LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 032, March 2021
By Liam Boylan-Pett
This is a story about 12 seconds of a video. So first, watch the video. You can even turn off the sound. It is somehow more beautiful that way.
The opening shot is from above. It is of the 250 or so runners in the N.C.A.A. cross-country championships, charging forward like a disjointed line of ants crawling down a field. It is astounding on its own—the aerial view shows the mass of it all, the glory of a pack chasing a championship.
It is always the same, watching the start of a cross-country race. You know it will all work itself out in the end. The runners will funnel onto a cramped course for the remaining miles of the race. But there is always a moment where it seems like it might not work—that the runners will not comply with the narrowing route and instead a logjam pileup will end it all. The view on this day, at the 2020 N.C.A.A. championships held in March 2021, shows the field spread out, but forging toward a tighter pack.
Then the shot cuts to a new angle. A sight that makes this breathtaking, yet familiar phenomenon seem new. The perspective is jarring. The viewer is taken to ground-level, even with the runners—runners who appear to be sprinting at full speed. They are like a pack of gazelles, a herd of skinny legs bounding forward with ease. Watching, you can almost feel the ground shaking. Whether on a sprawling HDTV or on the small screen of a phone, you somewhat expect the water in a nearby glass to tremble.
In the days following the race, the video will be shared widely. It will be memed with comparisons to The Avengers, Game of Thrones, and The Lion King. Mike Smith, the coach of Northern Arizona University, told me it looked like a scene out of Braveheart.
I had seen similar angles of a cross-country start before, but something was different this time. Perhaps it was the speed—Wesley Kiptoo of Iowa State University was about to take the race out in 2 minutes, 31 seconds through the 1-kilometer. Perhaps it was that I had not seen a cross-country race of that magnitude in more than a year thanks to the pandemic. Or perhaps the angle that seemed so familiar was slightly different.
So, as I mentioned at the beginning, watch the video first. It only takes 21 seconds. Of those 21 seconds, this story is about 12 of them.
— NCAA Track & Field (@NCAATrackField) March 15, 2021
Before we get to those 12 seconds, however, it is important to go back to earlier in the day March 15 and into a 53-foot Expando TV production truck parked near the cross-country course in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
That is where Tim Lay, an executive producer/director for Tracktown Productions, was staring at a wall of about 40 screens as a cacophony of instructions and beeps echoed from his headphones.
Lay was directing the ESPNU production. It was the first time since 2009 that the N.C.A.A. Cross-Country Championships were being aired live on television. Lay wanted to give the race the coverage he felt it deserved. In the days before the race, he had worked with camera operators to choreograph potential cuts and the angles they hoped to show off to the live audience. That meant going out on a John Deere Gator—the preferred lead cart of cross-country races everywhere—and having a stand-in runner race along the course. Over two days, they had stand-ins run sections of the wide, Oklahoma State University course. The method did not exactly emulate a pack of 250 runners, but it at least gave Lay and the production team an idea of what to expect.
On that Monday in March, the 35-person crew was in production mode. It is not quite a NASA command center, but a production truck is its own wild world. With blinking lights of blue and red and yellow and green, the truck resembles a high-tech spy van from a movie. Lay, from his post in the truck, was in constant contact with the editors and graphics crew with him in the truck and the 10 camera operators strewn about the course. They had drones and were stationed on Gators. At about 11:40 a.m. local time, many of the camera operators were mixed in with the 250 women gathering at the start line.
Diljeet Taylor, the women’s coach of Brigham Young University, was there, too, rounding her team up in a huddle for final instructions. Only two days earlier, she was in Fayetteville, Arkansas, watching her runners win the distance medley relay and the 3,000 meters at the N.C.A.A. Indoor Track and Field Championships. Now, she was in a huddle with seven women ready to race 6 kilometers on one of the toughest courses Taylor had ever seen. At every other meet, someone on the team would say a prayer in the huddle. But at the N.C.A.A. championships, Taylor was the one leading the prayer. When she opened her eyes having finished, she looked around at the women and saw tears rolling down many of their faces.
There had been tears the night before at the team meeting, too. That was a good thing, according to Taylor. “When you can look your athletes in the eyes and see what they’re feeling and what’s in their heart,” Taylor told me, “I know something good is going to happen. Those tears come from inspiration.”
The team broke the huddle and made final preparations. Taylor stuck close to them to offer any extra words of inspiration she could. A few athletes came up to her expressing just a little bit of doubt. Taylor affirmed that they were ready, giving them one last vote of confidence. Sara Musselman, a senior who had never finished in the top 100 at nationals, approached Taylor and said, “I’m going to do something amazing.” Even though she knew they were prepared, Taylor still found herself trying to fight off her own nerves.
“There’s a moment that is very nerve racking as your women are standing on the line,” Taylor said. “For a coach, once the gun goes off, there’s almost this deep exhale.”
Wind howled. Earlier in the day, the tent for Georgetown University’s women’s team flipped over in a huff. If not for a fence that stopped it, the tent likely would have rolled across the start line of the race.
Wind does not stop cross-country races, however, and the starting pistol went off.
Taylor exhaled. She watched as the runners exploded from the start line, still in awe at the spectacle of cross-country. “There are 31 teams and a handful of individual qualifiers,” she said, “and they’re all coming together with one purpose, which is really just to do the best they can. Seeing that many runners with the same goal. There’s beauty in that.”
In the production truck, Lay wanted to find that beauty. He cut to the camera stationed on a hill between the start and finish line for the beginning of the race. It showed a mass of runners but failed to capture the entirety of the field. After 13 seconds, he cut to a straight-on shot from a gator far in front of the field. It was centered on the B.Y.U. team for about 10 seconds. Then, he cut to the drone shot, which showed the mass charging forward. Lay kept the angle for about nine seconds.
It was a nice touch, even if it was not quite the cinematic experience he was hoping to capture. Soon, after cutting to the camera on the gator that would follow the leaders through the race, graphics would fill the left side of the screen, showing splits and team scores. It was a welcome addition to coverage from ESPN, a sight loved by the many hardcore fans watching on a Monday at lunchtime instead of doing work. Bill Spaulding, John Anderson, and Carrie Tollefson gave a play-by-play of the race—Tollefson’s insights as a past winner of the event gave some extra life to the show.
For Lay in the director’s chair, it was like a game of chess. He had plans on what cameras he was going to use at certain points in the race, but then the race and other factors got in the way. The production team was going to make mistakes, he told me after the race, but his job was to cover them. “We want to minimize mistakes,” he said. “We want to try to make the broadcast a smooth experience for everybody.”
Until the finish of the women’s race, Lay said, he felt he accomplished that. Then, some technical difficulties with the scoring system caused a hiccup. The University of Alabama’s Mercy Chelangat won the women’s title in 20 minutes, 1.1 seconds and the B.Y.U. women won the team title handily with 96 points, thanks in large part to Musselman’s 33rd-place finish. Taylor and the team gave excited interviews. It was a storybook ending to two seasons, indoors and outdoors, and one of the most impressive displays of team depth in N.C.A.A. cross-country and track history.
For Lay, there was about 20 minutes until the men’s race.
Over at the start line, teams began to gather. Brandon Bonsey, the Georgetown coach, watched as his team ran strides on the tan grass.
Like other teams, it had been a long, tough year during the pandemic. Staying safe while doing the best to get a team in shape for the national championships was no easy task. So, after taking second place at the Big East Championships a few weeks earlier, Bonsey was excited his team was getting another chance to run. (Full disclosure: Bonsey and I were teammates on the Georgetown cross-country and track and field teams in 2009.)
It was about 10 minutes before the gun would go off, and Bonsey—who noticed the drones ESPN had in the air to capture the race—gathered his team in a huddle. Sweatpants ruffled as the wind gusted. He looked around at his team. “Be ready to hurt for 30 minutes,” he told them. The Hoyas were in the starting box next to Iowa State’s Wesley Kiptoo, who three nights before, had taken the indoor 5,000 meters out in 4 minutes, 6 seconds for the opening 1,600 meters. They knew the pace would be hot from the start—especially with the wind at their backs for the opening half mile.
A young team, only one Georgetown runner had raced N.C.A.A.s before. Jack Salisbury, a senior, told me they were all ready to hurt. They wished they had more than one race under their belts, but they were at least happy they were getting another chance to race. And he was ready to go. On the start line he thought to himself that the N.C.A.A. race was known for going out hard. And because everyone knew it, he felt like “it was going to go out even harder because everyone’s competing to get in the right spot.”
The gun went off, and Salisbury’s intuition was right. The pace was downright maniacal for a 10-kilometer race. There was wind at their back. They were going downhill. Kiptoo was charging ahead.
Bonsey had gotten about 400 meters away and could tell they were going fast, probably too fast. He was right that it was going to hurt.
Salisbury heard a split at 800 meters and thought it had to have been wrong. Kiptoo did not slow that first kilometer and came through in 2 minutes, 31 seconds. The Georgetown pack was about seven seconds back of that.
Salisbury had never run at nationals before. The hard pace was not a surprise, though. While he did not have another N.C.A.A. championship to compare it to, he did notice the lead gator while he could still see it.
About one minute into the race, Kiptoo ran up on the Gator, and waved for it to go faster. The Gator acquiesced and pulled away, which was a good thing. If Kiptoo had passed the vehicle, this story might have had a different subject.
The Gator does matter, though. It was partly responsible for the 12 seconds this story is about.
We will eventually get to those 12 seconds of video, I promise. But first, we need to talk about a four-wheeler.
John Deere started making Gators in 1992. They are the classic green and yellow of the brand, and are small, all-terrain vehicles that are a less fun version of a four-wheeler meant to take jumps. At some point in the last 30 years, they became the go-to vehicle at cross-country races. At Bath High School in Michigan in the early 2000s, the Gator followed the field, picking up any injured runners or athletes who decided they did not want to finish the race.
Today, the Gator is often the lead-cart at a cross-country race.
Oklahoma State University decked one of theirs out. Instead of green and yellow, it has been modded out with orange and black highlights to match the colors of the school. On football gamedays, Pistol Pete, the school’s mascot rides it onto the field.
On March 15, it was at the cross-country course in Stillwater, specialized out even more. The production team placed a high-end, stabilized camera off the back end of the vehicle, one controlled by a remote control. Sean McCabe was the driver, the camera off the back like a villain’s arm in a comic book.
Lay, the director, had hoped to use the stabilized camera for the women’s race, but the shot was not there. For the men’s race, he had McCabe dolly across the entire field before getting into position. Just before the gun, the Gator was positioned about 100 yards in front of the field.
Then the gun went off, and over 250 runners poured forward. Moments later, Lay cut to the aerial view. He was planning to cut to the stationary camera he had used for the women’s race, but then he noticed the screen transmitting from the Gator. “He couldn’t have been more than 15 meters in front of the runners going full speed,” Lay said. “And it was such a dramatic angle.” He knew he had to cut to it.
He let it ride for about 12 seconds.
Those 12 seconds were different. The rest of the clip is great, too, but it is those 12 seconds, the battle-scene seconds that made the clip. Lay did not see the Tweet or the immediate reaction. He had the rest of the race to worry about and the cuts over the next 30 minutes of running. But he did know it was a great shot.
“I have never had a shot like that,” he said. “I think the course, the width of the course, the downhill start, this was the best stabilized camera I’ve had available, and I would say arguably the best Gator driver that we’ve had so far. All those things together and you get that shot. Everybody was hitting their own little home runs at the same time and it all worked out. It was kind of epic and had a cinematic feel.”
Lay’s only regret is that he did not stay on the shot even longer. He was worried the Gator was too close, and the only thing that would have ruined the shot was to ruin someone’s run. He wished he would have had it zoom in to capture some the emotions cast on the runners’ faces. When he went back and watched the clip on Twitter, he loved the response. His favorite was one runner writing that he had set a personal best in the 200.
That runner was Parker Stokes of Georgetown. He was the top athlete for the Hoyas on their way to a 22nd place team finish. Salisbury finished 129th. B.Y.U’s Conner Mantz won the men’s race (Kiptoo finished third) and Northern Arizona won the team race with an impressive 60 points.
Bonsey said the special thing about N.C.A.A. cross-country is that at the finals, great runners are going to finish in the 100s. That is what happens when the best runners in the country line up for 30 minutes of hammering.
Lay wanted to capture that feeling on race day. “We want to find ways to display this sport for fans and for people who aren’t fans yet, because it’s a tremendous event,” he said. “I think that visually epic beginning is just a little microcosm of what we hope we can do to try to develop and make the coverage of this event something really special.”
Even though Diljeet Taylor’s team was not part of the 12 seconds, she did say the broadcast was special. “I think ESPN did a phenomenal job,” she said. “My email just from coaches and recruits and people that generally wouldn’t know about B.Y.U. have been reaching out and I attribute a lot of that to, yes, the success that we had, but also the exposure.”
ESPNU is set to provide live coverage of the event over the next three years, too. Lay is excited to get back out there. It won’t be an easy task. Maybe the field won’t go out at a breakneck pace. Maybe viewers will be used to watching live sports again in a post-pandemic world. And maybe he won’t have the best driver and camera operator on the crew.
But that’s the thing about cross-country. There is more to each race and any story than 12 seconds.