The Bucknell women’s cross country team didn’t just repeat as Patriot League champions 10 days ago in Easton, the Bison dominated in historic fashion. Never before had a team swept the top four places in the championship meet, but we did just that with Christine Bendzinski, Kate Scott, Sarah Chandler, and Colleen Buckley going 1-2-3-4. Toss in a strong 13th place finish from Elizabeth Sheprow, and the Bison totaled a paltry 23 points to easily outgun runner-up Lehigh, which had 75.
Now we have our sights set on the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional Championship, which comes up this Friday at Penn State. This is the meet where teams and individuals can qualify for the NCAA Championship, which will be held Nov. 19 in Terre Haute, Indiana.
According to junior Chrissy Bendzinski, the performance at Lafayette last weekend was the high point — so far — for a wonderfully talented team that has also undergone a mindset re-boot over the last few years. From finishing in fourth place as a team the last time the Patriot League Championship was held on the Metzgar Fields course, to the most dominating performance in league history this time around, a program with a storied history of success could not be kept down for very long.
Chrissy is a biochemistry/cell biology major (with a not-too-shabby 3.73 GPA) from Hebron, Connecticut. In addition to her brand new Patriot League cross country gold medal, she is also the two-time defending league champion in the indoor mile and 4×800-meter relay, and she holds school records in the indoor 3,000 meters, the outdoor 1,500 meters, as well as the 4×800 and distance medley relays.
We recently caught up with Chrissy to chat about the team, her family, and her time at Bucknell so far.
BB: So tell us what it was like leading that pack of Orange & Blue across the finish line at the Patriot League Championship.
CB: It was just amazing! I was a little disappointed they didn’t have a tape to run through, because I always wanted that photo (laughs). I turned around and saw my two teammates who I was with for most of the race — Kate and Sarah — we usually go out together. But then to see Colleen battling it out and getting fourth place was just so awesome. And then to see Lizzy battling all the way to the end and finish 13th. It was incredible. We were just all on the same page.
BB: Bucknell was considered the favorite going into the meet. How did it feel to not just live up to the expectations, but to win the championship in historic fashion?
CB: It’s funny, the night before the meet we always have a team meeting in the hotel. Coach Donner had this big stack of papers, and he was going to go through every team and give us a sense of who to look out for and how we should run. But then he said, “you don’t need that,” and he ripped up all of his notes! He just told us to run our race, and to make everyone else run with us, instead of the other way around. We kept calling it a business trip. It’s hard when you are expected to win.
This team, for the time that I’ve been here, has been really transitioning. The year before I got here, the race was at Lafayette and we got fourth, which was really kind of a low point, at least from what the upperclassmen were saying. Then Boston entered the league, and we were just gunning for them as the underdogs, like we had nothing to lose. After winning last year by a fairly wide margin, I honestly didn’t know if that could be topped. There was pressure, but I think we responded in a better way than I could have imagined.
BB: How cool is it that even Patriot League Championships on the road feel like a home meet, with all of the traveling support?
CB: We will never have trouble getting hyped up for the Patriot League meet. It’s so special for us, and we always have so many fans come out to support us. We had a fan bus come out, and there were so many people out there cheering us on. That adds so much intensity of the meet, but in a good way. When you are running through the race, and you see a huge crowd of orange, it takes a little bit of the pain away.
BB: As great as the Patriot League title must have felt, this team has really been focused all year on the Mid-Atlantic Regionals at Penn State. How are the preparations coming?
CB: It’s been great for us to focus on the regionals. It’s actually what I have been envisioning for awhile for our team to be doing. My freshman year, we were very focused on the league meet, and for good reason after finishing fourth the year before. But then the intensity seemed to fizzle out after that. I didn’t feel the whole team being super focused on the regional championship. Last year, we decided that we were going to talk more about it, but I still don’t think we were ready. But this year, after having a whole year of adjusting to a new mindset, we think we can do something even better. We are loaded with talent right now. We just have to make a couple of little changes, and we can do something really special. We are running more than we ever have. We do doubles more. The atmosphere is a lot more competitive as a team. The biggest part of it is going to be the mental preparation, visualizing the race during the week.
BB: At the Patriot League meet, you ran in front most of the way. How will things change at the Regionals if you have to do some chasing?
CB: I do like being in the mix of things and having to chase people down. That is typically our style anyway. Anyone who has ever seen one of our track races, Sarah and I are always chasing people down at the end. It’s definitely going to be a tough race, and every place counts. You have to fight for every place, thinking that could be the point that gets you in. We are just going to leave it all out there.
BB: What would it mean to send the team to the NCAA Championship?
CB: Oh my gosh it would be amazing. We have thought a lot about it, but we aren’t really banking on it, so for us, this is one of those situations where we have absolutely nothing to lose.
BB: It is also possible to send individuals to NCAAs. Has that been a goal of yours?
CB: It’s been my personal goal this season. At the beginning of the year it seemed so far away, and last year at this meet I had asthma issues during the race, and I couldn’t finish. So this will be kind of a redemption moment for me. I have had the goal of making All-Region, which is top-25, and that is the cutoff for going to nationals anyway. They take the top four individuals not on one of the qualifying teams, but you have to be in the top 25.
When I walked into Coach Donner’s office at the beginning of the season, I said my goals were to finish the race and get All-Region, but he shot that down. He said, “That’s just the minimum. If you do that, we will consider it a good year, but you need to be shooting for much more than that.” So that really inspired me.
BB: Have you dealt with asthma for a long time?
CB: I’ve had it my whole life. A lot of runners deal with it, but there is medication and it just becomes part of your everyday routine. I don’t consider it something that I have had to “deal with” any more than any other physical preparations to run. But on certain days in can get really bad. It had never really stopped me before that day.
BB: How did you get into running?
CB: My dad [Mike] is a high school cross country coach. I remember going to his state meets when I was really little. He didn’t let me run long distances until I was in high school. He felt that if I was running 5Ks as a sixth-grader, that I might not have any legs left to run in college. He would go on five-minute runs with me through the woods when I was like six years old. He made running fun, and it was something I wanted to continue doing.
BB: Did you play any other sports?
CB: I tried other sports, but I was only good at the running part. I would run down the court really fast in basketball, but then I would just get knocked over by a forward. Same with soccer.
BB: So it’s fair to say you had running in your genes?
CB: Running has just been a huge part of my life. My dad was also a marathoner, so I was always around the sport. Some days it got hard, but my dad had a way of never making me do it. He would encourage me, and show me the benefits and how it could be fun. I was lucky enough to have him coach me in track in high school. We didn’t have a distance coach when I came in. I don’t think I would be running at a place like Bucknell if it wasn’t for him.
BB: When did you know you were good enough to compete at the Division I level?
CB: Freshman year cross country I kind of surprised myself, but I still didn’t really know. I was around 70th in the state. But this one time I ran a mile, and I felt really good, and I found out I ran a 5:04. I just said “wow!” At that point I felt like I was good enough to be competitive, but I had to make sure that I was still liking it. At the time, I really enjoyed running, and I figured I would like it in college. But I never knew that I could like running even more than I already did. In high school, if I had a hard workout coming up that day, I would be thinking about it in school and it would stress me out a little bit. But now I can’t wait for the workouts. It is a way to de-stress.
BB: How was the transition to becoming a college athlete, where running really becomes a lifestyle in terms of nutrition, sleep, etc.?
CB: It was an adjustment, but it’s pretty automatic now. I did have to change my eating a little bit, taking advantage of the healthier options that are available. Sleep is a big one, because I have to get more sleep than most college kids. My friends don’t always understand. They will text me at 11 o’clock and I’m already in bed. But things like sleep and time management are things that I have learned through experience.
BB: Tell us about your family.
CB: I have one brother [David]. He’s 24, lives in Connecticut and is a diesel mechanic. He took such a different path from me, but he was always so good at fixing things. I am four years younger and would be teaching him algebra, but then he would find broken lawn mowers on the side of road, fix them up and then sell them. He is just a genius. My parents were both teachers in Connecticut, retired now, traveling the country in an RV and living the dream.
BB: You are also excelling academically as a biochemistry/cell biology major. Have you decided on a career path?
CB: I thought I was going to go to med school, but I am kind of eliminating that right now. I think I want to work in industry or even get a postgraduate degree in engineering. I want to use more math-type skills to solve problems in biology or biochemistry. I’m trying to re-figure everything out.
BB: Will you continue running?
CB: Definitely. I love how it is a life sport. My dad still inspires me, because he still gets out there every day still, even in his 60s. I anticipate even continuing to be competitive when I get out of college. I do like the longer distances. The best marathoners are often in their 30s. The older you get, the more conditioned you become to the longer distances. It’s nice that this is something that will be there the rest of my life if I want to do it. There is nothing stopping me from going down my front steps and going for a run, just because I want to.