Swampscott High senior Peter Hale has a fairly modest goal heading into cross country’s championship season: his aim is to finish better than he did as a junior.
When you realize that he was the runner-up at both the Northeastern Conference championship and the Eastern Mass. Division 5 meet, those goals become a bit loftier.
Hale, who won the league’s 2-mile title in both indoor and outdoor track last year, has the look of a favorite in tomorrow NEC championships being run at Bradley Palmer State Park (1 p.m.).
“I look at how I finished as a junior and want to try to improve. So for NEC’s, I’m hoping I can get the win,” said Hale, who plans to continue running in college but is keeping his options open in terms of schools.
A tall runner at 6-foot-1, Hale built quite a bit of strength between focusing on the longer distances last spring and his summer training. His top 5K time this fall is 15:59 at the Frank Kelley Invitational in September, a mark that was third best in the entire state that weekend.
“Peter is physically matured and has confidence from having been through so many big races. He knows how to be mentally focused,” said Swampscott head coach Jeff Bartlett. “He’s realized that everything we do in training has a purpose — making sure easy runs are easy so we can run hard when we want to, doing extra stretching, things like that.”
Championships cross country meets have large fields on a long course, with the initial pack at the conference meet typically around 50 runners and the EMass divisional meets numbering as many as 200. It’s a different race mentality — and one Hale thrives on.
“There’s nowhere to hide; you can’t tuck behind somebody like you might be able to on a track,” said Bartlett. “I think Peter enjoys that atmosphere and that primal aspect of it.”
There’s a team component to cross country as well. Each team gets points based on where its runners finish; team scores determine the NEC meet champion and also which teams advance to the All-State meet from the divisional round.
For the Big Blue, Matt Mahoney is a formidable No. 2 runner and Sam Crimmins appears to finally be healthy at the No. 3 spot. Swampscott will most likely be in a battle with particularly deep Peabody and Marblehead teams for the NEC crown.
“There’s going to be some huge competition between Matt and Alex Grecco from Beverly, Drew Fossa from Peabody and Noah Mondello from Gloucester. They all have very similar times and will be fighting it out for those spots,” said Hale. “The nice thing about a meet like this is you can always find someone to compete with.”
Hale’s best from earlier this season is nearly 45 seconds better than his top time of a year ago, and he also tied his home course record set by Peabody’s Nick Christensen last season (Hale owns the top time by a Big Blue runner and re-set that mark a few times).
“My legs felt sluggish for a few weeks,” Hale said. “But I’m finally feeling strong, and I’m hoping I can break 16 minutes again. We’ll see what can happen.”
Part of the strength Hale is feeling no doubt comes from a training program that’s designed to peak at this time of year. Naturally, every runner in the state hopes to be turning in his best times in this championship season.
“Pete has good leg speed, and it’s been all about getting his strength built up,” said Bartlett. “These meets really kick start the rewarding part of the season.”
Terrain sets cross country apart from indoor and outdoor track. Different courses have different layouts, with some having hills and the dirt trails often bumpier than conventional flat rubber.
“A lot of times in cross country you’re fighting the course more than you’re fighting yourself,” said Hale, who won the Eastern Mass. Division 3 2-mile title last winter. “The strategy tweaks depending on where you’re running and that makes it more interesting.”
That also means places have more value than times. Even though the distance at different courses might be the same, the times can change based on the sharpness of turns or the frequency of hills.
Especially when it comes to team advancement, the points count and the higher he can place, the better is it for his team, Hale said.
“Peter is very team oriented, a very team focused runner,” said Bartlett. “He also realized that at this level, you want to win individually as well.”
RUNNERS TO WATCH Here are a few local harriers to keep an eye on at this weekend's NEC championships at Bradley Palmer State Park: Boys: Drew Fossa, Ben Braz, Peabody; Peter Hale, Matt Mahoney Swampscott; Alex Grecco, Beverly; Nate Fowler, Marblehead Girls: Catarina Rocha, Lauren Barrett, Sam Allen, Peabody; Janaya Randall, Kelly Roland, Marblehead; Sarah Kelley, Swampscott; Nicole Demars, Jessica Gomes, Beverly; Catalina Dominick, Danvers Also, keep an eye on these runners for the Cape Ann League championships, held after the NEC race tomorrow: Boys: Jake Moorman, Masconomet; Matt Gillis, Jack Blatchford, Hamilton-Wenham. Girls: Kim Cosgorve, Meghan Collins, Masconomet; Sarah and Tina Keiran, Ipswich; Emily Weigand, Emily Horgan and Meg Blatchford, Hamilton-Wenham.