By Jeff Hollobaugh
The promised rain never came. The mud that would have been so good for photography—and so miserable for the 1700+ high school runners in attendance at Michigan’s Portage Invitational—never immersed the course.
The gray skies and the wind did arrive, however. The wind gusted at 25mph and the temperature stood at 42-degrees when Grant Fisher stood at the line with his teammates from Grand Blanc. With most of Michigan’s top teams in attendance, as well as a few from other states, the competition promised a measure of excitement.
Some of the athletes lining up even had hopes of beating the defending Foot Locker champion on the two-loop course. The thought is not as foolish as one might think—every great upset in history has had its genesis in such an improbable notion.
For Fisher, though, this race was not about this race. This race was about getting ready for the championships, with the first big one, the Michigan state finals, just four weeks away. “It’s getting real now,” said coach Mike Scannell.
Fisher lined up knowing that his mission on the famous Portage course would be more painful than it might have been, because the race would be a stepping stone. He said, “The goal coming out was to go out, run hard in the beginning, get some lactic in the system, and then try to deal with it the rest of the race.”
Dan Wytko, the founder of the meet and the longtime director until this year, reported that Fisher blasted through 800m in 2:10 and 1000m in 2:41. That first 800m includes a gutbuster of a hill, while the stretch to the kilo is downhill. Still, Fisher had company for the first 600m or so, as a host of athletes wanted their shot at him—or the bragging rights to say they led him at least at some point of the race. However, the Grand Blanc senior barely took note of the crowd: “I couldn’t tell what was going on behind me, but I didn’t want to play around at the beginning, so I just got out and went straight to the front by about 200m.”
Fisher climbed another hill, losing track of the pack along the way. On a downhill stretch, he hit the mile in 4:31. Then he had a three-quarter mile stretch of flat, where he found a rhythm and raced past throngs of screaming spectators. At halfway, he had a lead of 23 seconds.
Up the gutbuster hill again, and down to the two mile, which he passed in 9:27—commendable, but he had slowed to a 4:56 pace. His lead, however, grew. And it hurt. “The lactic acid didn’t really catch up to me until the last mile. The last mile was really tough, especially into the wind on this backstretch. I was really feeling it, but yeah, it was a good day for me.”
Eventual runner-up Colin Burdette of Hilliard-Davidson said, “I was trying to sit back in the middle of the front pack. I didn’t really see when he left, but around the 1K I just kind of noticed he was far away. I knew that, just the way I race, I had to stay with the pack, and wait till the halfway and try to go get him.”
When Fisher emerged from the woods for the final 800m on the flat, the excitement built. Word of his splits had spread and the masses of runners and fans were cutting across the field to get to the finish line and see if he broke the course record. The electricity of the moment was genuine, even if few recalled exactly what the record was.
With 300 to go, it looked as if Burdette had started a drive and was gaining some ground. Fisher, though, rounded the final corner and faced a final straightaway of 250m, slightly uphill. His kick needed no introduction. According to one coach, “Colin turned the corner and was like, ‘Where did he go?’ ”
Fisher hammered it home, crossing the line in 14:43, considerably faster than his 15:11 a year earlier. By just one second, he missed the course record set 14 years earlier by Dathan Ritzenhein. “The goal wasn’t the record,” said Fisher. “We thought if the record came, that would be great. But the record wasn’t even on my mind when I came into the finish line.”
“We had a plan, and he executed it perfectly,” said Scannell. “He looked good.”
Everyone wanted to see how close Fisher got to the record–it’s a wonder the fence held up. Burdette (far right), got second in 15:17 as his Hilliard-Davidson squad finished second in a tight D1 team race to Northville, 108-114, with Saline at 119.
Port Huron Northern’s Rachel Bonner won the D1 girls crown in 18:04, as Traverse City Central confirmed its state #2 ranking with a dominating 61 points, winning over Saline (149), Rockford (169) and Northville (233). Bonner wasn’t the day’s fastest, as homeschooled Sarah Kettel (ineligible for the state finals) won D4 in 18:01, and Cedar Spring’s Kenzie Weiler won D2 in 18:00.