In Their Own Words: Breakthroughs

Photo by Maxine Gravina
Photo by Maxine Gravina

Sergio Raez Villanueva, Third Year, McMaster Marauders Cross Country

Breakthroughs. Last year, wearing the Marauder singlet while representing McMaster University was all about this; not only for myself, but also for many student-athletes on the team, especially during the cross country season. But let’s step back in time.

“I am more than eager; I am hungry.”

It’s September 2017 and my second year in university studying Biology and Physiology just started. It is also the first year that I get to compete for McMaster as a varsity athlete (due to a transfer and an illness that had me withdraw from McGill University in 2015 making me ineligible to compete during my first-year at McMaster in 2016). I am more than eager; I am hungry. The inability to compete in 2016 was unexpected and difficult to accept, and watching my teammates race back then while I remained a spectator made me more eager still. Finally, the year has arrived and the cross country season has begun!

This story is not about a particular instance, but it is a collection of hard work, of tenacity, and especially of the will to push ahead. As athletes, we all have dissimilar trials and problems, which may include injuries, fears, worries, or other ‘blips’ that can pose a challenge to complete the season, or more specifically to complete the season well. I certainly know many of my teammates, strong as they are, overcoming some of these difficulties and doing so to give their all on race day.

For me, it was running on grass – no – racing on grass. My speed and endurance, for some reason or another, had never translated as efficiently when the running terrain was not a flat, hard surface like the roads or the track. Something about the grass; running on it is “an art,” as Connor Darlington would say, my teammate and bronze-medalist in the last cross country university national known as ‘CIS’. Had you asked me what I expected of this season, as eager as I was to race, it was definitely not obtaining the results that I eventually accomplished later on in the year.

Workouts and training started, and in the back of my head there was always that lingering self-doubt that the grass really hindered my performance, and I could start to notice so even during practices. But what is there to do? One way or another, you make it work.

That season, I took it upon myself to run on as much grass as possible to get used to it more and more. I had never done so many loops around a park for an off-day run, for every single off-day run, in my life – not even the guys wanted to join me anymore! Props to those that went with me for a few sessions (you’re my heroes!).

Raising my concerns about grass to Paula Schnurr, our coach then and of course now, was a way for me to make my situation tangible. Wise as she is (thank you, Paula), she would tell me to not even think about grass in such a way anymore (and in fact, I wonder now how silly I sound sometimes when I talk so sternly about grass), and instead to treat the workouts and races as if grass had no factor in it.

“The key to overcoming is found within one’s mental state….”

Perhaps there could be some light at the end of the tunnel. The key to overcoming is found within one’s mental state: the will to continue with an interesting blend of optimism and realism despite the uncertainty. That sounds easy in theory, but in practice, it is one of the greatest gifts (and yet somehow also a curse) to master about long-distance running.

So, the season went on. But even with this new mentality, how could one ever hope to compare with those already expected to place well? In a race, the playing field is the same for everyone and “you cannot place yourself out of the race before it has even started”. Captain Jeff Tweedle would say it best, “you can be up there with the guys in the front”. This is the mentality with which the team and I tackled many workouts.

Finally, the OUA Championships arrived in late October in Windsor. Through a muddy 10km course, I found myself at the front pack running like I had never before in a cross country championship. I placed 2nd; an achievement that I did not expect at all, not even during the race. I had not counted myself out, but most certainly I would not have considered myself to be just shy of the gold medal!

It’s important to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves during a race, but most importantly, it is essential to believe in what you can do especially as tiredness and pain start to jolt in. That sort of thinking is, again, the light at the end of the tunnel. It was a breakthrough, and not only for myself, but for a lot of my teammates. Rookie Max Turek placed 3rd just behind me and Tweedle placed 5th even after an unfortunate fall. Everyone else also performed so well, helping us earn a silver medal as a team.

The excitement in the air with ‘the boys’ (you know who you are) and so many of our supporters (we can’t do it without them!) was amazing and something that I still cherish to this day. It made us see that we can always aim higher, and that the individual desire to perform well becomes a collective will to do our very best. We went on to place 4th at U SPORTS in Victoria, B.C. I placed 8th overall and was a Second Team All-Canadian!

We are hungry for more to come this year. I can only speak for myself, but it is my belief that OUAs served as a bridge to fuel our determination and personal goals for the future. The results of that day propelled me forward, especially my mental grit, to continue my accomplishments in the indoor track season and onwards, as I went on to represent Canada internationally in the FISU World Cross Country Championships in Switzerland in April and in the NACAC Track and Field Championships in Toronto in August (qualifying for this one after winning the Canadian 10,000m Championships in June; my first Senior Canadian Title).

I even had some media advertisement fun through the Canadian Running Magazine (thank you to the awesome Maxine Gravina for giving me a spotlight!). Turek and Alex Drover (both now in their second year) went onwards to represent Canada in the IAAF World Junior Track and Field Championships in Finland as well.

“There is something magical about running and how it brings us all together.”

I am very much looking forward for more to come from this amazing team! Our current roster (both for men and women and for the returning members and new recruits) is looking solid, and the progression and development gained as we get more practices under our belt is something wonderful to experience first-hand, especially when working as a team to push each other further. There is something magical about running and how it brings us all together.

We’re all very excited for this current 2018 Cross Country season to see what we can accomplish. I cannot wait to see just how much my teammates and I can improve from last year. We are looking forward to OUAs in London and U SPORTS in Kingston. The ability to thrive is within. To attain it, however, also pertains to the pain and struggle that comes with consistent physical and mental hard work. Just how much do you wish to go? We each make that call. We make the call about just how much we want to break through our own limits. Let’s make it count!