Dr. Lois Narr is running uphill.
The Class 1A girls’ state cross country championship is winding down, and Narr has been on the move throughout the race, taking positions at various spots on Hereford High’s 3-mile course, long considered one of the East Coast’s toughest. Cambridge-South Dorchester High’s assistant coach is firmly planted on the course’s most rigorous section, the dip — a drop-and-rise that offers an image of weary workers climbing from a coal mine after a hard day. For 10 minutes, Narr cheers, encourages and collects the mittens and headbands her runners discard on their way up the hill.
It’s been a while since Sarah Condon, the Vikings’ lead runner, passed this way. After Cambridge-SD’s sixth runner nears the crest, Narr decides now’s the time to make a break if she is to catch Condon’s finish.
A former collegiate cross-country All-American, Narr jogs to the top of the rise, looks right and spots Melissa Slacum, a Cambridge-SD parent whose son, Sam, will run later in the boys’ race. Narr briskly approaches the orange mesh fence that separates runners from the crowd, thrusts her haul of mittens and headbands toward Mrs. Slacum, and turns. But before she can move away, two words leave her frozen.
“She won,” Melissa Slacum whispers to Narr.
Her senses temporarily arrested, Narr manages to keep her jaw off the ground as she asks, “What?” The good doctor could easily go on with a string of follow-up questions as long as it takes some to navigate the cavernous dip: “Seriously? Really? How? Are you kidding? Honest? Are you sure?”
Her reaction closely mirrors Melissa Slacum’s, who was relayed the stunning news just moments earlier by her son.
“I almost dropped my camera,” Melissa Slacum says.
Slacum tries a second time to convince Narr she is speaking the truth.
“Sarah. She won,” Slacum says.
Narr is overcome by a shock that packs a wallop similar to the gusting, wintry winds lashing the hills of Parkton on this bright, sunny second Saturday in November 2018.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’” Narr says. “I was so ecstatic, crying. It was so cool. It was historic. It was huge.”
Oh, and let’s not leave out, it was so unbelievable.
Narr seeks harder evidence. She comes out of her statue-like trance and hurries past the orange fencing and down the slope toward the finish line. Her excitement grows as she recognizes a small group celebrating, including Vikings head coach Sean Reincke, who admittedly lost his mind watching Condon cover the final 400 meters.
Narr’s head-shaking disbelief is replaced by reality that still may take days to take hold. Cambridge-SD — and the Bayside Conference — has their first girls’ state cross country champion. Ever.
And it came at Hereford.
“That’s my favorite part,” Reincke said. “It’s surreal.”
Runners from schools on Maryland’s mid and lower Eastern Shore have won state cross country championships before, starting in 1946, when Pittsville High’s James Haltman won the Class D title on a 1.5-mile course at Baltimore’s Clifton Park. Pittsville celebrated championships by Albert Adkins and Alvin Cordrey in 1948 and 1949, respectively. Somerset’s Oliver Lane won in 1965 on a 2.5-mile trek at Western Maryland College.
The Bayside Conference was founded in 1971, and four years later Kent County’s Randy Mitchell won the Class C (now 1A) crown on a 3-mile course at the U.S. Naval Academy. Crisfield’s Mike Sterling became the Bayside’s lone back-to-back state champ when he took first in Class C in 1978 and ‘79 on a 3-mile stretch at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Cambridge-SD’s John Wheeler gave the conference a second state champ in 1979, when he won the Class B (now 2A) title.
But only once had a runner from a Bayside school won a state championship at Hereford, that coming in 1985, when Wicomico’s Richard Williams won the boys’ Class B title. Near misses were provided by Kent County’s Francis Ciganek (1A) and Stephen Decatur’s Mike Evans (2A), who finished second in 1998 and 2003, respectively.
But never had a female runner from the Bayside won at Hereford, which has hosted the state championships 42 times over four different stretches (1958-63; 1980-90; 1993-2012; and 2014-18).
The Bayside has had its share of challengers at Hereford. Most recently, Narr’s daughter, Jess, was fourth in 1A in 2012, and Easton’s Kathryn Gearhart finished third in 2A in 2014, and fifth one year later.
“We’ve been there so many millions of times, and we know it could go to anybody,” Narr says. “It never seems to go to the person you think it’s going to go to.”
Reincke and Narr aren’t completely without optimism on this day. Condon is seeded second and has run well during the 2018 season. She was eighth in the small-school division at the annual Bull Run Invitational — also held at Hereford — and runner-up at the Tidewater Classic and Bayside championships. She then finished second to Patterson Mill’s Ashley Betz at the 1A East championships at Cambridge.
But this is states.
And this is Hereford, where one year before Condon started fast, stopped on her first trip up the hill, managed to reach the top through Narr’s coaxing, and eventually finished 36th.
She again starts fast on this day, bouncing between the lead and second over the first mile with a familiar face — Betz.
“I can’t be doing this because last year I went out first and that didn’t last long,” Condon says of her start. “But this year I was able to keep my place.”
Condon and Betz keep their place at the front, and along with Boonsboro’s Samantha Agostini and Northern Garrett’s Bailee Upole separate from the pack. The four leaders enter the second mile together, and are soon plunging through the dip for the first time. Condon slips into fourth place on the first ascent.
“I just thought that I have to stay with them and keep close to them,” Condon says.
While Condon stays close, Reincke, who like Narr spends the race hustling to different course locations, reads his lead runner’s facial expression and recognizes something rarely spotted in his 19 years as Vikings head coach.
“It’s the most calm I’ve seen one of our runners look through the entirety of the course,” Reincke says. “At no point, even when I saw her going towards the two-mile marker, and there’s a little bit of a gap, there wasn’t necessarily a panic in her face. What I saw was somebody who did what we wanted, where, just maintain going up. You might lose a little bit of ground, but that’s OK. And then as soon as you get into something flat, or something downhill, just open your stride and get moving again.”
Condon does just that. She maintains contact with the leaders, and before reaching mile 2’s switchback stage, regains her normal stride and passes Agostini into third place.
“She wouldn’t have caught that Boonsboro runner if, at the top of the dip, she didn’t switch gears as quickly as she did, opened her stride back up, and used that whole S-(shaped stretch of course) down. And then all of a sudden that girl’s like, ‘Whoa! She’s there.’”
Agostini now behind her, Condon continues chasing Upole and Betz through the sloped, Z-like switchbacks, and remains in third as her pursuit brings her back for a second run through the dip.
Downhills are nearly non-existent on Bayside courses, but Condon has gained valuable experience away from the Shore. There’s Cambridge-SD’s annual preseason workouts in the hills of Frederick County. She’s competed at the Bull Run, and traveled with the team to Hereford for workouts the two Saturdays before states. Now closing on second place, Condon passes Betz on the way down, then allows momentum to kick in as she drives uphill.
“Her coaches were like, ‘You got this Betz. You got this Betz,’” Condon recalls. “They were saying, ‘Just use the downhill.’ And I was like, ‘I can beat her down this hill.’ I just passed her. I was kind of thinking that she might get to me on the uphill because she’s better than me at uphill. And she didn’t. So I was like, ‘Maybe I got this.’
Betz behind her, Condon reaches the top of the dip, covers the small level stretch bordering the orange fencing, then turns left and begins a less dramatic ascent toward Upole, who’s three-quarters of a mile away from the finish line. Condon drives through a decline, powers uphill and reaches level ground but is still between 15 and 20 seconds back.
“She wasn’t slowing down at all,” Condon says of Upole.
The two leaders push through a final incline, Condon closing fast.
“By the time we got to the top of the last hill, where it comes around and you go to the finish, I don’t know if she started to slow down, I don’t remember, but I was really close to her, and I was like, ‘I can pass her,’” Condon remembers. “And then I had the (final) downhill, so I just let everything out and I sprinted to the finish.”
The only thing faster than Condon’s kick over the final 300 meters is everything racing through her mind.
“I was like, ‘Did I do the whole course?’” Condon says. “‘Is there something I missed? This can’t be real. I couldn’t believe I was actually first. It felt like somebody had to be in front of me.”
There is: Reincke.
In 2014, Cambridge-SD’s head coach stood at the bottom of a slope at McDaniel College and bellowed, “14 years” after the Vikings’ girls’ team won the school and conference’s first state cross country championship in his 14th year at the helm. Five years later, he stands on an adjacent baseball field, struggling to avoid becoming the first teacher/coach from Dorchester County to go into space while nervously watching Condon’s final charge.
“Watching her come across the field, you know, you can see her closing,” Reincke says. “I’m losing my mind. I saw her from the top of the dip to the finish and forgot there was anybody else racing or a crowd cheering. It was just surreal.
“And then when she closed on her, I was like, ‘God, I hope she has enough left,’” Reincke continues. “The last thing I would want was for her to do this and this (Upole) girl has a kick left in her. I mean she just went by her.”
And that’s where Condon stays, crossing the finish line in 20 minutes, 52.82 seconds — 41 seconds faster than her Bull Run time in October, and 11 seconds ahead of Agostini, who rallies to finish second.
“I actually censored myself at the moment,” Reincke says. “I kept yelling, ‘Holy shhhhhh. Holy shhhhh.’ I was losing my mind. I was losing my ever-loving mind.”
He isn’t the only one.
“I watch her, she passes her,” Reincke says replaying the finish. “And I’m like, ‘OK, you just got to go. Just open your stride like you’ve been doing.’ And she just takes off down that hill. And she’s coming down to the bottom of that hill, she has pulled away by so much, that when she hits the flat ground, I turn around to everybody cheering, and I’m like (raising both arms). It was over. It was over. I could see my team behind the fence losing their minds. And then I turned to watch her.”
Reincke can’t stand still anymore. He moves toward the finish line, plants himself a few steps on the other side of it, then wraps his first-ever cross country champion in a huge embrace as she crosses and jumps into his arm.
“I literally was screaming,” Reincke says. “It was just this realization it happened. It happened. It actually happened. It went our way. We had an athlete we thought could, and did. Holy cow. That’s awesome for them. This is all you want as a coach. You just want it to happen for them.”
Reincke wants something else at the finish line. Condon’s mother, Angie, who is nearby, but initially hesitates to approach.
“I’m thinking, ‘it could happen. It really could happen,” Angie Condon says. “And until that point in time I’m satisfied. Whatever my child runs I’m satisfied. It doesn’t matter because I know she’s giving her best.
“But I was so in shock that I stood there and Reincke ran up to Sarah and picked her up in the air,” Angie Condon adds. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, I guess I could go over and hug her.’ That would be what a parent does. I’m still in coach mode. I’m still thinking we have other runners out there. But Reincke told me before I have to realize that my child is part of this as well. And that’s the first time I left the hill to go for my child.
“I was like, ‘You know what? It was worth it,’” Angie Condon recalls. “That was exciting. To watch us together realize it was happening. And when she passed her, I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. She’s physically passed her and the girls’ not catching (her). Wait a minute. Sarah’s getting faster going down the hill.’ That’s when we realized.”
Twenty-four hours later, Sarah Condon sits on a couch inside the warm confines of the Narr’s beautiful home and tries to recall her pre-race thoughts and historic run.
“I knew I’d be top 10,” Condon says. “But going out and being like in the top four I could see that. And then I could see myself being second. But never, like even when I was first, I was like, ‘I can’t be first.’”
Oh yes, you can.