On an ominous weather day in Louisville, Kentucky, the men of the Blue and Gold returned the Northern Arizona University flag to the podium of the country’s biggest stage for cross country.
In case the faithful readers of this column don’t remember, last year I contributed a story about how I took an NAU flag to Terre Haute, Indiana, for the 2016 national meet.
This is the journey of a new flag to a different city for a different team defending the title for NAU. The team was the undisputed No. 1-ranked team in the country all year and won every race it entered.
To maximize travel plans, I flew into Columbus, Ohio, so I could visit with family during and after the trip to Louisville. My sister from Ohio returned to nationals with me as my travel partner and co-conspirator in flying an NAU flag over the championship course.
While driving from Columbus to Cincinnati to visit family on the night before the race, I found a Facebook post indicating that the start times had been moved up almost two hours in an attempt to miss predicted severe weather. We had to advance our departure from Cincinnati on race day to 6 a.m. to make the earlier start of the women’s race.
The race was held at E.P. Sawyer State Park, a relatively non-descript park with a small gym, baseball fields, picnic ramadas and a BMX bike park. The men’s course made a couple of repeating loops around the grassy exterior of the park. There was little topographic expression, especially for those of us used to the mountains of Flagstaff. But recent rains made for some challenging footing.
The earlier start helped avoid additional rain, but the wind was intense. Luckily, the wind aided our very large NAU flag in flying proudly over the course.
Unlike 2016, the NAU men were the clear favorite and the target of every team, especially Brigham Young University. The BYU Cougar mascot carried a sign that read “NAU shortcut,” with an arrow on it. As Matt Baxter and Tyler Day roared past the mascot with the lead in the race, I told the mascot that the NAU shortcut was to lead from the front and bury the opponent.
The mascot hung his head briefly. BYU faded during the race but finished third.
As the runners passed near the finish line for the first major loop of the course, in my position waiving the large blue NAU “axe” flag, a large yellow NAU flag sprinted around the turn and came up to me. Carrying the flag was none other than the older brother of NAU runner and eighth-place overall finisher Peter Lomong.
Two-time Olympian Lopez Lomong, well-known for carrying the US flag at the 2008 Beijing Opening Ceremonies, was grinning from ear to ear with other NAU alumni in tow and whooping it up as the Lumberjacks’ front six flew by in the top 40 of the race.
Despite having one runner take a tumble in the first 600 meters, NAU nabbed an overwhelming victory, including three finishers in the top eight. As I was waving the flag at the finish line, a random running fan not from NAU came up and asked if he could hold it in a photo. I’d say NAU is gaining fans around the country. Most of them don’t see an NAU flag every day like we do here in Flagstaff.
There were supportive parents, a few alumni, a couple of university administrators and a former coach (Ron Mann) in attendance, but I would challenge the Flagstaff running community to come cheer on the most successful NAU athletic program on the biggest stage.
Put it on your calendars to go to Madison, Wisconsin, to cheer NAU to a three-peat on Nov. 17, 2018. Let’s at least double the number of NAU flags flying over our Lumberjacks, and maybe even send Louie to show the BYU Cougar a shortcut.