In the fall of 2014, UTM’s athletic program made its first entry into the Ontario College Athletic Association (OCAA) varsity program with cross country. It’s taken a rough six years, but the program has finally matured into one of UTM’s most successful, achieving many firsts for the program and for the university.
Most wouldn’t know given the team’s recent traction and success, but the program struggled. When Brittany Tierney took over as varsity and intramural supervisor in 2017, she joined a still growing program, and there were concerns about the cross-country team’s numbers. The program struggled to attract athletes and form a single women’s or men’s team—which consists of six athletes.
In its first two years the team struggled to secure a place at the CCAA cross country national championships, let alone medal at an invitational race. Program alumni, former captain, and UTM Rookie of the Year, Haseeb Malik and his teammate, Kale Heino made their own history together, qualifying as individual runners for nationals in each of the four years that they ran for UTM. While the two brought life to the struggling program by putting UTM on the map, it was the addition of UTM medical student Sophie Glanz in 2017 that put the exclamation point on the cross-country team’s potential.
During that year, Glanz made a statement in the league placing in the top 10 in each of her races as a first-year varsity athlete. She went on to finish fifth overall at the OCAA cross-country championships and 15th overall at the CCAA national championships. For her incredible strides that season the OCAA recognized her with one of its highest honors—OCAA Female Rookie of the Year. There had been some growing pains up until that point, but UTM’s cross-country program was finally taking off.
“Growth in cross country is often difficult to quantify. While student engagement in the program has grown, the biggest growth that I’ve seen, especially this year, is commitment. Each member of the team regularly puts in 15 plus hours of training between running, strength and conditioning, physiotherapy and racing,” program head coach Sam Dumcum told The Medium.
Dumcum joined the UTM Eagles cross country team as a student in 2014 in the 2014/2015 academic year, during their OCAA debut season. Three years later, he became the team’s assistant coach and had the privilege of leading the team as acting head coach when they traveled to the national championships.
This season has seen the highest number of student-athletes interested in running for UTM. It’s also the first time that the team has had to make cuts.
“To help increase student engagement this year, I introduced a new three tier qualification system that allows athletes of all levels to develop their running skills as part of a team. The three levels include race team (Varsity), development team (D-League) and training team (learn to race/open to all). These athletes train together, with top members of the race and development teams having the opportunity to represent UTM at the OCAA Provincial Championships,” said Dumcum.
The sport of cross country is not as simple as running a lengthy racecourse as fast as possible. There are a number of challenges that the athletes face over the course of a relative short season, challenges that might not be evident on the surface. Despite their obvious success, this year’s cross-country team had to overcome a number of hurdles. Dumcum outlined the three things that can make an otherwise short season incredibly difficult and taxing on a runner.
“Training. The season is quite short—only eight weeks long. You have to come into the season ready to run, and juggle the beginning of the year and mid-terms [with] trying to get in 16-20 hours a week of training. [The next obstacle is the] racing course: no two courses are the same. Some are hill-y, some are flat, and each requires slightly different expertise. This year, provincials was on a decently hill-y area, and our team prepared all season doing most of our runs in Erindale Park and did great. [And finally, the] weather. When the season starts, it’s 25 degrees Celsius and at nationals the team raced in what felt like [22 below]. Having the proper gear and training in every sort of weather is quite difficult. Our team definitely struggled with the snow in Grande Prairie where it snowed 40cm the weekend of nationals.”
Despite the challenges, the 2019/2020 UTM Varsity cross-country team achieved what no other team has before. This year the women’s team had an undefeated season, finishing first overall in every invitational race. Glanz led the pack with a first-place finish in each event. The ladies’ team’s success carried over to the OCAA championships where they medaled for the time in program history with silver.
Glanz, coming off a heavy medical school week working 50+ hours, became the first runner for UTM to win an individual medal with bronze. Both teams did incredibly well at the provincial event, leading to yet another UTM first. For the first time, both men’s and women’s cross-country teams qualified for the CCAA nationals, with the ladies’ team second place and the men’s sixth place in the convener allotted top-seven qualifier.
This year’s CCAA cross-country championships was hosted in Grande Prairie, Alberta. Athletes raced in in negative 22 degree Celsius weather and through 40cm of snow. Glanz finished ahead of her team placing 19th in the country with a race time of 27:27. Aaron De Jong finished 25th in the country with a race time of 30:29.
Dumcum was thrilled with the team’s results. “Each of our student athletes had multiple personal bests, which is a huge accomplishment. Our first and last race of the season were on the same course in Windsor, and some of our Eagles improved by five minutes over eight kilometres. All through the season the athletes encouraged each other on our team’s social media platform and it was really exciting to watch them improve as the season went on. The women’s team had an undefeated invitation season. The men’s team also had the highest placing at provincials ever.”
Tierney’s excitement with the program also comes from witnessing and appreciating the way Dumcum coaches, who individualizes each and every one of his athletes training programs. “As an athlete, I’ve been fortunate enough to have exceptional coaches and train with multi-time Olympians, which has really shaped my coaching philosophy.” Though his cross-country coaching experience is somewhat limited, having only raced in high-school, he believes he’s accumulated valuable experience having represented both Canada and the U.S. at multiple world multisport championships. “Having spent years as a student athlete in California, I understand the rigors of training 23 hours a week, on top of the demands of school.”
Alongside investing in the growth and development of his runners, this year Dumcum impressed Tierney by bringing on consultants to meet and talk with the team. “Not many people realize how isolating a sport like running can be. You’re not always in good shape, and you’re not always feeling your best. It can be easy to feel alone,” said Tierney.
Dumcum invited experienced runners U of T Alumna, multi-cross country national champion Sasha Gollish and two-time Olympian Reid Coolsaet to come out to train and talk to his team.
This year, Dumcum reached out to some pillars in the GTA running community who had experience representing Canada both at the Olympics and Pan Am games to chat with the team about what it’s like to race when it matters most.
Sasha Gollish spoke to the team about the mental toughness racing requires. This is a topic close to Gollish’s heart since she had to drop out of the IAAF World Athletic’s Championships a couple weeks before due to extreme heat, but she remained to encourage her teammates. Gollish, a University of Toronto Alumna, won the bronze metal at the 2015 Pan American Games in the 1500 meters. That same year, Gollish was named the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) Female Athlete of the year for her dominating performance at the CIS Championships. She won the gold medal in the 1000, 3000 and 4 by 800 meter events, and the silver medals in the 600 and 1500 meter events.
“Success in running is all about community. [The team] took this message to heart in the way they encouraged [and] pushed each other through the mental blocks to be their best. In almost twenty years of racing, this is the most connected I’ve seen a school running team, and I can’t wait to see what happens next year!” expressed Dumcum.
Reid Coolsaet visited to run with the team the week before nationals, sharing his wisdom and advice with them. Coolsaet is a four-time national champion in the 5000 meters. In 2009, he moved up to the marathon distance competing for Canada in 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. After two Olympics, Reid now spends many of his runs training other runners. His message of the day was, “your job is to beat people.”
“It was fun and serious at the same time and the impact was immediate,” said Dumcum. “Cross country isn’t just about doing your best—it’s about beating people. And while at Grande Prairie it was tough to breathe and even harder to run, let alone beat people, our team showed a huge amount of grit!”
“I feel like meeting Olympic caliber athletes really inspired our team because we got to witness firsthand what is possible when you put the hard work in. I think the best thing Sasha and Reid taught us was that things aren’t always going to be perfect, but you can always control your effort and do the best you can with what you have despite the condition” senior runner with the team, Gabriel Boily-Porter told The Medium.
Alongside a surprising increase in the number of participants, the 2019 season has brought nothing but firsts for UTM’s cross country program, underlining what might be one of the greatest runs of any UTM Varsity program to date by one of the most diverse group of athletes.
Julia Costanzo, a former Varsity Blues Field Hockey athlete took her opportunity with UTM’s cross-country team to finish her varsity career on her own terms. “I used to be a Varsity Blues Field Hockey player but last year I suffered my fourth major concussion in a varsity field hockey game and was told I could never play field hockey again. because I wanted another way to end my varsity career since I refused to let a career ending injury be my final moment in a blue and white uniform. I wanted to use my final year of intercollegiate eligibility to re-write my own ending.”
UTM’s blossoming cross-country program also attracted Aaron De Jong, a UTM graduate student and former McMaster runner to suit up in the white and the white and blue. “Growing up, I was always drawn to endurance sports. I competed in triathlons at a provincial and national level while running cross country and track each year for my high school. I continued running cross country and track at a varsity level during my undergrad McMaster. I’ve always loved using endurance sports to push my limits in competition. I still had this love of running and competition (and more importantly, two years of eligibility left) when I started graduate school at UTM, so I was excited by the opportunity to run for the Eagles,” De Jong told The Medium.
Dumcum credits the new direction his staff took this year for the team’s enormous success. “Along with myself, XC had two amazing assistant coaches in Melanie Beebe, who brought with her a competitive XC background, and Cassandra Doman, who had a focus on kinesiology and wellness.”
“This was my one and only season with the team,” said Costanzo, who has used up all five years of her Varsity eligibility. “But I hope that the success the team had this year was just the beginning. I hope that in the years to come the team will grow in size and speed and emerge as a perennial contender for both the men’s and women’s OCAA and CCAA XC titles.
“My other hope for the team is that the family atmosphere we’ve created follows the team from year to year,” concluded Costanzo. “One of the things I loved most about this team was how close we became and how comfortable we felt relying on each other during difficult races, workouts, or just everyday life. As someone who has been on many different teams, I know how rare and special that is. I hope it continues.”