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The Golden Charm
People often refer to first impressions and second chances, and it is said that the third time is a charm. However, Liberty senior cross country standout Josh McDougal's fourth appearance at the NCAA Division I National Cross Country Championships turned golden. Nov. 19 in Terre Haute, Ind. McDougal held off Oregon's Galen Rupp in a stirring finish to capture the first national title of his highly decorated running career.
McDougal crossed the finish line with a completely different set of emotions than he had experienced after a disappointing 27th-place effort at the 2006 national cross country meet. The race, which marked one of the few low points of the 12-time All-American's tenure at Liberty, served only to inspire and reinvigorate the New York native.
McDougal bounced back with a stellar outdoor track season in 2007, clocking a 3:57 mile and garnering top-four finishes at the national meet in the 5K and 10K. The kinesiology major seemed poised for an exceptional senior campaign for the Flames.
Aided by the addition of Sam Chelanga and David Cheromei to his training group, McDougal pounded out week after week of 130-plus training miles over the summer, with one goal in mind—to win a national championship.
McDougal opened his last collegiate cross country campaign with triumphs at the Notre Dame Invitational, Pre-Nationals, the Big South Cross Country Championships and the NCAA Southeast Regional Championships.
The triumph at Pre-Nationals was notable because McDougal set an 8K course record at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course, the site of the NCAA Division I National Cross Country Championships. His time of 22:56.4 eclipsed the short-lived record of Northern Arizona's Lopez Lomong and sent McDougal to the national meet full of confidence.
"For the first time, I felt like I was untested by the competition coming into the national meet," McDougal noted. "I felt like I had by far a better race in me. I was completely confident in my training and was more prepared than ever to win."
Not only was the Flames' senior confident, but he was especially motivated and determined to cash in on his final opportunity to win a national cross country championship.
"This was going to be my last cross country race in a Liberty uniform," McDougal remarked. "It was the only race I hadn't won, and I wanted to finish it right. Everything seemed to point to it."
Even the weather conditions turned out well for the national championship race, as the temperature hovered in the 50s under an overcast sky. More importantly, the mudpit runners had slogged through during the 2006 meet was replaced with dry, firm terrain.
One thing which did not work in McDougal's favor was the slow pace for the first half of the race. A large group of competitors crossed the 5K marker in 15:08, leaving many athletes in contention for the win.
The pace was especially appealing to Lomong, whose sprint speed was known to be superior to that of the other top contenders. "I expected Lopez [Lomong] to be all over the slow pace," recalled McDougal.
McDougal and Rupp must have been thinking the same thing during the fourth mile of the race. The duo had allowed the 10,000-meter outdoor track national championship to maintain a comfortable pace in 2007. Taking advantage was unheralded Shadrack Songok of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, who sped by McDougal and Rupp in the final 200 meters to steal the win.
Determined not to let history repeat itself, an unspoken agreement developed between McDougal and Rupp, whose rivalry dates back to high school. They alternated surges, gradually thinning out traffic in front.
By the five-mile/8K mark, McDougal and Rupp had broken away, creating a two-man race for the national title over the final two kilometers of the 10-kilometer course.
"Josh knew there was no race for him next year, and that's how he ran," noted Brant Tolsma, Liberty's head cross country coach.
"For the last 2K, it was time to buckle down and start fighting," added McDougal.
And fight McDougal did. With just 1,000 meters remaining, he built a 10-15 meter lead over Rupp in an attempt to break the Oregon standout.
McDougal had expended a considerable amount of energy opening up such a lead, though, and felt his legs begin to tighten. In the meantime, Rupp pulled up alongside McDougal and inched slightly ahead of him, with around a quarter mile left.
"With 300 meters to go, I'd saved a little bit for a finishing kick, but I didn't have much energy left," said McDougal. "I sat on Galen's shoulder and with 150 meters remaining, I went."
McDougal was able to take the lead with his final sprint and pulled away from Rupp to win by exactly one second, in 29:22.4. He flung open his arms and looked skyward as he crossed the line a national champion, shortly before collapsing from complete exhaustion.
"It was a different feeling crossing the line than it had been in other races," explained McDougal, Liberty's second NCAA Division I national champion. "I'd celebrated some of my big wins in the past, but this one was a big relief. I knew all of my pain and sacrifice had paid off."
Tolsma attempted to put the weight of McDougal's accomplishment into perspective. "Most people don't realize how difficult it is to win a cross country national title. It's like winning the Heisman Trophy. There's only one given each year."
Life has gone on as normal for McDougal after his memorable day, outside of a glut of interview requests and congratulatory notes. "For the first time, my faith was at such a point that I didn't need to win the title," the senior reflected. "It does not define me. It has not changed me at all."
McDougal even returned to competition less than two weeks later, at the indoor track season-opening Liberty Kickoff. Despite admittedly being exhausted, the senior qualified for the NCAA Division I National Indoor Track & Field Championships in both the 3K and 5K events, in consecutive days.
Now, McDougal can take most of the indoor track & field season to recover and recharge for what the 22-year-old hopes will be an extended track campaign. This year is an Olympic year and the new NCAA national champion has his sights set on Beijing in August.
"My main goal now is to make the Olympics," McDougal confirmed. "All of my training will point to that objective."
At such a young age, McDougal will likely have several chances to battle for an Olympic Team berth over the next 10-12 years. He hopes he doesn't have to wait for his fourth try this time around, though.
Paul Carmany is an assistant athletics media relations director for Liberty University who covers cross country and track.