So, when Maddy McDonald encountered the carnival-like atmosphere at the IFAF World Cross Country Championships, she knew that she had arrived on her sport’s biggest stage.
“There were so many people there spectating, and jumbo-tron screens and intense music,” McDonald recalled. “Even afterward, there were kids there asking us for autographs. I was shocked. They wanted an autograph from me?”
The first-year Marauder runner and her veteran teammate, Lindsay Carson, represented Canada at the world championships, held in Bydgoszcz, Poland on March 24. There, McDonald competed in the junior race – her first event with Team Canada – finishing 47th overall and second among the Canadians as Canada’s junior women placed ninth in the team standings.
She spoke glowingly of the experience, a trip that allowed her to travel and train on equal footing with Olympians and world record holders.
“It was exciting and a little overwhelming at the same time,” said McDonald. “You’re on the same team as people like Cam Levins and Mohammed Ahmed – who have been to the Olympics – and you’re competing against girls who have world records in our age group.
“It was so memorable and such a great experience.”
Carson – with several appearances for Canada to her name on the junior circuit – took part in her first senior race on the world stage, and finished 60th as Canada’s senior women placed eighth overall.
The event went ahead in brutal conditions, as a cold spring day in the Polish host city brought with it a hellish mixture of snow, mud and just about anything in between.
“If there wasn’t snow, there was mud,” Carson remembered. “If there wasn’t mud, there was a switchback. If there wasn’t a switchback, there was a hill. So it was definitely one of the most demanding cross-country courses I’ve run. But it just made the whole experience that much more worthwhile.
“Even though those were hard conditions, everyone had to face them. So it just became a matter of what tools you used on race day to get through them.”
Carson holds justifiably high standards for herself, and was not entirely pleased by her first senior appearance for Team Canada. But once her initial pace was set, the Marauder veteran explained that the conditions took control of the pack.
“I found it hard to go any faster in the mud,” said Carson. “There was a pace that, even if you tried to go faster or slower, the end result was the same. So, I think if I had been able to get out faster and stay with a faster pack, I could have been happy with finishing 30-40th. It’s just a matter of latching onto that pack and believing that I can stay with those girls.
“I tried my best and there are no regrets. But I guess the race leaves me hungry for more.”
Meanwhile, McDonald was proud of her effort in Poland, even while the occasion may have gotten to her legs on the first lap.
“I think I can be happy with my performance,” she said. “With any race, there are things that you feel that you could have improved. I think that I started out a little faster than I should have. I was a bit slower on the second lap. But with the build-up, and considering the occasion, I think I’m pretty happy with what I did.”
The world championships brought McDonald into competition with a familiar foe. Guelph’s Madeline Yungblut – the reigning Canadian Interuniversity Sport Rookie of the Year – was the only first-year to better McDonald at the CIS championships in November, and finished a mere two seconds ahead of the Marauder runner in Poland.
“[Yungblut] passed me at the last hill, so it just came down to getting down the hill and through the straight-away,” said McDonald. “It was close and I think I was gaining, but it just wasn’t quite enough. We’ve been so close all season.
“It’s a rivalry but also a friendship. I’ve gotten to know her on these trips and I’m glad that I have.”
The Marauders’ focus now shifts to the summer outdoor schedule, where each runner has a full competitive slate ahead.
Carson moves on from McMaster and the CIS level, and will scale down to the five kilometre distance as she takes part in the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford University on April 28. She plans to tune up and test her speed at 1,500m, before making a run at qualification for the FISU Summer Games in Kazan, Russia in July.
For her part, McDonald will train at 3,000m as she prepares to compete at the Canadian Junior Track and Field Championships from July 12-14. She hopes that event can act as a springboard, to vault her into contention at the Pan-Am Junior Championships in Lima, Peru in August.