Festival of Champions has become a cross country spectacle

Saturday, October 5, 2002, was an ideal day for cross country running in Belfast, Maine.

It was somewhat cool and crisp with little wind, as the Maine high school cross country world was introduced to the Maine Cross Country Festival of Champions, the brainchild of Brewer High School coach Glendon Rand and Belfast coach Jo-Ann Nealy.

That first race featured 410 finishers and 18 scoring teams. It just so happens that this writer was among those 410 finishers (48th, to be exact). I don’t remember many other things about that day, save for doing my captain’s duties of getting my Brewer teammates fired up for a midseason test against teams from all over the state and Cumberland, Rhode Island, and getting to test our fitness level on the same course we’d be be returning to a few weeks later for regionals.

Fifteen years later, this invitational has grown into one of the largest cross country invitationals in New England.

The contingent from Cumberland, Rhode Island, whose boys won that first Festival of Champions, has returned to the Midcoast every fall. Whether as a runner, journalist or spectator, I have attended every single Festival of Champions. Less than a year after that first race, I had traded in my spikes and “Orange Crush” jersey for a notebook while jumpstarting my writing career as a college student. “FOC,” is many call it, is marked on calendars from Nova Scotia to Rhode Island when teams open practice.

That was somewhat of a high expectation this fall, with the Troy Howard Middle School’s 5K course, arguably the best in the state, scheduled to host the New England championships in November.

Rand and his crew subsequently opened the field to more out of schools, and every New England state except Massachusetts was represented. In all, 86 schools showed up and more than 1,600 runners crossed the finish line.

The field was so large that race officials had to add a second unseeded race for the boys, meaning that we were treated to seven races as opposed to the traditional six on Saturday, yet another ideal day for racing with temperatures around 60 degrees.

Over its 15-year run, this meet has lived up to its name in more ways than one.

The co-hosts at Brewer and Belfast do a remarkable job in putting on this spectacle. Rand, who has coached at Brewer for more than two decades, leaves his coaching duties in the trustworthy hands of his assistants so he can fulfill his meet-directing obligations.

In years where Mother Nature has left the course with conditions that cross country runners love more than Rick Charette (mud, anybody?), officials work at a brisk pace to assure this fast yet challenging layout is in pristine condition.

Then there are the runners.

They are the true stars. This is a day where the sporting spotlight in Maine is on cross country, a sport that often gets lost in the shuffle from a recognition standpoint.

The tone was set on that October day in 2002 when two of that generation’s best runners, Heather Clark of Brewer and Levi Miller of Belfast – both of whom ran at the Division I collegiate level – broke the tape in dominating fashion.

Josef-Holt Andrews and Bethanie Brown, who own the fastest times recorded at this  meet, are currently teammates at Iowa State University. Think they often reminisce about their high school trips to the Midcoast even while under the bright lights of the Big 12? Clark and I sure as heck did when we reunited at a 100-year celebration of Brewer track last spring.

The growth and success of this meet is a tribute to the hard work of Rand and his crew, and the outstanding high school cross country community in Maine. It’s truly remarkable what a spectacle this meet has become, and how much people look forward to it, from coaches to runners to spectators to media.

I’d be lying if I don’t gander at the results from that first meet, and reflect on all the triumphs and heartbreaks we had on that course over the early part of the 21st century. And even though I’ve stayed very active as a fitness trainer, that first quarter-mile looks bigger and bigger every year.

Ryan McLaughlin

About Ryan McLaughlin

BDN sports reporter Ryan McLaughlin grew up in Brewer and is a lifelong fan of the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins. In "The Boston Blitz" he'll be sharing his perspective with BDN readers about what's happening on the Boston professional sports scene.