The sky was clear and the sun was shining. The wind was blowing while an earlier rain had left the Baylor course muddy and wet. It was warm in the sun, yet cool in the shade
In other words, it was almost perfect conditions for the the Front Runner Invitational, the last regular-season meet in the Chattanooga Cross Country League Thursday afternoon where all teams from all divisions and classifications were present to compete.
Counting a large number of junior varsity competitors, there were well over 500 runners at Baylor for one of the most popular and always the most competitive races of the season.
It was all about repeat performances for all the winners as McMinn County's Haley Ward and Baylor's Simon Holden successfully defending their individual titles.
The Baylor girls continued their dominating ways with their eighth straight team title while the McCallie boys won for the fourth straight year.
McMinn's Ward, who has already committed to run at Ole Miss next fall, was in a race all by herself as she covered the 3.1-mile course in 19 minutes, 17 seconds.
Rhea County's Madelyn Garland was the runner-up in 20:07 while Signal Mountain's Mallory Young was third in 20:11 and Sarah Buckler of Heritage was fourth in 20:16.
The Baylor trio of Ruthie Townsend, Haley Chandler and Grace Carlson were fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively as the Lady Red Raiders claimed first place with 53 points.
With Buckler and teammate Caitlin Craft both finishing in the top 10, Heritage was a close second with 68 points while Garland led the Lady Golden Eagles from Rhea County to a third-place finish with 125.
The boys' race was much closer. At least for the first loop when Baylor's Holden and Bradley's Paul Patterson were joined by McCallie's Matthew Jones and Ramsay Ritchie as that foursome were together at the half-way point.
Things changed a bit in the second half as Holden put the hammer down at the start of the third mile and cruising to victory with a time of 16 minutes, six seconds.
East Hamilton's Nick McCormick, who has spent all fall trying to catch his Baylor competitor, came on strong in the second half as well to finish in the runner-up spot with a time of 16:31.
Derek Barnes of McCallie was third in 16:35.01 while teammate Ritchie was next in 16:35.98.
Patterson faded to fifth in 16:38 while Jones faded even more to finish seventh in 17:05.
With Will Moore's eighth-place finish in 17:22, McCallie had four runners in the top 10 to easily win with 34 points. Baylor was second with 87 while Dalton was third with 135.
McMinn's Ward had the fastest time of any girl last fall at the state meet when she won the AAA race in 18:41. She's a die-hard soccer player, which has limited her time and energy for cross country. Soccer ended earlier this week for the Lady Cherokees, so it will be interesting to see how the next two weeks unfold for the fleet-footed senior.
"I'm not happy with my time as I thought I could run faster than that," Ward said shortly after crossing the finish line.
"I normally go out too fast, but I didn't today. I did the best I could, but I just used this as a good workout. The state meet is the one I'm focused on. I'm sure I could have run faster if someone had been pushing me, but overall I'm pleased," she added with a smile.
Rhea's Garland finished fourth in this race last year, so she was happy to finish second.
"I knew this was a big race and I really wanted to run well today. This was my second-best time of the year. I always seem to slow down in the second mile, but I was passing a lot of people in the third mile. My goal was to beat the Baylor girls.
"I was mentally ready to run today and God blessed me with a good race," she added.
Baylor coach Heather Ott was more happy with the team scores than the way her girls ran individually, but she knows as well as anyone that the big meet will happen at Percy Warner Park on Saturday, Nov. 3.
"I thought we ran well with some pretty solid performances. We've had some tough workouts recently and they may have been a bit fatigued from that. We aren't where we want to be, but the good news is that our biggest race wasn't today.
"We had a few bumpy moments, but Rachel Schatzman was our heroic runner today as she finished fourth for us in 21:23. Our top runners didn't have their best day, but we're fortunate that we have good depth.
"Cross country can be an unforgiving sport, but it was bittersweet for me as I watched our three seniors Ruthie Townsend, Haley Chandler and Caitlin Duggan all run their last race on this course," Ott added.
Holden has been a four-year varsity runner for the Baylor boys and it's unbelievable that his career is almost over for the Red Raiders.
He has had another outstanding season, totally dominating the local competiton and doing extremly well in out-of-town weekend races as well.
"This was my first time to race against McCallie this fall and Matthew Jones kept trying to push the pace. When we got to the two-mile mark, I started pulling away as I told myself to not look back. That had been my plan all week, to drop the hammer at the start of the last mile.
"I've been trying to break 16 minutes all year, but I feel fit and I think I ran well today. It was a little windy at times, but the mud wasn't bad," Holden said in his usual quiet tone.
East Hamilton's McCormick looked like he had been in a mud-kicking contest when his race ended as he had specks of mud from head to toe.
Like Holden, he started out with a conservative first mile before picking up the pace in the final mile. He wasn't in the lead group at the start, but he had a great finish and that's what counts in this sport.
"It was incredibly muddy at the start, but I tried to hold back in the first mile. I started picking it up in the second and third mile, although I didn't feel like I was going that much faster. I had to catch those guys one at a time, but I couldn't catch Simon.
"I'm pleased," McCormick nodded.
McCallie coach Mike Wood was proud of his guys, but he was also quick to praise the effort of Holden.
"My guys did really great today, but I was really impressed by Simon," the veteran McCallie coach said afterward.
"We use this race as a measuring stick to see where we are just two weeks from the state meet. If you don't run well in this race, the chances of doing well in Nashville aren't as good.
"Our guys hung on. Ramsay was trying to push the pace early while Matt did most of the work. Derek Barnes had been sick and didn't even run yesterday, but he looked like he was either going to drop out or win. He really came on strong at the end.
"We finished second in the state last year to Brentwood Academy and we still have a few adjustments to make, but our motto is to have fun out here. We do that by winning," he concuded.
Next week's competition will be the region races with Regions 3-A/AA and 4-A/AA competing at Chickamauga Dam while the Region 3-AAA races will be held at Fort Bluff in Dayton.
(Email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)