Across the border, but closer than nationals

PHILADELPHIA -- When Stephanie Ryall steps onto the track tonight at the 120th Penn Relays, she'll be one of only three Canadian individuals at the event. None of the three have run there before.

The Hamilton runner says a calm strategy should help her handle the pressure.

"I want to go for a good time" the 11th-grader at Westdale Secondary said earlier this week when asked about her goals. "I'm not really going for place."

"Girls like Tessa Barrett, Hannah DeBalsi ... those girls are much faster than me."

For Ryall, a good time in the 3000m run means 9:45 or faster, which is just over 10 seconds quicker than what she has run at this year's indoor meets. That's about 5:12 per mile.

Ryall's father, who plays a key role in her coaching, has planned with her for consistent 78-second laps, which would achieve that time. Ryall says she'll have to hold back a bit to keep that consistency.

Generally, "everyone goes out and does like 73 or 74 [seconds for] the first lap," Ryall said.

It's not her first trip outside of the country to race, nor even the second -- she's been to well-known races in Rochester and New York City. But the crowd here is larger than anything she's run in front of before. Franklin Field, where the relays have been held since the 1800s, holds more than 52,000 people -- down from a one-time capacity of 80,000 in the early 20th century, according to the University of Pennsylvania athletics department.

Shared itinerary

For the two Canadian boys competing individually -- Isaac Dobos of Oshawa and Justyn Knight of Toronto, this is also a new audience. But racing each other in the 3000 is old hat. 

"He's one of my friends, so it's not like we have a big competition," says Dobos, who will move from R.S. McLaughlin to the University of Tulsa this fall. However, he says Knight is a "really good runner ... definitely somebody that is seriously fast."

Were Dobos not an understated speaker in general, that statement would stand out in its understatement. Both boys have excelled, but Knight's rapid rise from a non-runner to a college prospect has gained significant media attention.

"[Justyn is] a national champion in two years in a sport he didn't do three years ago," says Knight's coach at St. Michael's, Frank Bergin. "It's pretty amazing, actually."

Bergin tells of a friend who taught physical education at St. Michael's and told him about a 10th grader who outran classmates in basketball shoes and long shorts. Those classmates included a provincial top-20 cross country runner. "I told my buddy 'he cut the course on you.'"

But the coach checked into the rumor, and Knight was able to finish his grade 10 year with a few weeks of track. Now, he has committed to Syracuse, which he cites as a good mix of academics, coaching and team chemistry.

Both Knight and Dobos have run a largely shared slate of big events: Like Ryall, the boys have run at the Ontario provincial championships and the Canadian junior national cross country championships. Beyond North America, both boys continued their parallel paths by attending the NACAC junior 6K cross country meet in Trinidad and Tobago, where Knight and Dobos finished 5th and 14th, respectively.

Both say that having enough time to adjust to a new location is important when running. That goes beyond compensating for jet lag and extends to challenges as random as fighting indigestion from plane food, says Dobos. Given more time after that experience, "I didn't find it so hard to get used to it [the second year], since we were there so early."

"Just a different experience"

While plane food won't be a factor for runners making the eight-hour drive from the Toronto area to Philadelphia, the majority of international runners will be traveling much farther.

Holmwood Tech and other Jamaican schools are registered in more events than those of any other country, and the school's team manager says that, were it not for fundraising challenges -- he would like to bring even more students.

As it is, the expense of dealing with travel surprises for Holmwood's large program is one of several major fiscal stresses.

"We've been bumped [from flights] ... we've had girls missing their events because they got bumped -- that kind of thing," said manager Chester McCarthey in an interview earlier this year.

"It's just one of the things that happen as an athlete, because sometimes you cannot come into the country more than a day before because of costs. Because you're going to have to pay for those hotel rooms -- that kind of thing."

The Jamaican students are coming from an environment that treats high school track in a unique way.

"I've had representatives come down from Nike -- and even athletes -- they come down and are like "I've never, ever seen anything like this," McCarthey said. 

"Our national stadium, well it holds about 30,000 people and every single seat is just full, and it's cheering and pandemonium -- that kind of thing ... it's just a different experience.  You will not see any other high school meet like that anywhere else in the world."

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Additional reporting from Baltimore and Washington, DC

patrick.maynard@baltsun.com