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Finding solitude in a cross-country race

It might seem strange to suggest that a race of more than 150 participants could include a heavy dose of on-course loneliness, but that was exactly the case for the 2020 Turkey Gobbler in Naughton, an event which featured athletes leaving the start line in five different waves.

"It was a little bit different, in that you're solitary," noted Sudbury Fitness Challenge mainstay Donna Smrek. "We were three friends in a row, so it became a slightly different game out there for us, with someone to chase."

Likewise and of similar mindset, Lo-Ellen Park Knights' senior Eran Bursey chased down a good number of his wave co-horts, recording the fifth fastest men's time in his distance, covering 7.5 kms in 31:57.

"Usually, you have a big pack of runners of similar speed," said the 16 year old veteran of the south-end cross-country powerhouse. "There's a lot of strategy. In a race like this, it's much more of a mental game."

"You might be three kms in and you feel so dead, but you know that you still have the bulk of the race left, and you're alone for most of it."

An avid treadmill runner, Travis Annett of Lockerby Composite might typically find the motivation to psh forward in his Netflix choice of the day, perhaps the Formula I series, Drive to Survive.

"Just because they're all racing, it's all fast, so it motivates me because I'm like a race car out there, going really fast," he explained with a laugh. No such environment for this race day.

"It's a lot more weird, not being out there with people your pace," Annett added. "There were obviously some people out here not going as hard as some others, just out here trying to get some exercise and not really racing it."

"It's just weird to run past those people, because you would never really see them in the mass starts. It was pretty lonely, by the end, with no one around."

Now on the other side of her 50th birthday, Donna Smrek is used to running on her own - for quite a ways, actually. "I've been working on my distances, so trying to get a little longer, which has slowed me down," she said.

"But with us, we're all in that fun competitive bubble. I think we run more for the social side. I'm not breaking any records, but I feel stronger, taking the time to recover. I am in that over 50 group and want to stay healthy, just so that I can keep doing it."

"I was sneaking into the ultra distances - 50km was the goal, but my race (Ragnar Ontario Trail) was cancelled - but I could see it going there. It's just the rush of something different that drives you there. I could see myself stretching out to 50 kms and then trying to do it consistent - not fast, but consistent."

Beyond the lack of companionship on the trails, the runners also shared one other takeaway from their Sunday adventure. "I can tell you what I don't like - all of the hills," laughed Smrek.

"I'm pretty sure (race organizer) Neil (Phipps) got us through all of them. Somehow he managed to work in five major climbs but only two downhills. Of course, the hills mean that you get to the top of something, and I'm not going fast enough that I don't appreciate the view when I get there."

"At this time of the year, the colours are beautiful."

Eran Bursey might have been a tad more oblivious to the scenery, given the speed at which it was flying by.

"This course is tricky, because you're feeling pretty good, and then you get to that single track section, really windy with the huge hill," he said. "That really kills you."

Mind you, overcoming those nasty hills is a process made much easier when athletes take the proper approach to race day, a definite source of pride at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School.

"Throughout high-school, you really learn that it's the days before the race that really make the difference," said Bursey. "When you get against the good high-school competition and everybody is training, it really is about whoever prepares the best, getting good hydration, sleep, nutrition, things like that."

Good news - it definitely paid off on Sunday for Bursey. "I was four seconds fast on my pace the whole race, so that's good," he said. "I was going for a 32 minutes, and I broke that by a little bit. I was just trying to focus on catching just one person in front of me at a time."

That sense of competitiveness is also apparent in chatting with Travis Annett, as the 16 year-old grade 11 athlete looks to a fall schedule that now appears likely to include at least a few high-school races in the mix.

"It doesn't sound like every school will be there, but I will try and just stick with the kids that beat me last year and stay ahead of the guys that I beat last year," he said. "Really, just do the best that I can."

Where some of the athletes arrive on the SDSSAA cross-country scene, already armed with name recognition with the local circuit, Annett developed moreso upon his arrival at Lockerby Composite.

"I did some running in grade four and up, but really just to miss school - anything to get out of school," he acknowledged with a smile. "In the summer of grade nine, my father started encouraging me to get out to the track a bit, just to train for whatever sports."

"I started out my grade nine high-school season a lot better than I thought I would do, and then started taking it a lot more seriously."

As for the Naughton Trails, Annett was struck by much the same features as many of his fellow runners. "It's very hilly," he said. "Well, I guess all of the Sudbury trails are hilly. But this one is tricky in what I think they call the roller-coaster section, where it's single track and really windy."

"That's interesting, with a lot of tight corners."

But in a year like this one, athletes are more prepared than ever for just about anything to come their way, right around the next corner.

Following are some results from the 2020 Turkey Gobbler:

Women's - 7.5 km distance
1st - Sara McIlraith - 35:00
2nd - Jayde Hurley - 36:27
3rd - Kalila Hamilton-Bachiu - 38:12
4th - Mia Toner - 38:58
5th - Lexi Ransom - 39:23

Men's - 7.5 km distance
1st - Kendyn Mashinter - 27:43
2nd - Eric Leishman - 28:40
3rd - Alex Lambert - 30:35
4th - Patrick Wiss - 31:37
5th - Eran Bursey - 31:57

Women's - 3 km distance
1st - Maren Kasunich - 12:04
2nd - Bree Bourget - 13:47
3rd - Mira Battaion - 15:21
4th - Ava Hodgins - 15:35
5th - Isabel McKague - 15:35

Men's - 3 km distance
1st - Callum Wiss - 13:10
2nd - Robbie Jones - 13:38
3rd - Griffin Jones - 14:06
4th - Aaron Bolton - 14:51
5th - Frank Battaion - 14:55

Northern Ontario AAA Hockey League