In Zak Kirk’s first cross country race as a Pilot, he finished 10th on his team, and almost wasn’t included in the 10 runners Portland would send to the WCC Championships. But at the championships, Kirk finished third among Pilots. A month and a half later, he finished first among Pilots and 61st overall at the NCAA championships
“It's easy after a really bad race to let it completely kill (your) confidence,” Kirk said. “Following that race it more was just kind of keeping my head straight and... not letting a bad 25 minutes of racing completely ruin that.”
The men’s team finished 21st overall, a down year for their standards. All three years prior, they finished within the top 10. The women’s team, after not qualifying for the meet last year, finished 22nd.
Rob Connors, the men’s team Head Coach, said his goal for next season is for his team to finish inside the top 10 and be the most improved team in the nation.
Kirk wasn’t the only Pilot standout from the race. On the women’s team, Anna Pataki placed 31st with the sixth fastest NCAA championship time in Pilot’s history.
Pataki said that she is still in disbelief about her performance given how far she's come.
“I still feel like I can’t believe it,” Pataki said. “But it's just a really good feeling being All-American in this big country as a Hungarian, it's just unbelievable, but at the same time, it's really good. It's a really good feeling.”
The meet, which was hosted by Oklahoma State University, is one of the toughest in the country because of its hills and winds. There were roughly 250 runners in both the men’s and women's race.
The first quarter-mile of the course was downhill. This combined with the number of runners on the course led to the first kilometer being run at 4:02 mile pace, a near sprint.
“(After the downhill) then you settle in and it's flat for another mile or so and then the hills start coming,” Connor said. “So right when you're most tired, then the hills start presenting themselves. It’s just a really difficult challenge.”
In a normal race, Pataki usually has a rough idea of where her and her teammates are placed, but because of the number of runners at nationals, she didn’t know how well she was doing until she crossed the finish line.
“When I finished, I was so exhausted and tired, and I couldn't think at all,” Pataki said. “But then after a while I started, I started thinking that like, 'oh I just ran nationals and it's such a big accomplishment.' So, I was so happy afterwards, when I got to know that as a team did so good and individually I came 31st, it was just, it was such a good feeling.”
With 1k left in the race, Kirk was hovering around 48th place and, although Kirk wasn’t disappointed with his finish, the perfectionist in him wished he had a better kick to propel him into the top 40 and make him an All American.
“Perfect days are so hard to come by,” Kirk said. “And especially compared to where I was at a year ago or even at the beginning of the season, having the bad race I did, to go there and place 60th on the tough course at the national meet, I really shouldn't have too much to complain about.”
Now that the national meet is over, Kirk and Pataki will be focusing on the recently started track and field season. Not much will change though, they will still train, and with the next cross country season this fall, they will have a short offseason.
Kirk thinks that the men’s team has a lot of momentum behind them and that Connor’s goal of finishing within the top 10 at next year's nationals is achievable.
“The pieces are there, without a doubt,” Kirk said. “...The ceiling is really high for everyone on the team, and this program, and just kind of putting in the work to rise to that occasion.”
William Seekamp is the Sports Editor for The Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.