42nd Mt. Carmel XC Invitational
Senior Tom Bell, pictured competing at the Bronco Roundup at Kit Carson Park earlier this season, leads host Mt. Carmel into Saturday's invitational at a revamped Morley Field course in San Diego. (Phil Grooms photo)
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When Mt. Carmel's Tom Bell runs cross country, it isn't just a casual stroll.
"Cross country is a microcosm of the real world," said the Sundevils senior who will lead his team into the Mt. Carmel Invitational Saturday over a revamped 3-mile Morley Field course at San Diego's Balboa Park.
"If you work hard, you have a better chance to succeed. Not everyone can win but that's not what's important. Doing your best and getting a personal best makes you successful, no matter where you place. But sometimes things happen over which you have no control. That's life."
He uses last season as an example.
Going out strong in the San Diego Section Championships, which were also held at Morley Field but on a slightly different course, Bell was in good position to make his move and powered in to capture the Division 2 title in 15:30.7.
Can't get much better than that.
A week later, Bell ran in the CIF-State Championships at Woodward Park in Fresno and placed 29th in 15:58.6. The runner he beat by five seconds in the SDS meet, Grossmont's Ian Rosen, placed seventh on the 5K course at State in 15:37.2.
"That was my first State Meet and I think I did well (29th out of 188 runners)," said Bell, who said he started running in the sixth grade. "This year, though, I know I need to get out with the front-runners. But that's kind of been the story of my career, playing catch-up."
Although it's still early in the season, every meet counts to Bell and while he knows his training and conditioning aren't what he expects them to be when it really matters, at the end of the season, he still likes running the Balboa Park course and will look to improve upon the 16:27.70 he ran a year ago in this meet, placing fifth in Division II.
"Of course, I'm shooting for first place," said Bell. "I really like the Balboa Park course because it's different from all the other San Diego courses. What makes it an actual cross country course is after you come out of the Dog Loop, you go through the recreation area and there are a lot of people cheering you on.
"Suddenly you are surrounded by a bunch of people and the race seems very condensed. You have hills here and I think that's one of my strengths -- I like going up hills."
One of the subtle changes Sundevil coach Shan Forehand has made to the course is to have the runners traverse the Upas St. hill just once and making the course distance an even 3 miles.
"Running 3 miles is a good standard," said Forehand. "You can compare your time to others. If you run 2.9 and 2.75 there isn't much to compare to. It's still very challenging and we have a very strong field."
Indeed, with traditional Southern Section power Loyola coming south from Los Angeles again, the more than 100 schools entered in the meet this year include an increased number from Arizona and Nevada that were lost during the pandemic.
Forehand says Bell is a slightly different runner from a year ago.
"He's definitely more focused, engaged more whether it's in the meet or at practice," said Forehand. "Tom is committed, he's goal oriented. You can see the difference and he was a great runner without being as focused as he is now.
"This is his senior year and I know he's aiming on improving what he did last year. He's looking for a top-10 finish at State after defending his section championship. The thing is he's a really good racer, he steps up when it's time. We're using this meet, in fact all the meets leading up to Section and State, as a gauge."
Bell said he found himself in an unusual position this year and enjoys it.
"We had a lot of seniors that graduated last year," said Bell, a 5-foot-9, 125-pound co-senior captain with a 3.9 GPA who is still considering his college choices, although he said he's leaning toward one of the University of California schools.
"Now we're leaving it for the next generation -- we're passing the flame and the team has really responded. Both cross country and track have a special place in my heart. There is no other feeling like running and having people beside you.
"My job is to make sure everyone is having a good time, to motivate the others. We talk together as a team before the race and after, congratulating each other. The team is very resilient. In practice, it doesn't matter what distance we run, they adapt.
"Running is fun, it's one of the driving things in my life."
Steve Brand is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to MileSplit
Photos by Phil Grooms and James Huenink