Airdrie athlete Willem Grant took on not just 230 of the best cross-country runners in the country, but also a tough course at the 2021 Canadian Cross-Country Championships on Nov. 27, in Ottawa.
The Bert Church High School senior, racing on behalf of the University of Calgary Athletics Club (UCAC), finished the U18 six-kilometre event in 70th place, in a field of 230 competitors
Reached after the race, Grant said he was feeling “pretty sore” after contending with the difficult conditions presented on race day. The 17-year-old finished the six-kilometre course, which consisted of two 1.5-kilometre loops and a three-kilometre loop, in 22:05, for a per-kilometre pace of 3:40.
“This course was probably one of the hardest courses I've ever run on, and it was a flat course,” he said. “The ankles are pretty sore, because of the uneven course.”
What made the course so difficult, according to Grant, was the combination of rain and freeze that battered it the day before the race, resulting in frozen, uneven ground throughout Westley Clover Parks, where the meet was held.
“The day before, it was super rainy and everybody – thousands of people – were running and walking there, and it made it super chewed up,” he said. “And then the night before, it all froze, so it was all uneven.
“Halfway through the day, it was half ice, half mud, and that made it super difficult.”
Despite the adverse conditions, Grant got off to a solid start in his six-kilometre race, as he sought to establish himself in the front half of the pack.
Ultimately finishing in 70th place, Grant said his time was the fifth fastest among Alberta’s competitors – consistent with his fifth-place showing at the high-school provincial cross-country championship meet earlier this fall.
“I think my placement was pretty good – I started out pretty hard because the number of boys in the field,” he said. “I knew that if I started too slow, I wouldn't be able to get up to the front. I kind of tried to keep that pace and finish strong on the last 3K.”
Grant added four of his UCAC teammates raced alongside him, and together, they finished eighth in the team portion of the meet – the top team from western Canada.
He attributed his and his teammates' competitive mentality during practice sessions to the strong showing.
“I think it's the way we train,” he said. “We all run with each other and help each other get better. At practices, we treat it like a race. We just push each other to get better.”
This year marked Grant’s second time competing at a national cross-country championship. He previously raced at the 2019 meet in Abbotsford, B.C., in the U16 age group. He said the opportunity to return to a national championship after races were cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic was a great opportunity.
With the cross-country season wrapped up, Grant said he will shift his focus toward the upcoming indoor track-and-field season. He said he competes in the 800-metre, 1,500-metre and 3,000-metre running events.
Beyond that, he said his longer-term goal is to secure an athletic scholarship to continue pursuing his long-distance running next year, either in Canada or the United States.
“I've been talking to a couple of [NCAA Division 2] universities in the States, just talking about their programs and learning more about what they're about,” he said. “But I'm still definitely considering the U of C.”