Perhaps it’s nothing more than the incredible diversity in the elements that the local high-school cross-country crew experience in these parts that sears at least some memories of their fall jaunts in northern Ontario deeply into their cranial archives.
Heck, to this day, more than forty years after the fact, there are still race images from the Laurentian trails or the old Lasalle preliminary race (now leads into land that Cambrian College occupies), or even an intramural win from my first year at Macdonald-Cartier that are as vivid as they were in my late teens.
As I attended yet another set of SDSSAA Cross-Country Championship races this week, hosted at the Kivi Park venue that was but a distant vision for most of my time of covering the event, I couldn’t help but to recall some of the young phenoms who have come and gone during the past twenty years or so.
Kyla Pettigrew (now Cameron) was in grade ten at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary when she burst on to the scene in September of 2008 – and quite the burst it was, with very little in the way of foreshadowing from the multi-sport athlete who did not even compete on the trails until her junior year of high-school.
“I tried out longer races for track in grade nine after doing my beep test,” said Pettigrew, now 28 years old and having welcomed the birth of their second daughter with husband J-F Cameron just over a week ago. “Even when I did the beep test, I didn’t realize that it was that great of a score.”
The young woman who would go on to complete her masters in Occupational Therapy at Western following her undergraduate degree at Laurentian would come to realize that her first sport of choice apparently allowed her distance running to flourish. “I had played soccer competitively since I was very young; I guess that helped build up my endurance,” she said.
A member of the Sudbury Canadians for several years and long-time teammate of the likes of current Team Canada member Cloe Lacasse, as well as Kayla Gallo, Karolyne Blain and Serena San Cartier, Pettigrew was effectively training for her Knights’ cross-country and track breakthrough, long before she knew it.
“I could stay on the field for quite a while,” she recalled. “I did play midfield but also played striker for a while, where it’s more about a burst of speed.”
While some health challenges curtailed some triumphs to come in her senior years, Pettigrew enjoyed a first season for the ages, capturing gold at both SDSSAA and NOSSA and finishing 6th in her first shot at the much tougher OFSAA showdown. “I didn’t really know what to expect – I just kind of went for it,” she reminisced.
“I’m very motivated when I have people push me. There are so many people in that field that are so competitive. Having people in front of me is really good for me.”
It didn't hurt that the very basic elements of her training might well have given her a bit of a leg up when it came to going stride for stride with the provincial elite. "I actually think that running in Sudbury and training in Sudbury, both with Track North and Lo-Ellen as well, was an advantage."
"I felt the terrain around Laurentian was always tougher. By the time we got to OFSAA and even sometimes NOSSA that were run on flat ground, it was just so much easier."
And while life may not afford her quite the same window of training opportunities as it did in high-school, Pettigrew (Cameron) is not beyond taking a casual jaunt. "I will still go out for a jog or use my elliptical," she said.
"I always feel good after a run; it just may not feel as great during."
Manitowaning native and future OUA athlete Jeremy Cooper also migrated to the realm of cross-country from a secondary sport – though this one with far more direct ties to distance running. “I first started doing triathlons as a big thing, which my mother got me into doing,” said the now 29 year-old who still calls Manitoulin Island his home.
“It turned out that running was one of my stronger suits at the time. I just ended up sticking with it.”
That is saying something considering the training environment in which Cooper would develop, a far different atmosphere than the glut of fellow runners that Pettigrew enjoyed at Lo-Ellen or with Track North Athletic Club.
“Being out in the country, I was always running by myself,” he said. “I wasn’t too afraid to get out and run – there’s lots of road. But running alone, it was a challenge, a lot of it mental, sticking to it every day. I ran with Track North once a week and trained with them, which helped my career a lot.”
“It was a chance to run with a group and meet new teammates, which was really nice.”
Mind you, even in race settings, Cooper often ran alone, especially in the north.
At the Laurentian X-C Challenge in October of 2011, the multi gold medal winner at NOSSA bested the field by almost two full minutes over a 6.8 kilometre course. Not all of his races would necessarily be quite that comfortable.
“The most memorable for me was always the (Algonquin) Barons race in North Bay,” recalled Cooper. “It seemed that every year, it wanted to snow – and it was one of the roughest course that there was. Preference-wise, it was always a golf course; nice and flat and you could get some good times,” noted the father of one (with a second on the way) who cracked the OUA top-ten as a freshman with the Windsor Lancers.
“For me, it was a matter of gradually getting faster (in a race) and then trying to keep that fast pace. It was not necessarily about leading it, but keeping a good pace – and if everyone else was doing that pace, then tuck behind them and hopefully get a really good time.”
And where some athletes might lose sleep over those dreary weather forecasts that are a reality of the September to November period in northern Ontario, Cooper could not help but to rejoice.
"I usually liked it a bit cooler - that never seemed to bother me," he said. "Most of my best races were always in the crappiest weather. Being a runner and training outdoors, you got used to it - and it didn't seem to bug me as much as it bugged some other runners."
As the local elite who excelled this past week at the city championships make their way to NOSSA (October 26th) and OFSAA (November 5th), memories will be made - with many of those likely to survive the test of time.