It was a grand day - no losers but many winners
by Leo Collins
San Diego 's Balboa Park was the site of the 25 th Footlocker XC Championships. The weather was quite cooperative with sunny skies and a pleasant temperature to greet the 32 female runners, who qualified from the four regionals around the nation, in the first race. The fans looked forward to the races, but they were also enthusiastic to see the legends of high school track: Jim Ryun, Tim Danielson, Marty Liquori, and Alan Webb – the only sub 4 minute milers in US high school history.
Zoe Nelson was the defending champion and one of the favorites once again in a strong field of runners. The runners had spent a few days socializing prior to the race but even during the introductions it was obvious that this would be a serious competition. Some of the entrants looked quite serious and focused even at this point but Zoe displayed the demeanor fitting the event as she even sprinted to the starting line.
With the crack of the gun the runners moved out quickly led by a number of runners from the South along with Liza Pasciuto of California . They raced with the slight hill to where the finish line is located and then wound their way down the gentle grade until they reached a tree-lined area and headed back up to the tennis courts. They were still moving at a good pace as they crested the hill led by Erin Bedell of Texas and Jennifer Barringer of Florida . Their lead was only a slight one and a large pack followed closely behind with Zoe Nelson and Nicole Blood of New York among the group. As they continued on the flat stretch by the pool, Nicole Blood assumed the lead. They reached the mile mark in 5:20 with a pack of 13 runners still in contention. Katelyn Kaltenbach, the Midwest champion who had the look that made one wonder if she had another surprise as she did last year, moved close behind the leader at this point.
The one truly notable feature of the Balboa Park course is Opas Hill; otherwise, referred to as “The” Hill, and it was here that Jennifer Barringer, the Southern champion, made a surge. She opened up a slight lead over Blood, who was also passed by Lindsay Donaldson. They marched on with a fair amount of jockeying for position but by the two mile mark Katelyn Kaltenbach had assumed the lead. Both Blood and Nelson were still in contention but as they went up the hill just prior to that point you could see that it was not their days and have to give both credit for hanging in when they both did not have it and they had so much yet to go.
The return to Upas Hill found Marie Lawrence, who had been predicted to run a big race by my wife no less, pressing Kaltenbach. It was a curious match as the Colorado runner had not lost a race all year, while Nevada 's pride had not even won a race all year, but it mattered not: the race had been joined. The true depth of competition could still be viewed at this point, as six girls were still within 10 yards, and still had a shot at winning, and even Nelson and Blood were hanging and still in the hunt.
With a beautiful display of downhill running Lawrence surged into the lead and opened up about a 10 yard margin by the time she reached the bottom, but Kaltenbach was not finished. Once they reached the end she pushed back closing the margin to five yards, then 2, and then 1. As they made the turn towards the last upgrade to the finish she was in full over-drive and roared into the lead with Lawrence fighting to withstand the inexorable dash. At the end only a second separated the two as Kaltenbach won with a time of 17:24, while Jennifer Barringer placed third ahead of Katie Harrington and Ohio 's Sunni Olding, who threaded her way through the pack to garner fifth. Ramsey Kavan of South Dakota earned 6 th just ahead of Blood and Nelson along with Pennsylvania 's Frances Koons. The depth of the ladies' race can quickly be seen by noting that 11 runners were under 18 minutes for the 5k race.
After the race the victorious Kaltenbach, who momentarily broke away from the press conference to answer a cell phone call from her sister Megan, stated that “hills are my strength” and who could argue after her victory. Still it should be noted that it was a grand race no matter how it ended for each individual. Jennifer Barringer expressed it best when she said, “I watched the sun rise on the porch...and felt so lucky.” She added that she could only wonder how lucky she was. She was right. She and the other girls were lucky, yet so were those who were able to witness the race.
Again compliments to Footlocker for sponsoring this great event. The company had a full schedule for the best high school runners in the nation that included a dinner (dress Hawaiian) on Thursday, a picnic lunch in Balboa Park and a buffet on Friday and an awards banquet on Saturday. They also were able to meet with the specials guests who participated in an informal question and answer session. Nike brought in Bob Kennedy and others to offer encouragement. Special mention goes to Footlocker alumni Sarah Schwald and Suzy Favor Hamilton, who were everywhere in their support of the runners, and a parent of one runner who had an off day noted: “You said all the right things.” Add to that the ambiance of the Hotel Del Coronado and the beauty of San Diego what more could one ask?
The boys followed an excellent race by the gals and one could only wonder how it could be topped. As much as the race was anticipated there was some thought that after the girls the second act might disappoint but any concerns were quickly shed as the boys blasted off at the start. Yes the girls had started quickly, yet the guys topped that. Galen Rupp of Oregon led a fast charge up the first hill and was quickly joined by a phalanx of South runners including James Strang, Brian Sullivan, and Nicholas Hutchins, who rolled past him. Rolling down the first grade then back up, they flew past the half-mile in around 2:17 with Rupp again pushing the pace.
As stiff as the pace was there were a number of runners still in the chase pack and in the hunt. Racing past the start and down the hill Galen Rupp continued to push the pace and forced the pack to turn into a string of trailing runners: the most prominent being Mohamed Trafeh of California and Shadrack Kiptoo of New Mexico along with Strang. They reached the hill in a punishing 4:39 with the West at that point having 5 of the top 6 runners: Evan Garber of Washington and Stuart Eagon of Oregon having made a move.
Rupp was relentless as he forged a lead up the hill with Kiptoo, the Western champion giving chase, yet an amazing throng of 25 runners was still within 15 meters of the lead. Rupp noted later that he did not think that he could draw away from the others and merely wished to take as much out of his competitors as possible but at this point it was difficult to see, if anyone was being pressed. Kiptoo used Upas downhill to forge a lead but shortly after reaching the flat Rupp regain it. They were still charging as they reached the 3k in around 7:15 with Rupp still in the lead.
The next stage of the race saw Josh McDougal of New York and Garret Heath move up into contention. The time at the 2 mile was a stunning 9:30 and they were on record pace yet no one had cracked. Far be it from cracking, Matt Withrow, the ‘master of the midrace surge', made his move to vault into the lead. Quickly Kiptoo and Rupp moved to cover the surge while Ryan Deak made a move of his own through the pack and into 5 th .
They continued to challenged each other with Rupp assuming the lead going up the steep hill following by Winthow and Kiptoo. Racing on the flat having crested the hill Rupp, Kiptoo, Withrow, and McDougal ran as one while Ben True of Maine took 5 th . The race downhill played out as it had before with Kiptoo racing down it and taking a 5 meter lead but as before Rupp fought back at the bottom. Racing back up the slight grade to the final turn Kiptoo continued to lead Rupp and the hard charging Withrow. By the turn Kiptoo had taken the lead but was then pressed by Winthrow, as Rupp struggled to maintain the pace. As they charge up the hill the race hung in the balance and Withrow noted: “I was struggling... but he was worse.” He looked Shadrack in the eye and then pressed the pace forging a lead of a few meters and won with a time of 14:55. Rupp found something left at the end to take 2 nd ahead of Kiptoo and McDougal with True, Deak, Christian Wagner and Stuart Eagon trailing.
There were no losers in this race but many winners. True there was an overall winner – a very deserving one at that, but this was a tremendous race. Many in the crowd shared the thought that this was one of the finest races ever seen at the high school level.
Again kudos to Footlocker. At the end of the day they had hosted two excellent races, which thrilled the lucky to have witnessed them. For at least one day in December San Diego was the mecca of the XC world.
Foot Locker finals