With 100 meters left, Elon University men’s cross country freshman Nick Ciolkowski wasn’t sure he was going to win the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) championship Oct. 31.
“I didn’t know if I was going to catch [College of William & Mary junior Faris Sakallah] coming down that straightaway,” Ciolkowski said. “That last lunge was really a Hail Mary kick, you could say.”
Ciolkowski’s win is the second individual title in two years for Elon since joining the CAA, as Luis Vargas ’15 won last year’s cross country meet. The freshman took the lead with just a few meters left and won the individual CAA championship by just 0.7 seconds.
That moment — when Sakallah looked back with just a few dozen meters left and gave Ciolkowski a window to close the gap — defined the race.
“My high school coach always told me that looking back was a sign of weakness,” Ciolkowski said. “He would tell me, ‘If you’re chasing somebody and they are looking back, you’ve already beat them.’ I saw him looking back, and thought I had a chance. I used all of my energy and went for it.”
Head coach Nick Polk said that the victory would not have been possible if Ciolkowski did not follow the pre-race strategy.
“If they went out fast or went out slow, [Ciolkowski] was going to go right out front and put himself in position to potentially win the race,” Polk said. “If he got out-kicked and didn’t win, at least he gave himself a shot.”
Once the race started, though, the other runners made Ciolkowski face an unexpected challenge.
“William & Mary guys went out really fast — that’s probably the fastest that Nick has started a race in his life,” Polk said. “But he hung in there, weathered the storm, and one by one, William & Mary runners dropped off, until it was him and [Sakallah] and he was able to take it all the way to the line.”
The men’s team finished third out of the six schools at the championships in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina behind William & Mary and Northeastern University. Seniors Reed Payne (25:34.6, 15th) and Ryan Gwaltney (25:42.5, 18th) were the other top-20 finishers for Elon.
On the women’s side, junior Kimberly Johansen (20:58.0, sixth) and senior Elyse Bierut (21:03.8, eighth) both finished in the top 10 to lead the team to a third-place finish out of nine schools, behind William & Mary and James Madison University.
Though Polk said the teams performed well, he was hoping for better.
“I was hoping for second place on both sides,” Polk said. “I thought that was a realistic goal, so I think we underachieved a little bit. But on both sides, almost everyone ran a personal best, so it’s hard to come away feeling too bad about that.”
For Ciolkowski, the NCAA Southeast Regional Championships in Charlottesville, Virginia, provides a unique challenge: his first 10,000-kilometer race.
“I’ve run 10K races for fun a few years ago, but never competitively,” Ciolkowski said. “I’m excited to see how I do — I’ve thought I tend to do better at the longer distances. But saying that and actually running that are two different things.”
Both Ciolkowski and Polk believe that he can run in the top-25 at the Regionals, which would give him All-Regional designations.
“If he can get in there and be competitive, that would be a great start,” Polk said. “That’d be the highest finish any Elon runner other than Luis [Vargas] has ever had.”