Distance Night Captures the Magic Once Again

By Chris Quick, Distance Night in Palatine Meet Director

We have had two goals from the start of this meet: provide a focused and deep competitive outlet for elite distance runners and create a track meet centered on community service. We were happy to advance both missions in the second year of the meet. We filled the entire meet on both the boys and girls sides for the first time, even getting to the point where we had to turn athletes away. The girls meet improved considerably as we were able to offer two sections of the 3200 and had to add an extra emerging 1600 heat to give entry to so many deserving girls. We also were able to add Finn Gessner, who placed 2nd at the 2016 Foot Locker National cross country meet, as our first out-of-state athlete. He traveled from Madison, WI and was able to run 4:12 in our elite 1600. 

Beyond the increased depth of fields and fast times, we were also able to extend our mission of community service. We contributed $2,000 of our gate proceeds to Special Olympics and were also able to fill 8 large boxes of shoes to be recycled. Once again entry to the meet was by a $5 cash donation or free with a pair of used running shoes. For many fans and athletes, the Special Olympics 800 meter race was once again an emotional highlight. From the beginning, we wanted Distance Night to be a reminder that giving the best you have to give is all a runner can ask for, and our Special Olympians reminded us of that once again. I saw quite a few tears around the infield and in the stands, myself included.

Now on to some of our race highlights...

Mendez Runs Under 9:00 for 3200 Meters

Clayton Mendez surprised quite a few people in Illinois last spring after an illness hindered him during the fall cross country season. He ran 9:01.89 for 3200 meters during his indoor campaign, and then came to Distance Night to claim his big goal for the year: a sub-9:00 clocking. From the start, he jumped out to a big lead, clicking off 67 second laps. As his lead grew, the drama unfolded with him out front alone until he crossed the line in 8:59.46 (much to the delight of the screaming crowd). In a race we hope to develop as another option to Arcadia, the importance of a sub-9:00 clocking cannot be underestimated. Many congrats to Clayton, who went on to finish third in the Class 3A 3200 meters later in the season. Even better, this past cross country season he finished 18th at NXN and 9th at Foot Locker Nationals. Clayton will continue his academic and athletic career next year at Stanford University.

Behind Mendez's brilliant run, we also saw the emergence of two Illinois Class A stars in Logan Hall (Arthur-Lovington) and Wyatt McIntyre (Athens). They battled all the way to the line with Hall prevailing by a meter or so as both ran new personal bests of 9:11. The same duo went on to place 1-2 in the Illinois Class A cross country meet this past fall. Only this time, it was McIntyre in command. For fans and alums of the University of Illinois (like me), you will be happy to know that Hall and McIntyre will join forces next season as teammates for the Fighting Illini.

Kriss Produces a Stunner in the Undercard

Not many people had heard of Stephanie Kriss prior to Distance Night. The Highland Park freshman had run some solid early season times in the low-2:20s for 800 meters, but nothing to separate her from the crowd or even secure her a position in the fastest heat of the day. That lack of notoriety was quickly erased though as Kriss blazed a 2:12.83 from the Undercard section of our event. The time bested that run by Rachel Hickey later that evening in the Main Event and turned out to be the state leader. Again, no one knows what they have to give until they encounter truly elite competition. What a fabulous coming out party for an emerging mid-distance star!

Gessner, Aho, and griffith Go Head to Head

Convincing high quality athletes from out-of-state to run in our meet has been a mission since day one. As we put together our field for the Main Event boys 1600, it ended up falling in place that three national class boys cross country runners wanted to race each other. Jack Aho (Grayslake Central, IL), Finn Gessner (Madison LaFollete, WI), and Brian Griffith (Lake Zurich, IL) had all met each other at Foot Locker Cross Country nationals so it was natural to get these new friends into a race with one another. Gessner had blazed a 8:47.57 at Arcadia two weeks prior so they decided to seek a fast 1600 at our meet. The end result was a spectacular race as Aho, Gessner and Griffith all broke 4:13 for 1600 meters. Gessner gave a spirited charge down the backstretch on the final lap, but Aho rallied in the final few desperate meters to win by a time of 4:12.05 to 4:12.14. All three guys signed with Midwestern powerhouses to run collegiately - Aho at University of Michigan, Gessner at University of Wisconsin, and Griffith at Notre Dame. Look for this rivalry to continue!

Tagging into that front group of three Foot Locker finalists was also Jacob Gebhardt (Sterling, IL). Jacob had a breakout race at Distance Night 2016 as well, and you could tell from the gun that he had decided to take a risk. He folded in just behind the top guys and rode the train as long as he could. His reward? A 4:14.51 PB and another Distance Night breakthrough. Jacob parlayed his momentum from this big run to runner-up performances in the Class 2A 1600 later in the year and the Class 2A cross country meet this past fall. He will compete collegiately at Indiana University next year.

All in all, 13 guys in the Main Event 1600 broke 4:20 with the top five all running under 4:15. Run in the Gauntlet style with the crowd on the track, this race will continue to be a highlight in future versions of the meet.

Niziolek Leads Three Girls Under 5:00

The Maine South girls were first-time participants in 2017, and they did not disappoint. In a race that split rather slowly for the first 800 meters, it turned out that the pace was just to Olivia Niziolek's liking. The Maine South star made her move in the third lap and never looked back as she streaked to a huge new personal best of 4:54.85. Her teammate Maddie Dingle finished in 5:03.49 as the top ten girls all ran 5:06 or faster. It was great to see so many smiling faces as girls celebrated new PRs and new school records. Long-time coach Harvey Braus, first of Lake Park and now at Maine South, wore this great smile of exuberance on his face. Seeing he and his athletes celebrate and have fun made all the hard work to put on the event worth  it.

On a personal note, it was a delight to see Claudia Magnussen (Pana, IL) in the field. Claudia's dad Mark ran for Palatine High School and placed 30th in the Illinois 2A cross country meet in 1980. The legend of "Mags" is told often in the Palatine program. He had to run a JV race the week of IHSA Regionals in order to make the varsity squad. Two weeks later, he was winning the state meet coming out of the triangle, having PR'd in the 1600 en route. Mark's charge moved the Palatine Pirates to action, and we placed 2nd in the Class 2A state meet to secure our program's first ever state trophy. To bring it all full  circle, Marc was able to bring his daughter Claudia to compete at Distance Night in front of her grandparents. She ran 5:02.65 and later finished 3rd (3200) and 4th (1600) in the Class 1A edition of the Illinois state track meet. Claudia now runs for Notre Dame.

New Stars Emerge in Deep Freshmen 1600

No event grew more in depth or quality last year than our freshman 1600. It took a time in the mid-4:40s to even make the field of 16, and the race did not disappoint. York's tough duo of Daniel Klysh and Ethan Kern hung near the lead early, but they were challenged throughout by Damian Rodriguez (Batavia, IL), Noah McIntyre (Athens, IL), and Josh Methner (Hersey, IL). Kern managed to seize the lead from his front-running teammate in the last curve as the first three finishers demolished the meet record and ran under 4:30. Kern's 4:28.67 sets a tough new bar for our freshman competitors. Ten athletes ran 4:38 or better in this race, showcasing the depth of Illinois' up and coming stars.

For some perspective, just track some of these guys into their sophomore cross country seasons. Methner finished 7th in the Class 3A state cross country race in a scorching 14:36 before emerging on the regional cross country stage with a 7th place finish at Nike Cross Midwest. William Hauenstein from Wheaton Warrenville South was only 8th in this race, but he came on to finish 13th in Class 3A cross country in a time of 14:39, leading his team to a first ever trophy finish. However you look at it, the freshman 1600 is already a breeding ground for the stars of the future.

Lyons Township Girls Drive Deep 3200 Meter Field

Lyons Township girls coach Alex Lyons decided to bring his emerging group of distance stars to Distance Night for the first time, and they did not disappoint. The two-headed monster of Sarah Barcelona and Emily Henkel drove pace the entire time, and they were rewarded with huge new PB's of 10:43.80 and 10:48.31. Returning athlete Danielle Osmon (Grant) was able to slip between them to run 10:45.78 for second place. In an event that looked like it might be down as many great girls opted for the 1600, there ended up being ten girls under 11:00.

I would love to highlight Maggie McPherson who ended up being the 10th place finisher in this Main Event race. Maggie runs for Sterling High School, which is not far from Geneseo, IL where I grew up. I know from long experience how few and far between elite races are in the small town areas of the Midwest states. Maggie's coach Tyler Gaumer is the son of Max Gaumer, who was a rival coach of my dad Jeff Quick. For years athletes from Sterling would battle my dad's athletes from Geneseo-Moline. To see that rivalry come full circle into cooperation was a great feeling. Maggie's time of 10:57 blew away the old Sterling school record and was just another reminder of how much kids are capable of when  they get the right depth of competition.

Santoro Takes Down Meet Record in 800 Meters

Andrew Adelmann has built quite the distance program at Jones College Prep in the city of Chicago. We have cooperated on many competitions together, and I have been real proud to have his athletes in on Distance Night from the start. It is not always easy for Chicago city kids to catch a great race, but with a quick bus ride and $25 we have been able to create that opportunity. Arthur Santoro did his best to take advantage of that as he scorched a 1:54.86 PB to win the Main Event 800 last year. The battle with Wes York (Waubonsie Valley, IL) was a strong one as Santoro had to set a new meet record to secure the win. All in all, eleven of the twelve athletes in the Main Event were able to clock under 1:57.00.

Shepard Boys and Girls Sweep Distance Medley Relay Titles

I must admit to being shocked when Shepard entered their star Caleb Washington in the Distance Medley Relay rather than an individual event. That speaks, though, to his belief in his teammates and his desire to defend the title that Shepard had won the year before in the inaugural Distance Night event. Washington's scorching anchor leg on the 1600 allowed Shepard to once again pull away as Caleb and his teammates Paul Milkus, Brian Hauser, and Dalvin Humphrey grabbed their second straight title in 10:30.03.

Even better, the Shepard girls team got in on the act and trounced the field en route to a big win in 12:47.95. Many congrats to Madzia Myrda, Nikki Carter, Jyana Washington, and Kelli Callahan for truly making Shepard High School the kings and queens of the Distance Night DMR.

Defending State Champ Hickey Wins 800 for Second Straight Title

Last but not least, I want to say a word about Rachel Hickey from Ottawa, IL. Like the aforementioned Jacob Gephardt and Maggie McPherson, Rachel hails from the central/western part of Illinois and does not always have access to the strongest competition. In 2016, she emerged at Distance Night by winning a tough 800 meter race over defending state champion Karina Liz (Aurora Central Catholic, IL). Awash with new confidence and a strong PR, Hickey went on to win the Illinois Class 2A title for 800 meters. She then doubled down in 2017 by powering to victory once again at Distance Night over Abby Fioresi (also from Aurora Central Catholic) in 2:13.69. Fioresi then exacted a measure of revenge later in the season by taking back the state 800 meter title that Hickey had won the year before.

To me, Rachel Hickey's story is a great one regarding elite competition. To become great, you have to race the best. She found them at Distance Night and proved to herself that she belonged. She carried that momentum to the ultimate title later in the season. Last year, though, the shoe was on the other foot. Other girls were gunning for her, establishing their own confidence and championship belief against the standard she had set. At alternate times, Rachel Hickey has been the  hunter and the hunted. Through it all, she has battled and found the best in herself.

I think of Rachel's story each year as Distance Night rolls around. It reminds me that the meet ultimately exists to serve the athletes. We wanted to create the kind of competition that a high school kid would love to compete in or watch. We wanted to empower those who do not have as many opportunities to find the best in themselves. Nothing has been more gratifying than seeing kids who caught their first big break at Distance Night go on to achieve incredible feats in the future.

Let's all get onboard for another great edition of the meet and find the next wave of emerging stars. We will see you all on Saturday, April 21, 2018 at Chic Anderson Stadium in Palatine. Undercard at 7:00 pm, Main Event at 9:00 pm. Let's set the track on fire!