ORONO, Maine — The challenge of adapting from the 3.1-mile high school cross-country distance to the 5-mile collegiate races is a difficult one for seasoned runners, let alone those with limited experience.
When Jesse Orach stepped foot on the University of Maine campus as a freshman five years ago, his running experience was limited to speeding around the track as opposed to traversing trails and hills.
The Gorham native’s cross-country career in Orono didn’t get off to a pristine start, as a combination of nagging injuries and Black Bears head coach Mark Lech’s plan to ease Orach into the 5-mile distance led to him being redshirted as a freshman.
“He was further behind the eight ball than anybody else he ran against,” Lech said. “So when he came here, it was all of a sudden jumping up to 5 miles, so his first year I sat him out for that reason, because he was having trouble adjusting to the distance.”
Eager to prove himself as a cross-country runner, Orach steadily progressed and improved over the course of his UMaine career. Now as a fifth-year senior, the chemical engineering student is leading the Black Bears’ pack, with four individual wins in his first five races this fall.
“I’ve been kind of overwhelmed with some of the reception I’ve been getting,” Orach said after claiming his fourth win of the season in an America East dual meet with New Hampshire on Friday.
A humbling start
In any sport, cross-country included, the path to success often comes from humble beginnings, and Orach was beset by bad luck his first couple of years in Orono.
Among the injuries that nagged him were a stress fracture and iliotibial band tendonitis, which hampered his training as a freshman. He is finally healthy and able to log the mileage crucial to a distance runner’s success.
“These past two seasons I’ve been injury free, and I’ve been able to get a lot of mileage in,” Orach said.
While he came to Orono with no cross-country experience, Orach excelled on the track and the soccer field at Gorham High, specializing in the mile and the 2-mile.
He was prepared to learn the ropes of the sport, as the training focus can be different than that of the shorter track and field distances.
“Pretty much I just knew if I wanted to be on the indoor and outdoor team, I had to show I could compete in cross-country as well,” Orach said.
Orach has made the transition thanks to his work ethic, even while not being able to pound the pavement because of the nagging injuries.
“When he was having some of his overuse injury issues, he was either in the pool or on the [stationary] bike sometimes twice a day just hammering it out,” Lech said. “All he was trying to do was increase his aerobic capacity. He’s learned what it takes to be a good distance runner.”
He also was well aware of UMaine’s history of producing outstanding runners, and he watched one in particular.
“Kelton Cullenberg is the one I looked up to the most,” Orach said. “He was there for my first two years.”
Now Orach, who was one of two Black Bear athletes to win the school’s prestigious “M” club Dean Smith award earlier this year thanks to his hard work in the classroom, is the one teammates look to for inspiration.
He maintains an impressive 3.95 grade point average.
“He’s definitely a father figure,” UMaine sophomore Aaron Willingham said. “It’s just good to have someone there in workouts to hang on to.”
“Everyone kind of feeds off him, especially in the races and in workouts,” UMaine junior Jacob Johns added. “We just all feed off that and put the work in.”
Leader of the pack
Orach has emerged as one of the top runners in New England so far this fall, but he knows that short-term focus is key to long-term success.
Even after blazing through UMaine’s course on Friday in 25 minutes, 16.3 seconds, a 5:03-per-mile pace, Orach almost immediately turned to what he needs to work on to reach his ultimate goal, which is qualifying for the NCAA championships.
“Sometimes I lose focus in the mid part of the race,” Orach said, referring to the challenging third and fourth miles of a 5-mile race. “I’ll start out strong and lag in the middle.”
He has plenty of time to work on his approach, with the America East championships more than a month away.
“I don’t think they’re peaking too early because we haven’t worked hard yet,” Lech said.
Orach and the Black Bears don’t race again until the Oct. 8 New England championships in Boston, with the America East meet slated Oct. 29 in Baltimore.
“I’m looking forward to seeing some more competition to try to better myself,” Orach said.
Another thing Orach said he will need to work on as the competition gets tougher is being an aggressor at the start.
“I’ve got to learn how to go out hard, because at the big races that’s what the big guys do,” he said.
Focused on the team
Even though Orach is earning plenty of individual praise this season, he is a team-first guy.
“The ultimate goal for the team is to win the conference championship, and we’ve taken a lot of steps toward doing that,” Orach said.
That includes exhibiting outstanding pack power because a team is only as good as its fifth runner.
Maine’s pack has been paced by Orach, including a 44-second spread between Orach and No. 5 Simon Powhida in Friday’s dominating win over UNH.
“He’s going to do all he can to run his fastest, and they’re going to have to keep close,” Lech said.
“He makes it easier to run as a pack,” Willingham said. “He definitely brings up the morale of the whole team.”
His final cross-country race in Orono ended with an outstanding individual performance against a traditional rival, but Orach is nowhere close to the finish line.
“Knowing that it’s my last year I just want to finish with no regrets,” he said. “I think I’m well on my way to doing that. I’m not finished yet.”
Follow Ryan McLaughlin on Twitter at rmclaughlin23.