The second and final day of the NCAA Division III Track and Field Championships brought about 470 runners to the Al B. Carius Track at North Central College for a day of competition that was both intense and intimate.
Intense was a crowd of 2,000 roaring as runners in the men's mile rounded the final two turns. Intense was the buzz around the third floor where rows of fans sat on the tips of their chairs and peered down at the action. Intense was the waiting, the calm before the pop of the starting gun, the readying of body and mind for competition on the biggest stage of Division III indoor track.
"There's nothing like a nationals atmosphere," said Jenna Loynachan, an Illinois Wesleyan senior from St. Charles whose big event Saturday was the opening leg of the 4X400-meter relay. "Especially indoor when everyone is together."
Team togetherness drew attention to the yellow-clad group of Augustana Vikings' family and fans, or a pack of Wartburg College runners cheering on teammates in orange warm-ups.
College sports writers updated Twitter feeds and interviewed runners for radio shows from a corner of the third-floor viewing area reserved for media.
There was always something to see on the track as pole vaulters practiced, triple jumpers stretched their legs and hurdlers stared down their upcoming obstacles.
Yet, somehow, the packed arena retained a tight-knit team feel, intimate enough that individual racers could hear their name, or their school's cheer or even a little cowbell rise above the noise.
Local runners' families, like Loynachan's parents Brian and Donna, relished the chance to see the championship action live, and without a five- or six-hour drive.
"We got lucky," Brian Loynachan said about the convenience of the competition's location at what his daughter called "a familiar track."
"We had our conference here a few times, too," she said, remembering her days on the St. Charles North High School track team.
The venue was even more familiar to North Central runners, some of whom actually live in the same building where championship action took place, the Residence Hall/Recreation Center that houses the Al B. Carius Track.
Hosting the event gave Cardinals team members the chance to absorb the atmosphere -- either as an athlete, like members of the men's team who competed to defend three straight indoor championships, or as a volunteer, like senior outdoor track team member Patrick Weisgerber.
"Everyone on the team gets to experience what nationals is like," Weisgerber said, adding it's an exciting end to the indoor season. "It's just great that everyone gets to come here and support the team."