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(Photo: Courtesy / Wikimedia Commons)

Walls of women run the flat circuit, yelling at each other, and fans in body paint and underwear cheer their team on, and sometimes jeer at competitors.

Through the commotion, senior Hannah MacIntyre, Hillsdale’s highest-ranking runner and first four-time All-American, emerged fourth in the nation,  running what coach Andrew Towne called probably the best race of her career.

“She’s someone who has really continued to try to get to better all the time,” Towne said. “She was in the mix to be national runner-up until about 15 meters to go.”

The Hillsdale College women’s cross country team finished seventh place at the Division II Nationals — a meet that’s unlike any other race the team runs all year.

“One of the best things these girls did was put us back where we belong in the discussion,” Towne said. “When everybody writes you off, it’s difficult to stick your nose back in and say this is who we are.”

The Division II is not the typical cross country meet, Towne said. If the team ran it 10 times, Towne speculated, about half those times the team would finish in seventh, and the other half it’d finish between second and fifth.

“It was probably the worst showing of who we are, not for lack of effort, but it’s really hard to prepare people,” Towne said. “There’s so much going on, you just see blurs of people, it can be very intense. It takes a little getting used to.”

Colorado’s Adams State University won, followed by the usual suspects, who came in close together: University of Mary (2), Cal Baptist (3), Chico State (4), Alaska Anchorage (5), and Grand Valley State University (6). Four Midwest region teams made it into the top 20: GVSU, Hillsdale, Walsh (10), and Northern Michigan University (13).

“Anytime you finish seventh in the country, that’s pretty darn good. For us, of our top seven, six of them come back, so we’re a really young team,” Towne said. 

Only MacIntyre and freshman Kyleigh Edwards raced their best race of the year, Towne said, probably the team’s lowest total this season. At the conference meet, by contrast, it was the best race to date for four to five women.

When MacIntyre made All-American last year, which means top 40, she came in 16th after setting a goal of 15th. This year, she aimed for 2nd and came in 4th, jumping 12 spots.

“I didn’t settle, and that was the best race I’d ever had, just in terms of happiness with how I took things mentally,” MacIntyre said. The difference this time was that the voice she normally hears when she races, “This is good enough,” was silent. Instead, she heard, “Go for second.” 

At about the 3K mark, MacIntyre said she felt like she could pass the group of girls with whom she was running, something she never feels, especially at nationals. Afterward, she said her parents told her they had been watching the race live, and at the 3K said some Hail Mary’s for her.

“It was by the grace of God that race went so well,” she said.

Like the other racers, MacIntyre had to cancel out the distractions around her.

“Everybody is amped, there are people running around in their underwear with full-body paint on, it’s very tribal, I hate those cowbells,” MacIntyre said. “We do not need more cowbell, could you make me feel more like a herd animal right now? I’m already feeling very vulnerable. Please don’t ring your cowbell at me.”

After the gun went off, Eads said the team got out so quickly they couldn’t maintain their positions. The packs of two didn’t stay together, meaning some of the freshmen had to run by themselves. Eads biggest concern, however, was the mud, which was so slippery it felt like running on ice.

“If I didn’t have Kyleigh I would have finished even worse,” said Eads, who described the atmosphere at Nationals as if the fans were having a sacrifice.    

The results heartened the team because they boosted them back into the national discussion, after finishing 17th at nationals last year.

The work isn’t done for cross country women, however. They go from one season to the next, alternating from cross country to track. Training for it begins soon and the first meet will be in mid-January.

“That race didn’t show what our full potential was, but it was step one of us getting back on the national radar,” Eads said. “Last year, we didn’t place any where that people would know about. This year, seventh is a way to start going into track, people will say, ‘Oh, Hillsdale is back, I guess.’”