On Oct. 27, 2001, success for Kenyon knew no gender on the cross-country course at the all-male Wabash College. On this crisp autumn day, Kenyon’s Lords and Ladies both took the title of North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) champions. While the Lords were favored to win their third straight title that day, the Ladies won their second conference title in a stunning upset over the rest of the field through gritty team running.
The fall of 2001 marks the only time that the Lords and Ladies took conference titles in the same year. With mere seconds separating the leading Lords and Ladies, both teams illustrated the strength of pack running, a team-oriented strategy in what is often mistakenly considered an individual sport.
Scoring in cross-country is like golf: The lowest score wins. The top five runners earn scores and the other runners on a team look to displace other teams’ top five runners. A perfect score of 15 points is earned when a team’s top five runners take first through fifth place. No team has ever achieved this at the NCAC championships.
At the 2001 conference meet, the Lords were very close to perfection, taking all but fifth place. While their fifth runner finished 18th, that was good enough to put the Lords’ point total, like their leading harriers, well beyond reach. The Lords’ 28 points bested the College of Wooster and the host team Wabash College’s scores of 84 and 85, respectively.
For the Lords, this was their third title in as many seasons and their largest margin of victory in that time span. In contrast to the Lords’ dominance, the Ladies came into the meet as contenders but definite underdogs, having taken second or third place in each season since their first conference title in 1995. Going into the meet, the Ladies were picked at third or fourth in pre-race coaches’ polls, while the Allegheny College Gators were picked as favorites.
While the Lords won on strength, the Ladies — who raced first that day — won on strategy, taking the title without placing a single runner in the top five.
Pack running denotes an approach to cross-country racing where teammates prioritize sticking together and moving up the field in groups over individuals each striving for their own best placement. In this race, the Ladies all came in between sixth and 15th place. Laura Koss ’04 led the Ladies to the line in a time of 19:35.57. Katherine Kapo ’02 and Meg Biddle ’03 came in 10th and 11th, respectively, while Tenaya Britton ’04 and Katie Tully ’04 finished 14th and 15th, separated by less than half of a second. Overall, all five Ladies crossed the line within 30 seconds of one another, an astonishing feat and a sign of a perfect pack-running.
Despite the favored Gators putting their first runner ahead of Koss and their second ahead of Kapo, Kenyon’s third through fifth runners each finished before Allegheny’s third. This ultimately gave them the edge over the Gators, 56 points to 69.
After the meet, the Ladies attributed their victory to team chemistry, calling their team the most closely bonded group they had been a part of. “People ran for each other,” Britton told the Collegian in November 2001.
Rob Passmore ’02, the Lords’ sixth man in this race, remembers the women’s race being a nail-biter, saying the Lords did not know who had won when the Ladies finished. As the Lords finished their pre-race warm-up, they saw the entire women’s team screaming and piling on top of Head Coach Duane Gomez.
“It was inspiring to see that right before we started,” he wrote in a message to the Collegian. “I know it didn’t dawn on me that we could have a double win, the entire team had more of a competitive response — ‘Well, now we have to win.’”
Leading the Lords to victory that day was then-junior Ben Hildebrand ’03. Hildebrand won the meet in a time of 26:00.37 over eight kilometers, a 10-second margin over the rest of the field. Michael Baird ’03, Cary Snyder ’02 and Matt Cabrera ’03 followed suit, finishing within seven seconds of one another. These four runners crossed the line 10 seconds before the first non-Kenyon runner, Jared Smit of Wabash.
Looking back, Hildebrand remembered the race as a culmination of not only a season, but years of hard effort, all peaking on Wabash’s windy course.
“The results were pure domination,” he wrote in a message to the Collegian. “When I turned around at the finish line and saw my teammates in successive order, the feeling was pure elation and pride.”
In the Nov. 1, 2001 edition of the Collegian, Snyder recounted the decisive moment in the race: four kilometers in, when the leading Lords decided to surge.
“That was the most memorable moment I’ve ever had in a race,” he said. “Where you have four guys running together and we just on a dime decide to drop the rest of the conference behind us.”
Snyder, nearly two decades removed, remembers the good fortune the team had of not only winning, but of winning because of their camaraderie. His teammates are still among his best friends.
“Looking back, I feel very fortunate that not only were we able to win a conference title along with the women’s team, but we were able to train, play out the season and race that day,” he wrote in a message to the Collegian. Passmore, too, recalls the distance runs and the friendships formed as the most meaningful part of his collegiate career.
2001 was a year that, not unlike 2020, was marked by uncertainty. The conference race occurred just over a month after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The world, as Passmore wrote to the Collegian, had changed.
“The one constant, the one thing that made sense, was running,” he wrote.
While Passmore does not remember many specifics of the race itself, he does recall the “purple wall” that led the way for the Lords that day.
Kapo, then the Ladies’ team captain, predicted in 2001 that the season would set the tone for years to come. In the three years prior and following 2001, encompassing the full collegiate career of that team’s then-seniors and first years, no Lady would experience anything lower than third place. In that same span, the Lords took the title four times, finishing second each other time.
Looking back, Kapo wrote in a message to the Collegian about how special it was to not only be physically prepared to compete, but ready to work as a team and master “the art of running as a pack.”
Four years after this race, Passmore and Kapo got married in Hopewell Chapel, which sits on one of the cross-country team’s favorite distance routes, running the ridgeline of Hopewell Road.
Gomez, who is retiring at the end of the 2020 school year, netted his fourth and fifth conference titles in 2001 and was named the NCAC Coach of the Year for both men and women. He would coach the Lords and Ladies to one additional title each, earning seven total over the course of his nearly four decades at the helm.
Gomez recalls the unparalleled exuberance of both teams that day. It is unusual for each member of a team to have a good race all at once, much less for both teams to run at their best when it matters most.
“It was pretty amazing, something I’ll never forget,” he wrote in a message to the Collegian. “I remember pulling into an Olive Garden for lunch and saying to the teams, ‘No budget! Celebrate!’”