By Martin Cleary
Minutes before the start of the biggest cross-country running race in his young high-school career, Saul Taler was struck with a moment of anxiety.
When he looked down at his shoes, the Grade 10 student-athlete from Glebe Collegiate Institute wasn’t wearing his lucky socks, the ones he had been wearing for competitions since the spring.
What to do? What to do?
Since he had already entered the fenced-in start-line corral, he wasn’t able to sprint back to his athletic bag to change into his prized green socks that are covered in images of avocados.
But after a few seconds of panic, Taler’s mindset immediately changed for the positive.
“I calmed down. I said: ‘trust your training. It’s not the socks, it’s you,’” Taler said, explaining about the final seconds before the start of the boys’ junior 5,000-metre race during the OFSAA provincial high school cross-country running championships last Saturday in Uxbridge.
In that instant, Taler made a winning decision, bringing his mental preparation under control for the challenging race on a tough course in unseasonably warm weather.
Sixteen minutes and three seconds after the start of the race, and wearing a pair of traditional white athletic socks, Taler emerged as the boys’ junior champion by a three-second margin. Glebe teammate Russell Heins was four seconds back as the bronze medallist.
Taler became the 12th student-athlete from the National Capital Secondary School Athletic Association to win an individual race at the OFSAA cross-country running championships since 2001.
There have been two double OFSAA champions during those 21 championships – Shona McCulloch of Longfields-Davidson Heights in 2014 (junior) and 2013 (midget), and Yves Sikubwabo of Glebe in 2011 and 2010 (both senior).
The other champions were: Ridgemont’s Joe Fast (junior, 2017), Glebe’s Mei Mei Weston (junior, 2015), Holy Trinity’s Owen Day (junior, 2013), All Saints’ Joanna Brown (senior, 2009), Hillcrest’s Danelle Woods (senior, 2006), Nepean’s Ian Donald (midget, 2005), Hillcrest’s Allan Brett (senior, 2005), South Carleton’s Tess Acton (midget, 2002) and Hillcrest’s Michael Woods (midget, 2001).
Despite not slipping on his avocado socks before the race, Taler added: “They were there in spirit.”
Taler, 15, received his avocado socks as a gift earlier this year and decided to wear them for his 2022 outdoor, high-school track and field season because he wanted to show his own style.
“I like wearing goofy socks,” he said proudly.
When he had success wearing them on the track, he made it a race tradition or superstition. Taler placed second in the boys’ novice 1,500 metres at the NCSSAA East Conference championships, the NCSSAA city championships and the East Regional championships. At his first OFSAA track and field championships, he ran an eight-second personal-best time of 4:16.98 for fifth place.
It was only natural Taler would carry his avocado socks into his first cross-country running season this fall. A combination of his socks, determination and talent allowed him to post boys’ junior victories at the Trinity Invitational in Port Hope, ON., the Turkey Trot in Kemptville, ON., and the NCSSAA city championships. He also recorded second-place results in the Capital XC Challenge and the NCSSAA East Conference championships.
Taler posted a remarkable results sheet in advance of the OFSAA championships, making him one of the runners to watch. The Dagmar Ski Resort 5,000-metre course was one of the most challenging in OFSAA championship history as was the weather.
But Taler prepared for his race the day before by doing a full-course inspection to experience the uphills and downhills of the layout and learn how to approach and handle the sharp turns and intricacies of the course.
“That definitely helped a lot. It was a very hilly course. There were almost no flats. It was uphill or downhill,” said Taler, who added to his preparation by spending time visualizing the course the night before.
Taler was in a lead group of five or six runners after the first of two loops. About 400 metres from the finish line, he was the sole leader.
“It was exhilarating,” he recalled. “I said to myself: ‘Don’t let someone pass you. I really want to win.’ So, I kept pushing. ‘You’re going to win OFSAA, keep pushing, keep pushing,’ I said.”
As Taler kept pushing, he was being pushed by the other two medallists – Graham Tomori of Eden and teammate Russell Heins.
“It was amazing,” added Taler, explaining his feelings crossing the finish line. “It’s definitely a feeling I hope to have again. It felt so amazing to get the gold medal. It was a crazy feeling and a big accomplishment.
“My goal was to do well at OFSAA, but I didn’t think I would win.”
Taler drank a lot of water the day before the race to be properly hydrated and only small amounts leading up to his race.
“The weather was kind of weird. It was cold at the start of the day and then got warm with the sun coming out. It wasn’t ideal for early November. The conditions weren’t ideal, but I didn’t find it too bad.”
A number of runners in the boys’ and girls’ novice, junior and senior races were hampered by the unexpected weather, which affected their times or took them out of the race.
When Taler entered Grade 9 last year, he was a member of the Glebe soccer, tennis, basketball and track and field teams. But for Grade 10, he decided to shift to cross-country running in the fall instead of registering for soccer and tennis because of his success as a middle-distance runner last spring in track.
“I definitely have some natural talent,” he said. “I’m an athletic kid and I’m always active. I stuck to my training program, executed my workouts well and I stayed healthy. That has definitely helped me improve.
“I have the build for it, but cross-country runners are usually taller with longer strides. I have average height … but I’m determined. I’m a fighter and I can fight through pain. I give it my all. With the hills, I dig deep and find extra energy.”
Taler is scheduled to complete his cross-country running season this month, when he’ll represent the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club at the Athletics Ontario boys’ U18 championship on Sunday in Kingston and the Athletics Canada national championships on Nov. 26 at Mooney’s Bay.
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Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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