The overall numbers at the L.U. Elementary Cross-Country Challenge were impressive, as per usual, but so too were the pockets of excellence that shone brightly as some schools and individuals were more than equal to the challenge at hand.
With more than 1,400 young runners on hand, it was St. James in Lively that would secure first place in both ends of the grade 5 and 6 division, with Elsa Blum and Caleb Mead showing the way for the Walden-based crew.
"We just run around our school, up hills and down hills and stuff like that to practice, but at every age group, there's at least one good runner," said Mead, just a few days shy of his 11th birthday early last week.
An impressive summer talent on the box lacrosse circuit, and now playing "AAA" hockey in the winter, Mead has found some highly beneficial cross benefits to his multi-sport interests.
"Hockey is my number one sport, but we found out that lacrosse helps you with hockey, so I joined lacrosse," he said.
"When I was in grade three, I didn't know what cross country was, but then I did good at it, so I just kept doing it."
In fact, Mead has been more than just "good" at the event, having captured first place in the 5/6 grouping last year, while still a full year younger than most of the top competitors, a reality that added a little extra pressure to the mix this fall.
"All of my friends kept saying that I was going to win and everything, so then I just made sure that I won," said Mead. "I started off at a strong pace, but not sprinting though, and then once I got to first place, then I just tried to catch the biker."
It was a strategy that was not terribly dissimilar to the one that was used by his schoolmate, as Elsa Blum registered an 11 second victory over Gabrielle Forshew of Ste-Marie.
"At the start of the race, I don't worry about who is in front of me or anything," said the 11-year-old hockey goaltender, on the side.
"I try and pace myself so that I'm kind of jogging, but also running, up to where the trails start. When I got there, for this race, there was one girl ahead of me, so I speeded up my pace so that I could get in front and then when I got pretty far in front of her, I kind of kept that pace, right until we turn in (to the stadium). Then I sprinted, as best that I could."
Yet for as much as Blum was easily distinguishable by virtue of her placement in leading the pack, there was also the matter of the not-to-be overlooked apparel that helped to make her easy to pick up.
"These are my lucky socks, actually," she laughed, alluding the the knee-high rainbow coloured adornments to her racing outfit. "I tie-dyed them at my sports camp. The first time I wore them, I came first, so I call them my lucky socks."
Perhaps the Lo-Ellen Park grade 7/8 boys also incorporated an object of good fortune into their race day routine. But one would have to credit moreso a very solid training regimen as a key factor in a performance that would see the school sweep the top four spots in this age bracket, and six of the top seven.
"Our school has a good program," said race winner James Bertrim, who crossed the finish line five seconds ahead of classmate Nolan Kuhlberg. "Every day, Miss Yauk sets up a fantastic team and we run to Laurentian and back."
"I've been training pretty hard lately, because it was one of my goals to try and get up near the top here," said the young athlete who also excels in both swimming and hockey, but who had never previously finished first at this event.
The 2019 Challenge was perhaps made somewhat more difficult for the older boys, who started their race five minutes after the grade 7/8 girls, and therefore had to navigate their way through the middle of the pack field of females en route to finish line chute.
"There were a few spots, near the middle of the race, that are a little narrow, but the girls were really polite and just moved over," said Bertrim. That was a good thing for Kuhlberg, who spotted the winner an early lead before closing extremely hard at the end.
"I was probably thirty people behind him at the start, but then I made my way up and at the end, I was maybe ten metres away from him," said Kuhlberg. "I tried to make it smaller, but he's just so fast. I maybe could have gone out a little bit faster, but other than that, I thought I ran pretty well."
By contrast, Maren Kasunich of Lakeview Public School in M'Chigeeng had far more room to work with, carving out a victory of 22 seconds ahead of Syla Swords of Lo-Ellen. Running, by herself, is a race setting that suits the young harrier well.
"I prefer cross-country to track," said the 13 year-old, one of a handful of Manitoulin Island runners working along with coach Gerry Holliday. "There's not as many people around and it's nice to zone out in your own area, and not have all of the screaming."
"My favourite trail is probably the Timmins one, by Hersey Lake," Kasunich continued. "It's really nice and out in the wilderness. It's really relaxing." And just like the other race winners, the first time competitor at this event came in with a game plan in mind.
"My coach told me to try and get out quickly, so I tried to sprint at the beginning and then just recover on the straighter stretches," said Kasunich. "I got the lead right near the beginning, but I kept thinking that people were going to go right by me."
"Near the end, I could see that Syla Swords was away, but still close, and she's a really good sprinter."
Following is a breakdown of the top ten in each of the six races, based on results posted on the Track North Athletic Club website:
Grades 7/8 - Girls
1st - Maren Kasunich (Lakeview) - 11:28
2nd - Syla Swords (Lo-Ellen) - 11:50
3rd - Ava Assinewai (Central Manitoulin) - 12:03
4th - Lucia Salmaso (Marymount) - 12:26
5th - Kelly Clark (Ste-Marie) - 12:44
6th - Monique Fitzmaurice (Lo-Ellen) - 12:53
7th - Alyna Oke (Lo-Ellen) - 13:12
8th - Bree Bourget (Lo-Ellen) - 13:17
9th - Gracie Dale (Lo-Ellen) - 13:22
10th - Lauren Pineau (MacLeod) - 13:26
Grades 7/8 - Boys
1st - James Bertrim (Lo-Ellen) - 11:32
2nd - Nolan Kuhlberg (Lo-Ellen) - 11:37
3rd - Jacob Barney (Lo-Ellen) - 11:43
4th - Aleksander Duguay (Lo-Ellen) - 11:45
5th - Max Portelance (St Augustine) - 11:46
6th - Owen Dobson (Lo-Ellen) - 11:50
7th - Hudson Crowder (Lo-Ellen) - 11:58
8th - Aaron Wright (Jean-Paul II) - 11:59
9th - Sam Rice (MacLeod) - 17:11
10th - Plante-Lafontaine (ESMC) - 17:18
Grades 5/6 - Girls
1st - Elsa Blum (St James) - 8:09
2nd - Gabrielle Forshew (Ste-Marie) - 8:20
3rd - Adrielle Charette (St-Denis) - 8:23
4th - Megan Pineau (unattached) - 8:30
5th - Chloé Leduc (Foyer-Jeunesse) - 8:33
6th - Caroline Reichle (St-Denis) - 8:34
7th - Mckenna Mende (Walden Public) - 8:35
8th - Kiana Smith (Holy Cross) - 8:36
9th - Emma Hansanafendic (Foyer-Jeunesse) - 8:45
10th - Sophie Miller (St-Denis) - 8:48
Grades 5/6 - Boys
1st - Caleb Mead (St James) - 7:17
2nd - Riley Kirwan (Walden Public) - 7:38
3rd - Dylan Nelson (St James) - 7:50
4th - Sullivan Smith (Holy Cross) - 7:53
5th - Raphaël Belzile (Hélène-Gravel) - 7:57
6th - Gavin Patterson (St Charles) - 7:59
7th - Karson Gouchie (St Charles) - 8:05
8th - Carson Jewitt (MacLeod) - 8:10
T-9th - Martin Brassard (Foyer-Jeunesse) - 8:11
T-9th - Benjamin Lamarche (St-Paul) - 8:11
T-9th - Gillis O'Daiskey (St-Anne) - 8:11
Grades 3/4 - Girls
1st - Camille Landry (Hélène-Gravel) - 9:03
2nd - Kloe Rienguette (Foyer-Jeunesse) - 9:17
3rd - Evie Drozdowsky (Foyer-Jeunesse) - 9:31
4th - Mckenna Messier (Jean-Paul II) - 9:43
T-5th - Mila Beljo (MacLeod) - 9:49
T-5th - Ella Sabourin (Jean-Paul II) - 9:49
7th - Jaden Palmquist (Walden Public) - 9:50
8th - Allyson Ouimet (Ste-Marie) - 9:52
9th - May Corson (Walden Public) - 10:04
10th - Annabelle Pettis (Hélène-Gravel) - 10:10
Grades 3/4 - Boys
1st - Ethan Gallagher (Jean-Paul II)
2nd - Maxime Belzile (Hélène-Gravel)
3rd - Lex Gorval (Alliance St-Joseph)
4th - Bradley Eady (Carl A Nesbitt)
5th - Bradley Huffman (Alliance St-Joseph)
6th - Seamus Murphy (Carl A Nesbitt)
7th - Jackson Mead (St James)
8th - Éliam Charette (St-Denis)
9th - Benjamin Barriault (Hélène-Gravel)
10th - Jacob Bebawy (St-Denis)