Super Seniors: Meet the 6th- and 7th-Year Seniors (And Even One 9th Year) Running At The NCAA Cross Country Championships This Weekend
November 20, 2021
By Jonathan Gault
November 15, 2021
Morgan Beadlescomb has been running at Michigan State for so long that even he has a hard time keeping track of his races. When I tell him he will be competing at his fifth NCAA Cross Country Championships on Saturday, he has to double check the math.
“Will it?” Beadlescomb says. “I thought it was my fourth. Let’s see…”
He pauses, mentally recalling a career that has included trips to Terre Haute (twice), Louisville, Stillwater, and now Tallahassee.
“Yeah, yeah, it will be my fifth.”
Beadlescomb, a two-time cross country All-American, is a member of a select club. Because the NCAA did not count the 2020 cross country season (whose championship was staged in March 2021) toward anyone’s eligibility clock, around a dozen athletes will get the opportunity on Sunday to compete at NCAA XC five times. It’s a club that will expand over the next four years before closing permanently, and Beadlescomb isn’t sure what to make of his status as a founding member.
“If what I just said is any statement of how I feel about it, it’s a little weird to think I’ve done this already four times,” Beadlescomb says.
For many runners, joining a college cross country team is a chance to finally find your tribe. That weird sport you pursued in isolation in high school becomes a shared passion between you and 20 of your closest friends.
But once you graduate, that’s it. In the real world, there is no way to replicate the feeling of stepping on the line of your conference meet, ready to chase the goals you’ve dreamed of all season with the men and women who’ve suffered alongside you in long runs, mile repeats, and ice baths. Who among us would have turned down an extra year of eligibility?
Olin Hacker certainly wasn’t going to. The son of 1985 NCAA cross country champion Tim Hacker, Olin was the runner-up at Foot Locker and Nike Cross Nationals as a senior at Madison West High School in 2014. He followed in his father’s footsteps by enrolling at the University of Wisconsin with a goal of becoming an All-American in cross country (top 40 at NCAAs). But after six years and four trips to NCAAs, Hacker has yet to accomplish his goal.
“The NCAA Cross Country Championships is one of those meets that has really meant the most to me,” Hacker says. “And I feel like so far of the four times I’ve run it, I haven’t performed my absolute best. I think my best performance for where I was at fitness-wise was actually my first time there.”
Hacker redshirted xc in 2015, was 66th as a redshirt freshman in 2016, missed all of 2017 due to injury, was 56th in 2018, 93rd in 2019, and 98th in 2020 (which was run in 2021).
Count that up and you’ll realize that Hacker is actually in his seventh year at Wisconsin — he was able to get a medical redshirt after missing the 2017 season due to Achilles and knee injuries. And while the rest of the members of his recruiting class have graduated and now occasionally tease Hacker for his status as a real-life Bluto Blutarsky, he knows they miss their time in Madison.
“I feel like they probably think I’m lucky, honestly,” Hacker says. “…I feel so lucky to get another chance to achieve my cross country goals. Most people only get four chances. I get five.”
Hacker’s seventh year at Wisconsin has been his best yet. He was 13th at the Nuttycombe Invitational and second at the Big 10 championships, helping the Badgers to the team title. An All-American finish on Saturday is within his grasp.
No one enters college as an 18-year-old intending to spend six (or seven) years at the same school. Lynsie Gram certainly didn’t when she enrolled at Michigan State in the fall of 2015. But after missing two seasons due to a pelvic fracture and stress reaction in her foot, Gram applied for and received a sixth year of eligibility in 2020-21. Of course, when Gram applied in the fall of 2019, she did not know anything about COVID-19.
“I thought that the sixth year was going to be normal, and it wasn’t,” says Gram, 24, who earned her bachelor’s in dietetics and is currently pursuing a master’s in human nutrition.
Plenty of athletes in Gram’s situation have chosen to graduate and move on with their lives. But in 2021, she was finally healthy and flourishing under new Spartans coach Lisa Breznau, posting her best finish at NCAA XC in March (34th) and qualifying for the NCAA Outdoor Championships for the first time. She wanted a full senior cross country season, not the bastardized two-meet season of 2020-21.
“I just felt like I got cut short again and I knew that I could extend my master’s for another year if I wanted to,” Gram says. “I was like, why not? I’m progressing. Might as well come back.”
In her seventh year, Gram wasn’t sure she would make as many new friendships, but that has not been the case. In fact, she’s become fast friends with one of the team’s youngest runners, Kaitlyn Hynes, a precocious freshman also interested in dietetics who reminds Gram of herself from six years ago.
“It is kind of funny, but I was mentioning it to my mom the other day, and she was like, ‘Oh yeah, I have friends that are 19 years apart,'” Gram says. “I was like, yeah I guess it’s not that weird.”
As much as Gram is enjoying her seventh year in East Lansing, she’s excited to explore the world once she graduates with her master’s next year. Gram has never lived outside of Michigan and is hoping to pursue a dietetic internship elsewhere — perhaps in Colorado. Hacker, who has spent his entire life in Madison, is also looking forward to life beyond the city.
“I’ve loved living in Madison,” Hacker says, “but I’d like to live somewhere else.”
In addition to Gram, there are five other All-Americans from the 2020 champs who are returning to run their fifth NCAAs on Saturday. Tops among them is Arkansas’ Amon Kemboi, who has finished 29th, 7th, 8th, and 11th in his four NCAA appearances and will go for an unprecedented fifth All-American honor this weekend.
Men who have run at 4 NCAA XC champs and have competed during 2021 XC season
|Morgan Beadlescomb||Michigan St||165th||91st||23rd||33rd|
|Thomas Pollard||Iowa St||45th||98th||95th||91st|
Women who have run at 4 NCAA XC champs and have competed during 2021 XC season
|Lynsie Gram||Michigan St||126th||116th||49th||34th|
|Dominique Clairmonte||NC St||58th||62nd||54th||63rd|
|Cailie Logue||Iowa St||79th||53rd||15th||126th|
And then there are runners like Hacker or NC State’s Dominique Clairmonte, who have been good enough to run at four NCAA championships but never quite good enough to finish as an All-American. Clairmonte has come close in all four appearances — she’s finished 58th, 62nd, 54th, and 63rd — but the goal of All-American that she set back in 2017 remains unrealized. Clairmonte returned for a sixth year in 2021 to set that right — and help the Wolfpack, currently ranked #1 in the country, chase a national title.
“The past two years, there’s always been some complication that has prevented me [from running my best at NCAAs],” Clairmonte says. “Last year, I was coming off of mono going into nationals. The year before, I had some iron issues.”
It has not been smooth sailing in 2021. Clairmonte won the ACC cross country title in 2020 but was the seventh NC State runner across the line in 2021, finishing 24th overall. She did not compete for the Wolfpack at regionals. But Clairmonte, who has battled an Achilles injury this fall, is hoping that she can still make her second senior season count in Tallahassee.
“I’m having some good workouts recently, so definitely excited going into nationals,” says Clairmonte.
Clairmonte turns 24 in February, which is approaching senior citizen territory for an NCAA distance runner. She says she doesn’t have the energy of some of her younger teammates, who sometimes drop a new slang term she hasn’t heard of while discussing a TikTok video she hasn’t watched. Occasionally, she is teased for being the old one on the team.
“I can understand it,” Clairmonte says. “I kind of also have the personality of an old person. I can be a little grumpy sometimes — not in a mean way, that’s just my disposition.”
Indeed, most of the athletes LetsRun interviewed for this story admitted their age has been a source of teasing — though always in a good-natured way. Hacker, who is 24, says he has been called “Old Man” and “Grandpa.” Beadlescomb’s age was a constant source of amusement at Michigan State’s preseason camp — though he’s not even the oldest runner in the MSU cross country program (Gram is a full year older).
“I can’t give you a person who hasn’t teased me for being the old man,” Beadlescomb says.
They’re not the oldest athletes in the NCAA, however. Reigning NCAA champion Conner Mantz of BYU will turn 25 next month — and still has one year of cross country eligibility remaining (though he does not plan to use it). Arkansas’ Gilbert Boit, who grabbed the final All-American spot at NCAA XC last year, will turn 27 four days after this year’s NCAA championships.
Meet Weber State’s 9th-Year Senior
The longest path to this year’s NCAA XC champs belongs to Summer Allen of Weber State. Eight years ago, she won the Big Sky individual title as a true freshman named Summer Harper. Three weeks later, she finished 156th at the 2013 NCAAs in a race that featured Abbey Cooper, Emma Bates, Emily Sisson, and Shelby Houlihan among the top 10.
In the ensuing eight years, Allen has, in order: served a two-year Mormon mission in Northern California during which she gained 30 pounds (“best Mexican food on the planet,” she says); suffered a broken foot and torn labrum; met and married her husband, Christian Allen (a member of the Weber State men’s team); given birth to their son, Miles; and, in March 2021, finished 7th at NCAA XC.
For those scoring at home, that’s five seasons of competition (Allen didn’t qualify for NCAAs in two of those XC seasons), one redshirt, one missed due to pregnancy, and two missed due to a mission. Which explains why Allen, at 26 years old, is still eligible to compete this year (Allen’s eligibility clock was paused during her mission, and the NCAA allows athletes who miss a season of competition while pregnant to apply for an extra year of eligibility).
“If somebody had told me when I started college, hey, you’re gonna be there for eight, nine years, I probably would have a) laughed or b) been so scared that I would have quit right away,” says Allen.
Now, however, it feels natural to Allen to be part of the team, even if she admits it may be a little weird for some of the younger runners to have a 26-year-old teammate.
“I don’t feel like I look older, and I don’t feel much older,” she says. “I feel the same, really. I just have a kid. When we get recruits on visits or we have new incoming freshmen, they’re always a little shocked. Like, Wait, you’re that old?“
Allen was terrified to tell her coach, Paul Pilkington, when she found out she was pregnant in July 2019. The day before, she had logged her longest run ever, 16 miles, telling her dad when she finished that the 2019 cross country season would be her best one yet. Now she had to tell Pilkington that she would have to take a break from racing.
But Pilkington was 100% supportive, telling Allen she would return stronger and faster after giving birth.
“I held onto that for the entire time I was pregnant and the entire time I was coming back,” Allen says. “I just said, Coach P says I’m going to come back faster and stronger, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
Allen gave birth to Miles on February 25, 2020, and while the country was shutting down due to COVID, the pandemic presented two silver linings. First, the switch to virtual instruction made it easier for her to attend class while raising Miles. And second, the four-month delay of the 2020 NCAA XC champs meant four extra months for Allen to get back to full fitness.
Pilkington’s declaration proved true. Allen returned to racing on January 16, 2021, running 9:41 for 3,000 meters at altitude in Provo. Two months later, she ran the best race of her career to finish 7th at NCAA XC.
Initially, Allen wasn’t planning on coming back for the 2021 season. But her teammates convinced her to return and take one more run at qualifying for NCAAs. The Wildcats had only qualified for nationals as a team once during Allen’s tenure, but it came while Allen was serving her mission in 2015. Weber State finished 8th at the Mountain Regional on Friday — not high enough to earn an NCAA spot — but Allen qualified as an individual by placing 8th overall.
Raising a child has changed Allen’s perspective on running. Before Miles, she would put pressure on herself to perform in every race.
“I thought running was a really, really big deal to me and if it doesn’t go well, the world’s gonna end,” Allen says.
Having a child removed all of the expectations Allen placed on herself. Running is still a big deal, Allen says, but she has the maturity to know that it’s not the only important thing in her life. Now Miles travels with her to every meet, with Allen’s parents and in-laws — or, occasionally, a coach or teammate — watching him while Summer and Christian are racing.
On Saturday in Tallahassee, she will run her final cross country race as a Weber State Wildcat. And with Christian (who also qualified as an individual) and Miles in tow, Summer Allen will be sure to soak in a moment that she’ll never get to experience again.
“Once I am done with my eligibility, I will never be on a college team again, because that’s something you can’t ever go back to. So I’m just trying to enjoy it while I can.”