about six runners crossed the finish line, going as hard as they could to the end, another runner wiped out in stride and went tumbling through the finish line. This one was more violent because he was running harder at the end and rolled a couple times, nearly taking out other runners in the process.

After I finally got a picture of the target I was hunting, I decided to fall back into the corral area.

The scene there was like that of an old war movie set in World War I trenches.

Young men were on their hands and knees trying to breath. I saw several throw up into trash bins, or sometimes just on the grass.

The ground was already soft and moist from the three races that had taken place before it, and I thought of all the other people that had probably spit or thrown up on that grass as people fell into the fetal position on the toxic earth below them.

This was truly a gruesome sight, and although I’m sure it isn’t exactly the same as reporting in a war zone, I still feel lucky to have left unharmed.

Who knew cross country could be such a violent and messy sport.