Men’s cross country has a somewhat infamous history on the Hill. Despite being primarily known for their distinctive tattoos, cultish fascination and streaking antics, the program has been quite successful over its 113-year history. Periods of triumph in the late 1970s and mid-2010s highlight the team’s achievements.
The strength of the men’s cross country program has been in part due to strong coaching, as evidenced by current Head Coach Phil Lundin winning MIAC Coach of the Year five consecutive times between 2012–2016, and in part due to outstanding individual performances.
However, no individual performance comes particularly close to the dominance displayed by Grant Wintheiser ’15 during the peak of Lundin’s coaching career in 2014, pinnacled by a first place finish at the Division Three National Cross Country Championships.
Before diving into the standalone impressiveness of this championship feat, it’s important first to offer some cross country context, both specific to St. Olaf and about the sport in general.
As a sport, cross country is quite simple — it’s just running. And, as compared to other running sports like track and field or mixed events like triathlons, it’s even more simple. Cross country doesn’t come with any constraints offered by these events, such as having to wear special track footwear or switching between biking, swimming and running. It’s free and easy, just as simple as running around your backyard as a kid.
This description misses much of the nuance of the sport, however, that is offered by its strict training regimen, intensive coaching and mid-race dynamics. At the collegiate level a cross country race is eight kilometers, or roughly five miles. An average time for this distance at the national level is around 25 minutes and 45 seconds, which equates to, again roughly, five minutes and ten seconds per mile.
Maintaining this type of pace for five miles takes an impressive amount of endurance. To build this endurance, cross country athletes will run anywhere from fifty to eighty miles per week, all at various intervals and tempos. It’s a sport that demands a lot from the body, and to prepare to run at this national level takes a precise and focused dedication to training.
That’s partly why cross country at St. Olaf has carried with it such a cultish appearance. Training in this way as a team for hours every week breeds a close-knit dynamic. It’s a bit of a paradox that such an individualized sport comes with such a team atmosphere, but that’s just the nature of the cross country beast. And at St. Olaf, running endless loops around the natural lands can do that to a team’s constitution.
With all this as background, let’s turn to Wintheiser’s 2014 season.
His first race of 2014 was the St. Olaf Alumni 5k, a race between current St. Olaf and Macalester College athletes and St. Olaf alumni. Wintheiser posted a time of 15 minutes and seven seconds for this five kilometer race, winning the event by 13.2 seconds over fellow Ole Jake Campbell ’16.
Wintheiser’s next race was the St. Olaf Invitational, hosted here on the Hill between St. Olaf and fifteen other division three schools. This race was eight kilometers, and Wintheiser won it cleanly, posting a time of 24 minutes and 52 seconds.
Two weeks later, the Oles traveled to Colfax, WI to participate in the Blugold Invitational hosted by the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. Competing with 24 other teams, St. Olaf took first place and, again, Wintheiser won the individual event, running 24 minutes and 36 seconds on a cold, rainy and windy afternoon — a 16 second improvement over his St. Olaf Invitational time. So far, Wintheiser was three-for-three in first place finishes on the season.
Wintheiser would finish third at the next event, the Jim Drews Invitational, running 24 minutes and 38 seconds. Sometimes great athletes just get outran on the day, and that’s what happened here, with two runners from Iowa Central taking first and second places.
This invitational was the last event before the 2014 MIAC Cross Country Championships, hosted that year at Como Golf Course in St. Paul. At the MIAC Championships Wintheiser would return to his winning form, taking first place with a 24 minute and 47 second race that would lead the Oles to a first place team finish. In fact, St. Olaf was so dominant at the 2014 Championships that all of the first four finishers were Oles — Wintheiser, Campbell, Jake Brown ’15 and Phillip Meyer ’15.
This outstanding performance in St. Paul catapulted Wintheiser and the Oles on to the 2014 Division Three Regional Cross Country Championships at Central College in Pella, Iowa. Here, Wintheiser and the St. Olaf team would again take first place, with Wintheiser running 24 minutes and 13 seconds. Compare this time to his finish at the St. Olaf Invitational — 39 seconds faster — and we can clearly see the vast improvements on an already dominant performance.
Winning the regional title primed Wintheiser for an inspired performance at the Division Three Cross Country National Championships, which took place in Mason, Ohio. Against a field of a staggering 280 runners, Wintheiser finished the race in first place, posting a time of 23 minutes and 44 seconds, a six second gap over the second place finisher. This time was 29 seconds faster than his performance at the Regional Championships, again a demonstration of Wintheiser’s consistent improvement and excellent running over the course of the 2014 season.
Let’s take a step back and put this final race of Wintheiser’s season into perspective. Eight kilometers, five miles, in 23 minutes and 44 seconds. That comes out to an average split of four minutes and 46 seconds per mile. Over a hilly golf course, with wind, cold temperatures and a massive field of other runners, this pace is remarkable. And the six second winning gap is also quite remarkable, as usual first-to-second place gaps are around three to four seconds.
Winning the National Championships would culminate one of the most impressive single season performances in the entire history of St. Olaf athletics. The St. Olaf team finished second at the Championships, which would only be eclipsed by their first place finish in 2016. Throughout MIAC tracking cross country results since 1964, only two other MIAC runners had ever finished first at the Regional Championships before Wintheiser, one in 1982 and the other in 2011. No other Ole has ever won the Cross Country National Championships, with Mike Palmquist ’80 finishing second in 1979.
Of the six races Wintheiser ran in 2014, he won five, consistently improving upon his finishing times. Wintheiser’s 2014 cross country season marks the clear pinnacle of individual cross country performances at St. Olaf in the program’s long and storied history.