Masters Scott Ebeling, Chris Travis and Mark Smith pace ERC to the team victory.

On Nov. 10, more than 200 runners, representing 10 Illinois competitive running clubs, came together to compete in the 2012 Illinois Club Cross Country Invitational, hosted by the Evanston Running Club.

They fought off the rain and some intermittent threats of lightning to go head-to-head for bragging rights on the 5K course in four competitive divisions, an all-comers race for others interested in participating, and even a school event featuring Evanston’s Nichols and Haven middle schools.

Running celebrities were also on hand. Craig Virgin (2-time World Cross Country Champion and Illinois record holder) as the official starter kept the runners laughing and honest. Olympic marathoner Jenny Spangler, also the coach of the Lake Forest team, brought a dominant squad with her and cruised to an easy victory in the Women’s Masters event with a time of 19:42.

Nationally ranked runner Nancy Rollins, also the coach of ERC, easily won the age-graded category and captained the ERC Masters Women. The Men’s Open Team race was blazing fast, with six runners finishing in under 16 minutes on a soggy and slippery course.

While Lake Forest provided the winner, Thomas Frazer (with a time of 15:06) and fifth-place Rob Wiley (15:53), this race was about more than individual laurels. Fleet Feet brought in runners 2, 3, 4 and 9 to run away with the Men’s Open Team Championship. Fleet Feet also took the Women’s Open (winner: Melissa Hardesty 18:19).

The importance of teamwork was also evident in the highly competitive Men’s Masters division, where Evanston Running Club’s Elpidio Vilchez, Chris Travis, Scott Ebeling, Mark Smith and John Critchley went 4, 6, 8, 9 and 12, to edge out last year’s team winner, Lake Forest.

Captain Ebeling said it was a great tune-up for the team before next month’s XC Nationals in Louisville, Ky. One of Chicago’s fastest masters runners, Scott Laumann, took the individual honors with a time of 17:16.

This was a community event for all, as well as a day of fast racing. Vinny Finneran, teacher and coach for District 65 middle schools for many years, was also a nationally known runner, but now focuses his passion for fitness and health on the community.

He is known as the “fitness guy” at Nichols Middle School, and works with athletes of all abilities. On Saturday, he showed up with packs of middle school runners from Haven and Nichols, while Coach Beth Caldwell brought students from Chiaravalle.

Next year, Mr. Finneran hopes to get Chute involved as well. The winner of the race was Haven sixth-grader Jack Lynch, who then took off his spikes, passed them to his mom, Marie Lynch, and cheered her on in the Master’s event.

The behind-the-scenes hero was organizer, director and scorekeeper John Hennelly, who contacted clubs months ahead of time, loaded each runner into his scoring system and produced quick and accurate results.

Mr. Hennelly made it look easy, and when the results were posted on an old results board from ERC’s early days in the 1970s, the club was truly back to its roots; perhaps a welcome change for those growing weary of the big shows downtown.

“Cross country is nothing like the mega-races most runners experience these days,” Mr. Hennelly said “The big crowds and lines at port-a-johns, the parking hassles, the road closures. We run in grass, which takes more energy than road running. Because we run in the Forest Preserve, the race is kept small. Cross country pares the sport of running down to its essentials. If you love running, but hate crowds, if you care more about being part of something big than setting a personal record, then cross country is the sport for you,” he added.

All results and information about Evanston Running Club, as well as next year’s race, are available at