Thanksgiving is upon us this week, and Grace Dwyer of Calumet College of St. Joseph certainly has a lot to be thankful for. Last weekend, Dwyer competed in the NAIA Cross Country National Championship race in Vancouver, Washington, an honor she earned after placing highly at the CCAC Conference Championships on November 9.
“I had my eyes on November since I found out CCSJ was hosting Conference,” Dwyer said. “Qualifying for my first national championship, right in my backyard, where all my friends and family could witness, was a scenario I had played in my head over and over again throughout the past six months of training.”
For Dwyer, Conference was just about the most perfect race.
“It couldn’t have gone any better,” Dwyer said. “There wasn’t a single moment where I felt weak. I wanted to give everything I had, so any time I felt a burst of energy I used it to get ahead instead of gambling on a battle with someone at the end.”
Her tactical approach and calculated efforts paid off—the moment her spikes crossed the finish line in 7th place, Dwyer became the first athlete to represent CCSJ cross country at the national level since 2005.
“With 1k left in the race I heard a friend yell, ‘You made it Grace, you just have to finish!’ and that really got me,” Dwyer said. “Then with about 50m to go I knew I had a good position and would be heading to my first national championship. That was emotional, I couldn’t help but cry!”
While her teammates took a well-deserved two weeks rest, Dwyer continued to hit the ground running. She put in another two weeks of tough training before hopping on a plane to Washington, ready to make a long sought-after dream a reality.
“At nationals, I wanted to see what I was capable of when running against a large group of girls right around my time range,” Dwyer said. “At that point, I felt like it was a matter of putting my training on the line and gritting it out to achieve the best possible outcome that I could that day.”
Dwyer’s national debut was also made memorable by a trip to Eugene, Oregon, also known as “Tracktown USA” and hailed as the Mecca of running by runners across the country. Her coach, Jackie Torres, had planned a surprise visit to the University of Oregon, the alma mater of late distance legend Steve Prefontaine. Dwyer also traveled to “Pre’s Rock”, a memorial marking the site of Prefontaine’s fatal car crash back in 1975, where runners from all over come to pay their respects to the running legend.
“I had no idea where we were going, so when we pulled up and I saw the big Oregon O I literally started crying,” Dwyer said. “Being there, running on Pre’s Trail, and seeing his rock gave me chills, it was like stepping into a dream. I left there feeling completely motivated and so excited to race!”
The morning of the national race brought sunny skies, temperatures in the low 50s, and hefty competition—a cross country runner’s dream. The course was a challenge, sporting several hills, tricky footing, and an uphill finish with little room for position movement throughout the race. Dwyer navigated it skillfully.
“It was a very interesting race,” Dwyer said. “It was so crowded, making it difficult to have a choice on what to do in that racing situation. I had some close calls as far as trying not to trip or get caught up by other runners. It wasn’t an easy course, but I just wanted to give everything I had through each lap and every hill to stay tough in such a big field.”
She represented CCSJ well, placing 146 out of 300 women with a respectable time of 19 minutes and 46 seconds.
“It was a memorable experience for sure,” Dwyer said. “I felt like I was experiencing what I had imagined for months.”
Though Dwyer’s cross country season has officially come to a close, she’s not done yet. She will be competing in a Half Marathon in Schaumburg, IL November 30 in hopes of qualifying for the half marathon at the NAIA Outdoor Track and Field National Championships this May.
“I really enjoyed the half I ran back in the summer, so I’m excited to run it again and hopefully get my time down to where it needs to be,” Dwyer said. “I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in and after nationals my confidence is at an all-time high, so I’m very curious to see what I can do this weekend.”