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Foot Locker 2003

National Finals
Dec 13, 2003 at Balboa Park, San Diego CA


Withrow Shows Sharp Eye For Opportunity,
Enormous Heart For Victory
In a Ritzenhein-esque performance, Midwest Region champ
unseats favored Kiptoo, pesky Rupp for national crown

"Crossing the road with about 250 meters to go, Shadrack turned around and looked back at me and our eyes met. I could tell by the look in his eye he was done... I knew right there that the race was mine." -- 2003 Boys National Champ Matt Withrow, on the race's defining moment.

by Rich Gonzalez, DyeStatCal

SAN DIEGO -- In a classic showdown of contrasting styles, Illinois' Matthew Withrow reaffirmed what Dathan Riztenhein proved twice before on this national stage in recent years: Tenacity and guts still carry more weight than either a truckload of talent and masterful coaching on the biggest racing day of the year.

Withrow, who earned himself a national following after his grind-it-to-the-tape victory in the Midwest Regional, weathered through a series of mid-race setbacks to close like a champion at Saturday's 25th Annual Foot Locker Cross-Country Championships, reeling in favored Shadrack Kiptoo and heralded Galen Rupp over the final stages of the race to earn the national crown on the boys' side. Withrow's spirited kick capped a superb teamwide effort as well, with the Midwest Region claiming 5 of the top 10 individual places to claim the scoring championship in a tightly contested 36-39 victory over the West Region.

Withrow's decisive strike on a slight incline with roughly 80 meters remaining in the 5,000-meter challenge catapulted him past an energy-sapped Kiptoo, with the Vince J. Andrew HS senior then holding off a hard-charging Rupp in a 14:55-14:57 triumph. With five runners ducking in at 15:02 or better, the outcome also marked the fastest national clash of depth since at least the 1993 meet, when Colorado's Adam Goucher topped California' Meb Keflezighi (14:41-14:53) in a battle of future American elite distance specialists.

The aggressive early pace here was set courtesy of a triumvirate of South Region runners, with a brisk 31-second opening 200-meter spurt powered by Texans Brian Sullivan, Scott MacPherson and Erik Stanley. The West Region crew then seized control of the pace from here, with Rupp and Kiptoo joined by teammates Stuart Eagon of Oregon and Californians Mohamed Trafeh and Mark Matusak in parading through the half-mile point in about 2:15. Among the dangerous names positioned in the pursuit pack were Colorado's Ryan Deak and Illinois' Withrow. Coming through the mile at 4:40, it was Tennessee's James Strang -- a swimmer-turned-runner who was plagued by anemia at the close of the summer only to rebound in All-American fashion -- joining the lead party in approaching the double-loop layout's challenging hill for the first time. Still, with no major landscape challenge having been faced at this point, more than 20 runners were within seven seconds of the lead at this point.

Rupp, who riskily decided to abandon his coach's pre-race strategy in favor of a tenacious run frontrunning attack for the title, handled the initial steep climb best, as the once-dense lead pack (seen above, halfway up the hill) soon bottlenecked down to almost single-file formation (photo below) on the hill's descent less than two minutes later. Rupp and Kiptoo soon held the top spots and seemed to be pushing the pace, almost giving the crowd a sense that the much-anticipated match race between these two was about to play out.

Rupp descends the slope in great position after encountering the course's first major climb. Kiptoo (barely visible over Rupp's shoulder), Strang (#73), Withrow and Ryan Deak closed out the top five at this point.

Tha tandem came across the race's halfway point just over 7:15, seemingly well on the way to fabulous times if the pace could hold. On this maddening layout where the second loop of Heartache Hill seemingly registers three times as tough as during the first foray, such pacing logic is clearly much easier said than done. At this point, home-schooled New York talent Joshua McDougal joined the up-front contingent, latching onto Rupp, Kiptoo, Deak and Withrow as this group's effort definitely thwarted the hopes of many. As California junior-class talent Mark Matusak later shared, the race truly began developing at this point, as the shift in gears caused him and several others to struggle in falling off the lung-searing pace.

Deep into Mile Two, this was supposed to be Matt Withrow territory. But Withrow's signature ploy of a gutty middle-mile surge went awry as it was hardly effective this time out. Although the brash tactical move -- which actually played out early into the third mile -- excited the crowd and gapped his competition by some 20 meters and growing, it wasn't long before this national-class collection of names began to once again rope him in.

"I made my middle-of-the-race move like I usually do -- I even delayed it as much as I could ... but a group was still around after it, which hasn't happened before," explained Withrow. "I got to these little rolling hills and had problems. Then I got to (the big hill)... I didn't know WHAT that was. We don't have those back home in Illinois! I thought, 'My gosh, I just don't have it today.' I thought I was done."

Rupp, amazing onlookers with his unabating resolve, flashed impressive resilience during the high-pressure race in excorcising demons of last year's DNF performance at nationals. Summoning the energy to once again seize the lead in mile three and up through the final ascent, Rupp carried the crew through, even as the ever-present Kiptoo earned himself a spot sitting right on his shoulder. McDougal and Withrow closed out the lead pack at this point, and it soon became very apparent that no other major players had the physical resources left to develop as contenders to shore the gap from this point onward. McDougal and Withrow held the next two spots, a mere few strides behind.

Coming down the final hill and heading for home with roughly 500 meters to go, Kiptoo (who revealed to us of major knee problems in recent weeks, a condition most aggravated when running on downhills) bolted into the lead and Rupp was able to cover the move. With about 350 meters remaining, however, Withrow unleashed one last challenge, a continually quickening pace that soon saw him pass Rupp and latch on within a few strides of Kiptoo with well less than a minute of real estate remaining as they made the final turn.

"Crossing the road with about 250 meters to go, Shadrack turned around and looked back at me and our eyes met," recalled Withrow. "I could tell by the look in his eye he was done... I knew right there that the race was mine."

Withrow made one final dash nearly halfway up a mild incline, catching a winded and stunned Kiptoo and carrying the newfound adrenaline rush to the finish, claiming the national championship in a thrilling upset! Rupp, spotting Kiptoo struggling to close, also kicked home to nab his newfound nemesis just before the finish.

"That last hill killed me," Withrow later conceded. "But everyone else was having problems too. Once we got to the top, I began to sense my legs coming back to me. I knew if I came down the hill strong, I'd take (the victory)."

Coming down the slope, Withrow heard one supporter bark out: "Shut the gate!"

"Then he turned around. I looked him in the eye and knew: "He's not going. I've got him."

And now he has the national title.

RACE NOTES: Rupp's coach, Alberto Salazar, admitted to having mixed feelings after the race, especially after his protege abandoned the pre-meet race plan of waiting to make his definitive move after Withrow's patented mid-race surge. Instead, Rupp kept battling into the lead as several top harriers knocked heads. "On one hand, I'm a little mad that he strayed from the plan," Salazar said. "On the other hand, I was very proud and happy that he ran such a tough race.".... Kiptoo privately revealed to a few that he had been nursing a very tender left knee recently, which bothered him on the downhills. Kiptoo, who missed nearly a week of running due to sickness right after his state meet, then sat out the next three weeks due to injury. "I am a little happy with today," admitted Kiptoo. "I had not run in a month, and I did pretty well despite that. The others run well today." ... One of the coaches for California talent Mohamed Trafeh afterward stated that the brisk early race pace was not good for the field, and truly took Mohamed out of rhythm from the get-go... In a senior-dominated race, Tennessee's Andrew Bumbalough earned billing as the top national returnee for the start of the 2004 cross-country season. Bumbalough, a junior, placed 13th overall in 15:30, behind a dozen seniors. Many of the Texas kids appeared to struggle here, especially after a trio of them set the hard, early pace. Three of the last four runners to cross the finish line were from Texas. ... Connecticut's Gavin Coombs did not appear in the official results, as we try to confirm if he even started the race. Coombs was reported very sick with the flu during the week, with one source informing us that he supposedly twice passed out on thje flight to the West Coast.

 

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