a crowd of contenders and The Hill
by John Dye
SAN DIEGO 12/12/03 -- The Balboa Park course that will be used for the 17th time for the Foot Locker Cross Country Championship national finals is a one and a half mile figure 8 that is run twice, with 70 or so yards added at the end to make 5000 meters. It starts in the middle and covers both loops twice, so runners are seen at the middle five times, with the fifth being when they turn for home with less than 200 meters to go.
The compelling tactical feature of the course is The Hill in the eastern half of the figure 8, a challenging rise which is encountered at the mile and 2.5 mile marks. The second time is the key, coming when the runners are tired, but the end is in sight. Bob Kennedy, the boys champion in 1987, recalls, "If you are a top runner and want to win, you have to take the hill into account in your strategy. If you are a strength runner, you might want to take the lead early. If you have a lot of leg speed, you might want to delay your move until after the second time over the hill."
A year ago, The Hill was the critical point in both races, as strength runners Chris Solinsky and Zoe Nelson broke away the second time around and were unchallenged to the finish. This year, unless Shadrack Kiptoo runs back to his Kenyan times, both races should see a gang of runners in that last straightaway lined with screaming fans. It will take a gutty finisher to win the top prize, and it could be as close as the closest Foot Locker finishes ever - the 2000 girls (Sara Bei by 1 second over Anita Siraki) and the 2001 boys (Tim Moore over Bobby Lockhart by 1 second, with Chris Solinsky another second back).
So here is my "morning line" on the big crowd of contenders for the national title, without odds. These are broad brush thoughts on the eve of the finals. Statistics on the runners are found in our Gallery of Finalists (Boys - Girls), the Qualifiers performance list, and the Past Performances. Our apologies in advance for those we don't mention; one of them could be the winner.
Solinsky has graduated, and at least half the field can make a logical claim to take his place.
Shadrack Kiptoo NM - brilliant times 2 years ago in Kenya (3:41 1500m and 13:57 5000m) require that he be installed as the favorite, has had health problems since joining Albuquerque running community 14 months ago with stress fracture in December 2002 and other minor ailments recently, required to sit out for 180 school days by New Mexico association because he wasn't a formal exchange student, could be rusty with only three high school races, won conservative West region in last 300 meters with top favorites all supposedly running just to qualify.
Galen Rupp OR - rated by The Harrier publisher Marc Bloom as the only runner in the "A list" with Kiptoo, BorderClash champion, 3rd in West, strong summer in international competition included 8:10.42 3000m for a US junior class record and 7th in World Youth Championships (under 18), DNF last year after falling 300 meters from finish.
Mohamed Trafeh CA - 7th last year, second highest returnee, 2nd in West region, tied Ryan Hall's all-time record of 14:28 on the regular course at Mt. SAC (2.91 miles).
the Colorado connection - 2002 finalist Ryan Deak (12th) moved from Florida to Colorado this year to train at altitude and found big success, breaking Adam Goucher's Liberty Bell course record, until being one-upped by Bradley Harkrader in the state meet. Harkrader not only beat Deak but also beat Adam Goucher's meet record. Deak was 2nd in the Midwest and Harkrader 4th.
Christian Wagner IN - fastest 5k of the season (14:35), undefeated until 6th in Midwest region, 27th here last year, 2-mile national champion at AOC Raleigh last June.
the cross country ski champion team - the highest ranking returnee, Garrett Heath MN (6th last year), and the 5th highest returnee, Ben True ME (9th last year), are also champion cross country skiers. Heath was 3rd in Midwest, and True won Northeast regional after finishing second to Ahmed Haji in the New England Championships.
Matt Withrow IL - fastest 3 mile time of the season (14:14), routed the Midwest with a big surge in the second mile. Did favorites Deak, Wagner, and Heath let him go or would he have won anyway? Can he gap the finals field too?
the Northeast team - out to improve on recent poor performances, all eight qualifiers ran faster than the 2002 regional winner and they finished within 8 seconds of each other.
the Texas delegation - four Lone Star runners out of the eight South region qualifiers. 1st, Brian Sullivan, ace of The Woodlands TX team (US#1 in The Harrier); 2nd Erik Stanley, a 4:05 miler last year; 4th, Scott MacPherson, the Texas 5A champion; and 8th, Kyle Miller.
Stuart Eagon OR - smooth, long legged runner who scrambled to first on the uphills at West region only to be passed on the downhills, still finished 4th in West.
Mark Matusak CA - fastest time of day at gigantic Mt. SAC Invitational.
Josh McDougal NY - set all time 5k record at McAlpine Park (15:08), home schooled runner who rarely gets to run against his peers, 4th in Northeast region.
Ahmed Haji CT - 8th last year (third highest ranking returnee), beat Ben True in New England Championship.
Gavin Coombs CT - beat Haji in Connecticut Open championships, 3rd in New England Championships behind Haji and True.
If it takes a gutty finisher to win, there are several prime candidates.
Zoe Nelson MT - defending champion, West region champion with a spurt on the stadium track in the last 300 meters, undefeated since the Foot Locker finals 2 years ago, earned her stretch running credentials as a freshman over 3-time state champion and Foot Locker finalist Heidi Lane in a state championship that is considered the most thrilling race ever run in Montana, won the Golden West 3200 last June after being passed twice in the last lap, owns course records on every course she has run the past 2 years except Mt. SAC and Balboa Park. Zoe is the Zephyr of the high plains, who comes down to the lowlands occasionally to show she is more than a local champion.
Nicole Blood NY - Northeast regional champion, 4th year on the varsity at Saratoga NY (US#1 girls team in The Harrier), transforming from child prodigy to veteran and still only a sophomore, less than 100 percent a year ago when she finished 9th, healthy this year and rarin' to go, winner of many stretch battles including the Loucks Games 1600 as an 8th grader over Molly Huddle, fastest 5k in the US this season (16:53).
Katelyn Kaltenbach CO - no longer the little sister of three-time finalist Megan Kaltenbach (now running for U. of North Carolina), finished 7th v. Megan's 20th here last year, undefeated and unchallenged this year, won the Great American in a photo finish by coming from 30 meters behind Jenny Barringer in the last 300 meters, had the most impressive regional performance at 17:29 on the tough Midwest course.
Jenny Barringer FL - South region and Florida state champion with big improvement from last year, fastest regional winner (17:27) albeit on the speedy McAlpine Park course, ran a 10:18.84 3200 meters on the track against boys recently
Sunni Olding OH - undefeated regular season runner with course records on every course -- same formula that led to Zoe Nelson's championship last year, fastest time of Ohio state meet, third in Midwest regional, 2-mile national champion at AOC Raleigh last June.
Collier and Marie Lawrence NV - finished 1-2 in every race this year until West region when they were 3-4. Freshman Marie defers to her senior sister and says she will not pass her in a race, but might have to here to run to her potential.
Ramsey Kavan SD - tore up South Dakota and validated her worth with a surprise second in the Midwest region.
Rachel Bryan CA - repeat finalist, fell at start of West regional and was passed by nearly the entire field but picked herself up to get the 8th and last qualifying spot, fastest time of day at Mt. SAC Invitational.
Lindsay Flacks CA - surprise second in the West regional.
Claire Rethmeier CA - the local favorite, was running close third to Zoe Nelson until she fell 20 meters before finish of West regional and got up for 7th.
Liza Pasciuto CA - returning to finals 3 years after finishing 6th as a freshman, fastest 3-mile time in the US this season (16:38).