On a bright morning in early November, most of the women’s cross country team’s 13 seniors are gathered on the track. They’re looking ahead to this weekend and their biggest meet of the season, and they’re also looking back—four years back, to their first year of college cross country.

When they arrived at Macalester, they were immediately drawn into the program by a dynamic, diverse, and outspoken group of seniors—like the incoming class that year, an especially large group of runners. The first-years paired up naturally with older mentors and learned from the paths that the seniors had pursued. That leadership helped them adjust and showed them how to thrive, in the team and outside it. “The seniors taught us to be strong, independent women,” says Karlyn Russell (Monona, Wis.) “They told us that we didn’t have to pick between having fun and being competitive and running fast. We could do both. That stuck with me.”

As the first-years absorbed those lessons, head coach Betsy Emerson watched them develop into a special group of their own. Four years later, now as seniors themselves, they’re thoughtful and deliberate about the culture they’ve created for their team.

The large roster—43 women in all—ranges from All-American runner Kimber Meyer ’17 (Naperville, Ill.) to students who are trying out cross country for the first time. To build connections in such a big group, the seniors’ strategy includes plenty of team-bonding traditions: pasta parties and pancake breakfasts, a team talent show, volunteering at the Twin Cities Marathon, and a color run during which runners dress head-to-toe in one color and then take a group run as a long rainbow in support of National Coming Out Day.

Equally important is the collaborative tone they set for competition. The women train in packs and bring the same approach to races, when they often finish within seconds of others in their pack. They’re vocal and team-oriented, using gestures to rally their pack and cheering on teammates midrace. And when they’re done with individual races, the focus remains the same. “As soon as we cross the finish line, we’re cheering the rest of the group on, asking teammates how their races went, and celebrating with each other,” says Meyer. “We are so committed to this team.”

The result is all 43 teammates unified by a common goal. “Even though only the top five finishers score points [toward the team competition], those five people rely on all of the other women to back them up,” says captain Megan Davitt (Albany, N.Y.) “We always say the strongest part is the back of our pack pushing everyone forward.”

And the whole team has supported the top finishers all season. After being ranked regionally all year, Mac’s top seven will compete this weekend at the NCAA Central Region Meet, hosted by Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. (The rest of the team will cheer them on from the sidelines.) This year, five of Macalester’s top seven runners are seniors, the most ever on a Mac region meet roster. It’s a testament, Emerson says, to the Class of 2017’s dedication and commitment over four years.

Along the way, these seniors have created a big legacy. “We wanted to lay a strong foundation for the next four years with our leadership,” says captain Eliza Ramsey (Olympia, Wash.). ‘We want to leave this team in a really good place.”

November 8 2016

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