DECATUR, Ill. – The adage goes, “To know a person, walk a mile in their shoes.”
But what happens when you run six kilometers in someone else’s cross-country spikes?
The answer: A College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) championship.
Millikin University’s Women’s Cross Country team captured the 2023 CCIW Championship on Oct. 28 at the St. James Forest Preserve in Warrenville, Ill., their first conference championship in program history. Exactly how the team found themselves on top of the CCIW included selfless performances, a standout race from an athlete running in her first college cross country competition and a different attitude entering postseason competition.
Heading into last Saturday’s CCIW Championship race, Millikin Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Andrew Craycraft was optimistic about his team’s abilities, but the regular season had tested the group and had him open to exploring some non-traditional possibilities. First-year Millikin runner Lily Monigold had told Craycraft that her roommate, Kendra Culler-Gautschi, who competes on the Big Blue Triathlon team, was an excellent long-distance runner. Craycraft sprung to the idea that Kendra might be able to moonlight as a cross-country runner.
“I was pretty confident about the team, but a lot happened during the season that gave me a lot of doubt. Cross country is tough because you have to have everyone perform on the day,” Craycraft said. “In late September, we returned from an Iowa meet, and I knew we needed a little help. I reached out to (Millikin Triathlon Head Coach) Andrew Perry to see if we could shore up some of our depth issues. He spoke to Kendra, and they were open to it. Kendra was excited to try it; it was amazing.”
Having only run cross-country for one season in high school, Culler-Gautschi didn’t have her own pair of cross-country spikes, so Monigold came to the rescue, loaning her pair.
“I knew the purpose of the spikes, and then she pulled out these giant spikes. I thought, ‘I don't know about this,’ but I just did it, and it wasn’t too bad,” Culler-Gautschi said. “I was a little nervous, but at the same time, I knew what my talent was. I thought I could be an asset to the team, and if they have a job for me that needs to be done, I’m going to do it.”
The evening before race day, the team changed up their typical pre-race traditions to have the team run with a more level head.
“Normally, we have rah-rah hype meetings the night before, so going into this year, we decided not to do that because it seemed to put the energies in the wrong places at the wrong time. The prior night, we went around and talked about what we were all appreciative and thankful for,” Millikin Assistant Cross Country Coach Ben Kuxmann said. “That set their minds in the right spot, and going into the race, I think it was best for our girls to be in the most neutral space possible. They weren’t too hyped, they weren’t too down, and seeing them handle that was really inspiring.”
With the Big Blue roster expanded, Craycraft's plan for the CCIW Championship was that Culler-Gautschi would run with sophomore Emma Mallory for the race, while senior Big Blue runners Alyssa Ruiz and Quincy Collings would be out front, trying to finish as fast as possible.
“I gave her that assignment of being Emma’s shadow, but in training sessions, you could tell Kendra was chomping at the bit to go,” Craycraft said. “During the race, Emma could tell she was ready and told her to go. There was selflessness with how the team raced on Saturday.”
With Ruiz in front, Culler-Gautschi moved up and ran with Collings, but as Collings battled some breathing issues, she signaled to Culler-Gautschi to keep moving up.
“In the middle of the race, we had a brief interaction, and I was starting not to feel the best, and my breathing was getting the best of me. Alyssa was leading the race for us and told Kenda to go and lead with Alyssa,” Collings said.
With a new mission, the only thing going through Culler-Gautschi's head was that she couldn’t lose sight of Ruiz.
She did just that as the pair finished back-to-back in fourth (Ruiz 22:48.0) and fifth place (Culler-Gautschi 23:01.5), followed by Collings in 10th (23:22.4), Mallory in 18th (24:00.3) and Elizabeth Hulick in 25th (24:23.8).
The performance made Millikin history with the program’s first CCIW championship. The Big Blue (62) finished three points ahead of Illinois Wesleyan (65) and six ahead of third-place finishing North Central (68).
“After the race, I gave Kendra a huge hug and said thank you and that we really needed her. She did so much for us,” Collings said. “Kendra’s performance is amazing to me. That is something super unique about Millikin. I don’t think many schools have a triathlon athlete willing to hop on to cross country and fit perfectly with the team. We meshed so well together.”
Ruiz, Culler-Gautschi and Collings earned first-team All-CCIW honors while Mallory was named to the second team.
Culler-Gautschi was also honored as the Freshman Cross Country Athlete of the Year as the top-finishing freshman at the CCIW championships.
Ruiz’s performance was the fourth fastest run ever by a Big Blue women’s cross-country runner, and the championship is a crowning cross country achievement for Ruiz, who committed to come to Millikin – moving from San Diego – at the height of COVID.
“Alyssa couldn’t see the campus before she said yes, and I had to recruit her over the phone. She did a very brave thing and, in her first season, we didn’t have a cross country season. We were in masks all the time,” Craycraft said. “I don’t think she saw herself as a cross-country athlete for her first two years because she is very good at track events. I give her a lot of credit for believing and seeing the path ahead of her and trusting in this.”
As a senior, Ruiz is incredibly proud of the team’s effort in earning a spot in the Millikin record book.
“Winning the first CCIW championship for the program was an incredible achievement and a testament to the hard work and dedication of the entire team,” she said. “I feel an immense sense of gratitude for the experiences, the unwavering support of my teammates and the guidance from Coach Craycraft. Millikin has become my second home, where I have found a sense of belonging for personal and athletic growth, which I'll carry with me well beyond my senior year.”
The team now competes at the NCAA DIII Regionals on Saturday, Nov. 11, at the Max Cross Country Course in Pella, Iowa, hoping to advance to the DIII Championships in Newville, Penn. on Nov. 18. However, Culler-Gautschi’s cross country races this season will be limited to one, as she will be in Tempe, Ariz. competing in the NCAA DIII National Triathlon Championships.
“I’m proud to bring this home to Millikin, and I love doing it the way that we did. It was a full Millikin effort and had a triathlete out there,” Craycraft said. “I think that is something I noticed when I first was hired here, the willingness to collaborate. Let's do this together and have pride in this institution and not just in our programs.”