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WM XC Part 5: Crossing the Threshold

Janice Brown arrived at William & Mary in the fall of 1988 from Governor Mifflin High School, just outside of State College, PA. She knew William & Mary was an excellent school but was being recruited by Penn State and other schools. Then her dad suggested that W&M must have a good program, as they recruited local PA legend and national standout Paul Vandegrift. They contacted the coach, Pat Van Rossum, who invited her for a visit, and that visit sold her on the College.

Janice’s freshman year would start in an unassuming manner because she suffered several injuries. Her main recollection of that year was the adjustment from very low mileage in high school to just a slight increase then transitioning to college intensity, and breaking down as a consequence. She suffered several problems from IT band syndrome to microtears in her Achilles. (She would work hard the following summer to overcome these injuries.)

Another main recollection from her freshman year was meeting her supportive teammates, Kristi Lacourse and Katie McCullough, who were like big sisters. Coach Van Rossum assigned big sisters on the team for the freshman. These women included her in activities and made her feel like part of the team even while she was redshirted because of injuries and unable to compete in meets. She also met Jim Martin who was a member of the men’s team and her future husband.

Janice always competed better with relatively low mileage, which allowed her to stay healthy and consistent in her training. As a result, during her sophomore through senior years she trained and competed well, becoming one of the most-storied cross country runners at W&M. Most of the time she ran 40-50 miles a week, but increased her mileage slightly as she felt stronger as the years went by.

In 1990, during the build up to NCAAs, Janice peaked just at the right time. On November 4th, at CAAs, she finished in 5th place. At ECACs, she ran 18:23 in the rain and mud on a rolling course at Waveny Park in New Canaan, CT to place 49th. Back in Williamsburg, Janice’s roommate and teammate, Karen Laslo who was also on the swim team, continued to train for both teams. While the women’s team waited to hear whether or not they would get an at-large bid to the NCAAs, Karen was at the pool training. Once Janice and her teammates found out that they had made it to Nationals, they ran over to the pool to tell Karen that she had to run for one more week. This team trip to the 1990 NCAA Championship meet, which was the first for the women’s program, was really special as the men’s team had also qualified.

At NCAAs, hosted by the University of Tennessee, Janice continued to improve but narrowly missed making All-American finishing 45th. Janice clearly remembers how much fun it was to have both the men and women at Nationals that year. But there is also one other important point that she remembers about that race which is associated with race strategy. Janice knew this was probably the largest, most significant, race she had been in so far in her career. She decided to have fun with it and see what happened. She felt very strong and kept moving up through the pack. This calmed a lot of the nerves which would sometimes overcome her in the past. This experience would be the key to success if she returned to NCAAs in the future.

And she did return. There were a number of critical races leading up to NCAAs in 1991 which would be a preview of what was to come. At the Dartmouth Meet of Champions in late September, Janice beat All-American Christi Constantin from Georgetown for the first time. The lead had gone back and forth but with less than a half mile to go, she surged and won by 7 seconds. At the Paul Short Invitational in mid-October, she placed seventh. But more importantly, she had finished only 4 seconds off the course record set by Olympian Vicki Huber. At regionals, in a race that would see her advance to nationals, Janice posted a 6th place finish covering the course in a PR of 16:24. Unfortunately, the team had to stay at home with a 6th place finish.

Two of the men also qualified that year, Steve Swift and Kevin Krause, so although she didn’t have the women’s team with her, she had the men who also qualified to share the special experience of the NCAA Championships. Nationals was hosted by the University of Arizona in 1991 and held at El Conquistador Country Club. The course was beautifully groomed and flat; running conditions were ideal at 65 degrees and dry. Using the strategy that she had developed in 1990, Janice was able to move to the front and finish 15th overall, making the podium, with a time of 17:08. Janice was now learning to take risks and trust her ability.

During her senior year, Janice struggled with injuries and only ran four cross country races. The problem was a nagging set of hamstring issues that would plague her on and off throughout her running career. She ran the Penn State Invitational, CAAs, ECACs, and NCAAs. Yet, to Janice, that year holds special memories. She really bonded with that team and by nationals, she had her best race ever. Given how few races she ran, the build up for her was fast and furious with little room for error.

At Penn State, in mid-October, she exploded to a fourth-place finish with a time of 17:29. At CAAs, she won by a decisive 28 seconds and posted a time of 17:10. Equally important, the team won with an incredibly low score of 24 points. At the regional meet, she finished 3rd behind two Villanova runners which qualified her for Nationals. But the team had to wait to see if they also qualified, which they did!

The NCAA meet in 1992 was hosted by Indiana University, on their wooded, rolling hills championship course. The temperature was 41 degrees; it was rainy, muddy, and slightly windy. Conditions were not ideal. Yet, Janice managed an amazing 4th place finish, which is the highest finish achieved by anyone on either men’s or women’s teams. She narrowly missed a 3rd place finish by a little over 1 second. Behind the two Villanova runners from ECAC and Deena (Drossin) Kastor.

How did she achieve it? She got to the front of the race early and stayed there. That is probably easier said than done and especially given that the race was held with rainy and muddy conditions. In front of Janice that day was Deena (Drossin) Kastor from Arkansas who would go on to be an Olympic medalist in the marathon. The conditions were so precarious that day that Deena fell in the mud during the race.

At that meet, Janice would win her 4th All-American title. The team would claim an incredibly impressive 16th place finish. Looking at the resources of the W&M women’s team compared to regional powerhouses Villanova, Georgetown, Cornell, and Penn State, the accomplishments of Marcie Homan, Sonja Friend-Uhl, Heather Haines, Allison Abbott, Andrea Lengi, and Angela Dalke are even more impressive. Equally important, the team had shown that the mid-season ranking in the high teens had not been a fluke. This team included Marcie Homan who went on to be just as successful as Janice, also earning 5 All American Honors. It also included Sonja Friend-Uhl who to this day is still running competitively and breaking Masters records. It really was a special group of women in Janice’s opinion. In turn, these women were like Janice’s little sisters.

What are the combined legacies of Cathy, Janice, and their teammates? The 1990 and 1992 cross country teams were led by Janice with her All America placing. But cross country is a team sport. Cathy, Marcie Homan, Allison Abbott, Andrea Lengi, Angela Dalke, Heather Haines, Karen Laslo, Maggie Silver, Megan Holden, Silica Johnson, and Sonja Friend-Uhl contributed to some of the greatest teams that W&M has produced. The 1990 NCAA team finished 20th in the nation. Finishing 16th a short two years later, the team would show that those results were no fluke. William & Mary was a team to be reckoned with at the national level.

The 1992 NCAA team was composed of a number of underclasswomen. One of those athletes was Marcie Homan. Marcie grew up in the greater Philadelphia region. She ran in high school and had visited William & Mary three times for the Colonial Relays. By senior year, her college selection was down to two choices: Notre Dame or William & Mary. There were two main drivers of her decision to join the W&M team: first, the weather. When comparing South Bend to Williamsburg during the winter months, W&M was an easy winner. When she weighed overall team unity, balance between academics and athletics, and other factors, W&M was still the winner.

Between Marcie’s freshman and sophomore year, she was able to complete a great summer training session. Midway through the track season, she was able to see signs that she could have a breakthrough. That breakthrough came during the outdoor season with an exclamation point in New Orleans for the NCAA Championships.

On a hot and humid night, Marcie raced to an 8th place finish at the NCAA 5000m finals just ahead of Janice Brown, who placed 9th. Both would receive All-American certificates. This would be Marcie’s first of 5 All-American titles, tying her with Janice. But she would be the first sophomore to achieve an All-American title.

The 1993 cross country season started with a bang. The team won the Cavalier Classic Invitational scoring 26 points, with Marcie posting 17:19 to take first. In early October, at the Paul Short Invitational (and in a preview of the season’s end) Marcie took 7th with a time of 17:13. Ahead of her would be 4 of the top 10 finishers at NCAAs that year. But to understand her effort at NCAAs, you need to compare it to a baseline. At Paul Short, Marcie was 26 seconds behind the winner, Carol Zajac of Villanova. At NCAAs, Marcie was only 18 seconds behind the winner, two-time winner Carol Zajac. Marcie had also managed to knock off two runners who had beaten her at Paul Short. Her 11th place finish had only been beaten at that point by 2 W&M runners: Janice Brown and Hal Michael.

The 1994 season would be a repeat of 1993 when the team would not advance to NCAAs even though they had a very solid year. Marcie would again advance as an individual again posting a blistering time and place. The 10th place finish at NCAAs by Marcie and more importantly the 11th-10th back-to-back finishes in 1993-1994 is the highest level of excellence achieved by anyone at the program.

When you talk to Marcie about the legacy of those years, the national championship cross country teams, as well as Janice and Cathy, she reflects on how one generation of runners has shown the next how to achieve regional and national success. In essence, it is as if one generation was guiding the next.

While still at William & Mary, Karen Laslo combined her love of running and swimming and began competing in triathlons. She found instant success and in 1991 was named USA Junior Triathlete of the Year by the Triathlon Federation. This should come as no major surprise as she held the records at W&M for both the 1000 and 1650 in swimming (freestyle).

Katie McCullough (Bir) would go on to have a great outdoor season in 1990. She placed 6th at Penn Relays 5000m with a time of 16:49 and during the spring campaign set the W&M record. She then advanced to the NCAA Championships where she finished 14th. At that meet both Cathy and Janice were spectators. When reflecting on that meet, Janice mentioned that watching Katie at the NCAA was inspirational to her. Katie’s daughter Grace Bir is attending W&M and is on the track team. She is a 200m-400m sprinter and has posted times of 25.51 and 55.77.

On a post-collegiate basis, Janice was sponsored by Nike Boston and then by Moving Comfort. She ran a few road races under those sponsorships. In 1995 she competed in the Cross Country Grand Prix National Championships, where she placed 26th. After that, she raced a World Cross Country qualifier. She was offered to race abroad in China but by then she was working as a public accountant and decided against it. Looking back on it, Janice thinks that maybe she should have gone, as it probably would have been an experience she would never forget.

Fourteen years removed from the 1990 NCAA Championship and then again four years later, Megan Holden found herself racing against Deena Kastor and the most elite group of long-distance runners in the United States. The setting was the 2004 Olympic Trials in the marathon in St. Louis, MO. Megan would post a 2:59 for 83rd. She had qualified for the trials by posting a 2:47 at the Philadelphia marathon the year before. In 2008, Megan would again compete in the Olympic Trials in the marathon in Boston. Megan posted a 2:57 and would finish 114th. She is currently coaching track and cross country at the high school where she teaches in Columbia, SC.

Sonja Friend-Uhl also competed in the Olympic Trials. At the 2000 Sydney Olympic Trials, Sonja posted 4:13.9. She is the Masters World Record Holder in the indoor mile with a time of 4:44.81 and the Masters American Record Holder in the outdoor 1500 (4:16.9) and mile (4:45.62). She has represented Team USA an amazing six times. Although Sonja still competes, what really intrigues her at this point is coaching and passing on her knowledge and love of the sport to others.

If you venture outside of Williamsburg and make the drive north to Northern Virginia, you will get a sense of a totally different legacy of those years. Cathy’s stores make running accessible to people of all levels of interest and capability. When you talk to people about Cathy’s Potomac River Running stores, the adjectives that are used repeatedly, are “fun” and “knowledgeable”.

Was launching her specialty running store a random event? Not particularly. Post grad school, Cathy moved to Washington, DC and started a professional career. But she still wanted to compete. She was back in shape and invited to join what was one of the first official post-collegiate training groups in the US, the Reebok Enclave. The Enclave was conceived and coached by Georgetown coach Frank Gagliano. Cathy ran some PRs and qualified for US Championships, but most important, in the Enclave she would meet her husband, Ray. Ray was a past US Junior National Cross Country Champion who had run for Dartmouth. He qualified for multiple Olympic Trials and finished 6th in the 5000 in 1996. Cathy recalls sitting with W&M teammate Paul Vandegrift during the rounds of the race debating whether Ray had enough finishing speed to advance! Ultimately Cathy and Ray decided that rather than grind it out in traditional jobs, they wanted to live the sport they love and. They took a chance and launched their own business.

Cathy is deeply involved in the running community in the Washington, DC area. She is most proud of the PR Training Programs aspect of the business, which seeks to make running accessible and welcoming to runners of all levels, from youth track programs to Running 101 and new runner programs, to marathon training. The stores downplay Cathy and Ray’s competitive resumes, aiming to inspire recreational runners to set and achieve their goals and feel they belong in a running specialty store. Cathy is also hopeful that her daughters, Lia and Jenna, will be part of that next generation of runners. Helping others find the joy in running is an amazing legacy.

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