By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
They were running in the dark – a key scene-setting detail to keep in mind.
So being familiar with the course surely gave St. Johns’ cross country runner Taryn Chapko an edge during her school’s Under the Lights Invitational on Aug 18.
And yet, she didn’t take advantage of it as much as she could have – making the first night of her sophomore season more memorable both for Chapko and the competitor who crossed the line first that evening.
The 5K course was lit in many places by large construction lamps, lights from the tennis courts or other portable fixtures set up to mark the way. But admittedly, some points were a little dim. And that’s where Chapko became a guide, yelling to a small pack of frontrunners ahead of her when to turn.
That probably doesn’t seem like a big deal – unless you’re Goodrich junior Jillian Lange. Lange ended up winning the race in 19:16. Chapko finished third in 19:48 – instead of first, which might’ve been the case especially if she had allowed the leaders to continue taking a wrong turn about a mile in.
Going the wrong way could’ve meant turning around, doubling back and losing time – or being disqualified for cutting the course shorter.
“I know a lot more people (this year) just from running, from other schools. We’re all doing the same thing. We all want to get better. I like helping people get better,” Chapko said. “It’s the first race, and they want to feel good about themselves for the rest of the season, because if you had a bad first race you might start getting down on yourself. And I don’t want people to be upset, especially with a race that’s so much fun.”
To be honest, Chapko didn’t think her little bit of directing was a big deal either – until St. Johns administrators received an email two weeks ago from Goodrich athletic director Dave Davis, who expressed his appreciation for her sportsmanship after hearing about it both from Lange and his cross country coaching staff. “Please relay to Taryn and your coaches my appreciation for this simple act of sportsmanship and kindness,” Davis wrote. “We need more of that.”
“I just wanted people to go the right way,” Chapko said, recalling the race last week. “I saw the email and I was like, ‘It’s bigger than I thought.’
“I guess it doesn’t happen too often.”
Or at least not as much as it should – which, again, should make this race stick out among the many both will run over the next few seasons of their high school careers.
This was the third year St. Johns has hosted the opening night meet. The first race goes off at 9:30 p.m. It’s a neat way to change up the 5K distance these runners will tackle a number of times over the following three months.
But admittedly, starting after dusk leaves a couple of dark spots on the course – especially behind the tennis courts and near a barn about a mile in to the first of two laps, where Lange and the frontrunners with her nearly left the path.
This was the first time Goodrich took part in the Under the Lights race, and Lange said this week that she remembers feeling like a little bit of an “outsider” starting out because her team hadn’t run in the event before. But when Chapko yelled out which way to go, that changed.
“It was out of nowhere, she’d be like ‘left,’ or ‘turn right,’ or ‘go around this,’” Lange recalled. “It was really great of her to think of me as another person she could help.
“In cross country, you’re racing against these people (and) it can get pretty harsh out there. You want to win. Just the fact she was kind enough to let me stay on course, because at some points she was pretty close to me and she could’ve gone in front when I was in front because I screwed up and went too far. She was just being honest in the race, and that’s what I like about it. The kindness really makes the race what it is, because that was fair.”
The pair of standouts had crossed paths before. In both runners’ last cross country race before meeting again at St. Johns, Lange finished seventh at the Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals in a time of 18:49. Chapko was 10th in 19:06. So finishing ahead of someone who had beaten her the last time out would have been an incredible way for Chapko to start this season – but not because Lange got lost.
There’s a kinship among distance runners, longtime Redwings coach Bob Sackrider has noticed over the years, and Chapko gets it. She also knows what it’s like to get off-course – she did so once as a freshman, and Sackrider has talked with his teams about how to handle that situation.
“Obviously there’s an enormous sense of pride that others recognized what we’re working toward,” Sackrider said of Davis’ note. “And I was thrilled that Taryn was able to have the wherewithal in the moment to employ what we’ve been talking about. It’s one thing to talk about it; it’s another thing to actually do it and actually be aware enough in the middle of the race to do it.”
Both runners have similar goals moving forward this fall. Both have times they are shooting to beat (and Chapko just did) – she said last week she was looking to break 19 minutes and she did so Saturday with an 18:56 at Bath, while Lange is hoping to break 18 after posting an 18:20 last October.
They both also are shooting to get their teams back to Michigan International Speedway and the MHSAA Finals on Nov. 4 – the next time the two are expected to cross paths again.
“It’ll be touching I guess. You make these friends, and you never see them, but you’re automatically just friends … (because) you have these similarities,” Lange said. “You can go up to a random person and be like, ‘Remember that time?’ That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in Jan. 2012. Contact him at Geoff@mhsaa.com with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Runners take off from the start of the Under the Lights Invitational last month. (Middle) Goodrich’s Jillian Lange pushes through the midpoint of last season’s Final at MIS. (Below) St. Johns’ Taryn Chapko sprints down the final stretch of the championship race last fall. (Top photo courtesy of St. Johns cross country, middle and below by RunMichigan.com.)