By Lisa Allmendinger
Chelsea High School junior cross-country runner Connell Alford likes to set goals, and half-way through the fall season, he realized he had a shot to qualify for the National Championships in San Diego, on Dec. 10.
So he went for it.
After winning the Michigan D2 State championship, Alford headed to Wisconsin to the Midwest Regional Qualifier and finished in the top 10, earning him a trip to California where he will compete with some of the elite high school runners from across the country.
In the process, he became the first Chelsea High School cross country runner to qualify for this national meet.
“(The Midwest qualifier) was truly an elite meet on a very challenging course,” said his coach Eric Swager, Chelsea’s cross-country coach. “Thirteen states send their best to compete in the Midwest Regional.
In addition, “He was a scorer on the Michigan Squad that beat the other 12 teams in the Midwest to capture that title,” Swager said.
Alford, his coach said, will be one of only three juniors from the Midwest to compete at the nationals, as the field is traditionally dominated by seniors.
Alford knows the guys competing from Michigan, and they are fast, he says. At the qualifier, Hunter Jones from Thompsonville, ran a 14:52.2 to win the 5K event, while Benne Anderson from Allendale finished in 15:10.8. Alford was 8th in 15:14.7 and Seth Norder of Grand Haven, another junior, finished in 9th in a time of 15:18.0.
Qualifying for the national meet “is really an elite opportunity,” Swager said. “Several Olympians have competed in this very meet, including Dathan Ritzenheim, Grant Fisher, and Bob Kennedy – all from the Midwest. The meet organizers treat the runners like royalty. Connell will be staying at the exclusive Torrey Pines resort.”
But, let’s step back for a moment and start at the very beginning and get to know this student athlete a little better.
Alford said he began running in fifth grade when he was only 10 or 11 years old. “It started out as a sibling rivalry with my sister,” he said, who was a 7th grader at the time and was running cross country.
The younger brother joined a group of 5th and 6th graders in a running club, he liked the sport, and he’s been building his cross country (and cycling) resume since then.
When he was old enough to compete in middle school races, he set the bar at Beach Middle School, shattering previous runners’ records.
In 2019, Alford won the Mega Jam Invitational at Huron-Meadows Metropark competing in a race of 221 runners. He bested his own school record in a time of 10:52, and went undefeated in all of his races that season.
And, like most young kids, Alford also started riding his bike at a young age as well. Alford turned that into a competitive sport for himself as well.
“He has been competing in cycling about as long as he’s been a runner,” his mom, Jen Alford said.
Last winter, he set a goal to compete in the USA cycling track nationals, and concentrated his training schedule on this big race.
Alford not only competed, but also won the Omnium, a combination of four different races where points were awarded for placements in each race, while competing against other 15- and 16-year olds from across the country.
Flash forward to the 2022 cross country season. Twice he’s broken his own school record – most recently running a 14:53 in October at the Otsego Bulldog Invitational.
“Connell clearly has the aerobic fitness, but his fearless competitive attitude has served him well in these post-season opportunities,” Swager said. “I am confident that he will take the same attitude to the National Finals. “
The change that likely contributed to his success was more targeted/intense cycling training on top of his running, his mom said. “He believes the change in training contributed to both his national championship in cycling and state championship in running.”
To what’s next for the Chelsea multi-sport champion?
He’s set another goal for himself at Nationals.
“Top 25 would be incredible,” he said.
But before this big meet on Saturday, he and his coach put together workouts to mimic the Balboa Park Course in California. As with all cross-country races, once at the race in San Diego, he will have a chance to warm up on the course beforehand so he can plan his race strategy.
Alford said he typically runs six days a week and takes one day off to let his legs rest. He prefers to train on dirt roads in and around Chelsea, running about 40-45 miles a week. In addition to the miles he puts in running, he also maintains a cycling training schedule that often includes 75-100+ miles per week.
He said he always runs with a buddy on the team so they can talk, and prefers that to blocking out the world with headphones and music.
“Overall, his training plan is rock solid, so he didn’t need to change very much,(before nationals Saturday,)” Swager said.
When asked about any race rituals he says about the only thing he always does is change out his shoes and socks after warm-ups. And yes, he has some favorite pairs of socks and always puts his right shoe on before his left one.
So what about his favorite pre-race meal? Pasta, of any kind, of course, and he always eats the same thing on race morning – a bagel and cream cheese. Since distance running burns a lot of calories, he says he does eat a lot of snacks throughout the day and of all things, yogurt is his favorite.
As he prepares for this big-stage opportunity, Alford wanted to make sure he acknowledged his appreciation for the unwavering support of his parents, Jen and JD Alford.
Fans wishing to get more information about the field, or to watch the livestream of the race can check out footlockercc.com. Specific results and videos from the Midwest meet can also be found on that site.
With another year of high school cross country to go, he has already set a goal of qualifying for the 2023 Nationals and would like to continue to the next level and run on the collegiate level as well.