By Nelson Coffin
Storrie Kulynych-Irvin was in top form again last weekend at the Chesapeake Invitational in Anne Arundel County by crossing the finish line more than 20 seconds faster than her closest pursuer, senior Niya Torres of Arundel High School.
The convincing win proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Key freshman and her sophomore teammate Zoe Benitez are for real, considering that Benitez finished fourth overall and was only one of four competitors out of 129 runners to complete the race in under 20 minutes.
Kulynych-Irvin’s 18:30.70 was even more impressive, marking the second major invitational she has won this season.
She also claimed the best overall time — and the third-fastest time since the course was reconfigured in 2013 — at the prestigious Bull Run Invitational a week earlier by checking in with a stellar 18:24.10, which was almost two minutes faster than runner-up Grace Siehler of South Carroll High School in the Small School Girls race while nudging Elite Girls race winner Juliette Whittaker by less than two seconds when times were compared.
“I’m still shocked that she was able to run that fast,” Key coach Brandon Demers said about Kulynych-Irvin’s performance. “The heat and the fact that she was running alone (while having such a big lead) made it even tougher. She ran faster than I did in my senior year at states (in 2006).”
Kulynych-Irvin said that she didn’t actually have a highly-developed strategy for the race.
“The pace was manageable off the start, so I waited until we approached the dip to take more risks,” she said. “I still need to work on getting out quicker for the start and staying focused in the middle of the race, especially on difficult/hilly courses.”
Whittaker, like Kulynych-Irvin and Benitez, is another runner who came on like gangbusters as a freshman and is showing no signs of letting up after claiming the A Conference individual title last fall while also leading Mount de Sales to the team championship.
Whittaker and Kulynych-Irvin should go head-to-head in the championship meet Oct. 29 at McDaniel College, albeit with their times applied to different conferences because Key is in the C Conference.
Regardless, it could be a thriller with two talented athletes vying for the mythical title of the best runner in the metropolitan area with the prospect of the duo battling it out for the next couple of years as well.
Moreover, Kulynych-Irvin will also be able to count on Benitez to boost the Obezags’ fortunes as the team continues to strengthen.
The sophomore started the season on a roll by winning the highly regarded Spiked Shoe Invitational in 19:47, 10 seconds better than Ava Crawford of team champ Strath Haven (Pa.).
A daunting summer running regimen helped Benitez get off on a good foot in early September.
“I practiced and raced with an amazing trail racing team with Ryan Morrissey from Peak Custom Fitness,” she said. “We focused on technically challenging trails and competed in the Ragnar Trail (WVa.) event as a target race for the summer. I am currently focusing on form and efficiency when I race. I am working to improve these aspects late in the race when I am fatigued so that I can have a faster finish.”
She said that running with Kulynych-Irvin has also been beneficial for her.
“Running with Storrie has helped push me during training this year,” Benitez added. “Coach Demers creates a positive environment at practice that promotes healthy competition within the team. She is a very talented runner, and it makes me a better runner to train with her.”
Both girls are year-round swimmers who also will swim for Key this winter. Benitez was a B Conference All-Star as a member of the Zags’ championship 400-yard freestyle relay quartet in February and Kulynych-Irvin is a butterfly specialist preparing for her first venture into high school swimming.
So when you think about their practice schedules, it’s difficult to imagine how they find the time to juggle two sports at such a high level.
Demers said that Kulynych-Irvin has not missed a cross country practice since early in the season.
“She’s a machine,” he said. “I’ve never had an athlete more eager to train. Sometimes we have to hold her back from training too much.”
Kulynych-Irvin said that she’s been at it for a long time.
“I’ve been running for fun since I was seven, when my parents would patiently accompany me on meandering weekend runs to get ready for my first 10-miler,” she said. “I’ve swam competitively from age four, so as the intensity and commitment of each sport has increased over the years, I’ve tried to improve my endurance and the muscular strength/stability I need to better my times in both. For me, the big challenge now is time management; it helps to be a night owl as I have to do most of my homework in the car and when I get home after swim practice.”
She also thinks that swimming is good for her running more than vice versa.
“Swimming has probably increased my running potential — there's only so much impact your legs can take, so swimming can help increase conditioning without more running miles,” she said. “Some swimmers are fish out of water on land, and swimmers need more muscle to pull against water resistance. Sometimes I think I do better when I’m tired, because I focus less of my energy on some of the nervousness or pressure associated with competing in these sports.”