by Tom Utescher
Senior Dustin Wilson, the ace distance runner from Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, extended his final high school cross country season into the second weekend of December. Last Saturday the Columbia-bound Wilson joined other elite runners from around the nation in San Diego, Calif. for the Footlocker® National Finals.
The SCH star finished 13th in the 40-man field in 15 minutes, 30 seconds, a time he shared with 12th-place Ahmed Bile of Annandale, Va. As one of the top 15 finishers, he automatically earned All-American status.
Wilson began running cross country in the sixth grade due to the activity requirements at his school (he wasn’t drawn to football or soccer, he said). In eighth grade he was already competing – and excelling – in varsity events.
Wilson has been the Inter-Ac League champion for the past three seasons, and Pa. Independent Schools champion the last two. He holds the SCH and Inter-Ac records, and has run the third-fastest time ever recorded by a scholastic runner at the Philadelphia area’s best-known venue, Belmont Plateau.
After winning the league and Pa. Independent meets this fall, he qualified for the Footlocker Nationals with a fifth-place showing in the Northeast Regional Championship, held on the difficult Sunken Meadows course on Long Island.
In San Diego last weekend, the third through 18th finishers all crossed the line in a 14-second span, from 15:21 to 15:35. Wilson came in three spots ahead of Tim Ball, a senior from Piscataway. N.J. who had beaten him at the Northeast Regional.
“I think I was able to pull away a little bit, then he started to come back on me, but I had enough of a gap to hold him off,” Wilson said. “To be honest, you’re not really focused on who is ahead of you; you’re focused on how many people are ahead of you. At some point you have to give up your ego and look at places instead of individuals, because all of these guys are so good.”
Two runners proved to be the best of the best, separating from the field and finishing one second apart. The Northeast Regional champ, Kenyan-born Edward Cheserek of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J., won in 14:52. In second place was Futsum Zeinasellassie of Indianapolis (and originally, Eritrea in East Africa), a senior who won the Nike® Cross Nationals in Portland, Ore. a week earlier. The Nike event is a more team-oriented competition, one where the 2009 Germantown Friends School squad finished 21st in the nation.
“If I have the right race, I feel I could beat anyone in the country, with the exception of those two,” Wilson said. “I was nine seconds out of third place, which isn’t huge over the course of three miles.”
Although Cheserek is a junior at St. Benedict’s, he will turn 18 at the beginning of February, which makes him older than SCH senior Wilson.
For the national final, Wilson traveled to San Diego on Thursday morning and booked into San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado along with the other competitors.
“You had the beach at your disposal, they had a hospitality suite for us, and they had dinners and other events,” he related. “You got to know the other runners and you got to interact with the elite athletes that were there.”
Wilson met two former Villanova University greats, NCAA 5000 meter champion Bobby Curtis and three-time Olympian Jen Rhines.
The SCH star was a little concerned with the 70-degree temperature during the walk-through of the course, but at race time on Saturday (10:00 AM) it was in the low 60’s (cross runners from this part of the country like it in the low 50’s).
The five-kilometer race consisted of two laps around a roughly 1.5-mile circuit. The course crossed over itself twice, forming a sort of figure-eight with an extra loop.
“There was a hill on the back part of the course that was about 70-percent as bad as Belmont,” Wilson said, “but you’re doing it twice and you’ve got the best guys in the country to deal with. There was a long, steep downhill with about 600 or 700 meters to go, and that’s where everyone really had to make their move to put races away. It was pretty tough on your legs.”
Leading away from the starting line, a loose surface was churned up into a dust cloud by the runners who went out quickly.
“I don’t know if it was fertilizer or wood chips or what it was, but I was literally eating dust for a couple hundred meters, which was unfortunate,” Wilson said.
The slightly-built SCH senior isn’t designed to throw elbows in the midst of a pack of runners, and he revealed, “I made a point of getting out slow and moving my way up. I was in the high 20’s to mid 30’s [out of the 40 finalists] for awhile.
“I kept moving up,” he continued, “and coming off that downhill the second time I was up around eight or nine. Then near the end I lost spots because I’m not the fastest guy out there.”
Wilson noted, “That’s something I’ve got to fix to run well in college. You can’t really ‘break’ a field like this, so I need to work on kicking, and on being really good at pulling away from people. Not being able to do that won’t kill you, but it’ll lose your team points.”
His 13th-place showing was matched exactly by the top Pennsylvania runner in the girls’ national final, senior Angel Piccirillo from Homer City in Indiana County. The best female runner from this part of the state, Perkasie’s Tori Gerlach (39th overall) has a connection to this area. The mother of the Pennridge High senior, Dana Gerlach, works in the office of Chestnut Hill dentist Michael L. Mendlow, whose daughter is a classmate of Wilson’s at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.
All in all, Wilson said, “It was a great experience being out there. I’ve been telling everybody I got a long weekend in San Diego for doing 15 minutes of hard work.”