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2007 Foot Locker Nationals
December 8, 2007 Balboa Park, San Diego CA

Favorites had excuses; Fout had answers in a race for the ages

by Rich Gonzalez, DyeStatCal.com

The theories and opinions were parried around like hotcakes, each contributor having their own certainties as to why German Fernandez, Luke Puskedra, Chris Derrick and Donn Cabral would win at the 29th Annual Foot Locker Cross-Country Championships.

Then came race day and along with it a cacophony of obstacles.

German Fernandez wanted sunshine, better footing, and a slightly slower opening-mile pace.

Luke Puskedra wanted a slightly eased late-race tempo and a recall of his own mid-race surges.

Donn Cabral wanted a chance to re-run those first two miles.

All Michael Fout wanted was the national title.

Sometimes having the perfect focus against a mega-tough field makes all the difference in the world.

While the competition battled to overcome the elements, the pace, and the mistakes, Fout was busy chasing his dream - and ran it down to perfection.

"He just blew right by us"

The Florida-State bound senior from LaPorte, Indiana, endured a scorching opening pace by the expected main combatants and then left absolutely no doubt who the nation’s best. Battling against one of the toughest fields in history, Fout hammered the top-flight competition into total submission, turning a short deficit while among a celebrated six-runner pack into a whirlwind runaway triumph where only one rival – fellow Midwesterner Chris Derrick of Illinois, eventually finished within 18 seconds.

His winning time of 14:50 was the fastest in the five years since Foot Locker returned to Balboa Park, and also tied for eighth-fastest in the 21 years the national meet has been contested in San Diego.

“He just blew right by us,” said California’s German Fernandez, the pre-race favorite to many. “Before we knew it, he was taking off and we were out of it.”

“He looked real good in the end,” added Utah’s Puskedra. “Pretty surprising, after we all started so fast.”

Not only did Fout succeed, he did it with brave panache, beating his chief rivals right at their very own game.

Puskedra established a torrid clip as he wanted to, carrying the front end of the 40-runner field across Morley Field’s 5,000-meter layout in 4:28. Fernandez, typically so talented among his peers that he is a frontrunner by default, seized on Puskedra’s speedy tempo to also get out quickly. Texas’ Colby Lowe and Colorado’s Kevin Williams, another pair with aggressive racing styles, also crashed into the fray, part of a group crossing two miles in 9:37. All the while, Fout remained within striking distance and stalking their every move.

“I knew a few of those guys liked to go out fast, so that helped a bit in being prepared for it beforehand,” said Fout, an 8:58.79 two-miler in track who was crowned the Midwest Region champion two weeks before. “(The pace) was moving up there.”

Fout measured his prey before authoritatively charging into command early in the closing mile. He then withstood a late charge from the Stanford-signed Derrick, who moved up from sixth place over the final minutes to open up a clear gap on all others and take second in 14:57, a time which would have won 11 of the previous 20 Foot Lockers held at Morley Field.

Fernandez, who had never before worn spikes in cross-country and opted to pass on them again despite slick and muddy portions resulting from intermittent rains the prior two days, finished third in 15:09. Donning racing flats, he slipped and nearly face-planted into the sod right at the start and then again later in the race.

“I wish there could have been better conditions, but he raced to win and I picked a bad time to have my worst race of the year.”

While Fout had his best.

Fout: "I always felt I could win."

“These conditions were actually pretty good for me,” said Fout, who clearly was undeterred from his goal. “I’ve raced in worse stuff all year, so I’ll take this anytime. It wasn’t that bad for me. I mean it wasn’t perfect, but everyone was able to race.”

With both Derrick and Fernandez taking down highly revered state meet course records in recent weeks, they captured much of the pre-race attention and were at the center of most prognostications. Puskedra had been unbeaten this fall before last week’s uncostly setback in regional qualifying and Lowe arrived here with blistering leg speed. Still, Fout was unfazed. When did he think the race was his?

“Right from the gun,” he instantly quipped. “No matter what was happening during the race, I always felt I could win.

“In the last 100 meters I just wanted to drive (for the finish). I didn't want it to come down to someone right next me and beat me. That would really be devastating. Just drive, drive, drive. And I had the crowd with me so that really helped.”

Derrick, coming off the dramatic final-mile surge to seal his individual win and lead Naperville XC Club (Neuqua Valley HS) to victory at the Nike Team Nationals last weekend, ran out of real estate to catch Fout.

“It's always tough to go out with a field like that,” said Derrick. “I wanted to go out conservative. When you go out hard, it's hard to move that last mile. I didn't think I was making much of a surge, but people were coming back to me. I’m pretty competitive, so I just gave it what I had left.”

Fernandez, who according to roommate Andrew Judd was taking cold medication throughout the weekend, slipped to as far back as sixth early in the final mile before one final surge.

“(Falling apart) is not me, I was going to get top three,” said Fernandez. “I learned a lot today. I needed something like this.”

Lowe, earning his second All-American showing in as many years, placed fourth in 15:12.

“I had seven big races in seven weeks…. I was really happy with how I did,” said Lowe. “I also learned that I have pretty good strength now and not just speed. I'm pretty excited about that.”

Puskedra said his race began to unravel late in the second mile when others made their move and he responded with a surge of his own, acting a bit out of reaction.

“All in all, I really ran my race though and that's what I needed to do,” said Puskedra. “My plan was to go out fast like I usually do. What threw me off a bit was when guys tried to run with me in the middle. I made a few surges to try and keep the lead and I shouldn’t have done that after the fast start. It kind of caught up with me.”

Cabral, who was near the leaders entering the final mile, seemed timid for most of the race.

“I finally woke up in the third mile,” he said. “My coach was yelling at me to make a move. He was right. Second place, 15th or 39th place, it’s no different what place you are if you are not first. So I went after it from there with all I had. I only wish I had that mentality from the start.”

Like Michael Fout did.

Yet Again, Midwest Earns Respect

With the 1-2 finish from Fout and Derrick, the Midwest won the boys team competition with 29 points, well ahead of the runner-up Northeast Region's 59. So commanding was the Midwest this year that even in you take Fout out of the results AND score six runners for the Midwest, they would have still beaten all three regions!

“It’s a tough bunch,” said Illinois Kevin Havel proudly. Havel was the Midwest’s #3 scorer, taking seventh in 15:18. “We wanted to show what our states could do. Sometimes people don’t give us enough credit.”

The Midwest Region also had three teams place in the top dozen at NTN, rivaling the Northeast for supremacy in that meet.

Fout: Running Like A Pro

Fout’s winning time is impressive enough on its own merit. But add in the fact that mud and slick grass blanketed Morley Field, and one gains the sense his clocking was truly among the best performances in national history. As it was, his 14:50 tied him for eighth on the all-time Foot Locker list at Morley.

The seven ahead of him? A Who’s Who in the sport: Ruben Reina (14:36); Marc Davis (14:38); Adam Goucher (14:41); Mark Mastalir (14:41); Chris Solinksy (14:41); Bryan Dameworth (14:49); Todd Williams (14:49). At least 5 of the 7 (all but Mastalir and Dameworth) went on to compete professionally. …

Fout’s cross-gender margin

Another measure of Fout’s performance was gleaned from studying the gap he enjoyed over the girls’ race champion: 2:30 faster than Florida’s Ashley Brasovan. It was the second-largest cross-gender margin in the 29-year history of the meet and the fastest in the 21 years the meet has been held in San Diego. Only Dathan Ritzenhein’s 2:36 cushion over Victoria Chang in the 1999 meet in Florida was more dominant. Make no mistake, Fout ran a race for the ages.

Surprise of the meet: The other B.J.

With 2006 qualifier Ben Johnson of New Mexico not here after having conflicting qualifying dates between Foot Locker and NTN this year, it was another harrier with the initials of B.J. that placed sixth this time around. New Jersey’s Brandon Jarrett came from well off the form charts to place sixth in 15:16, ahead of such prep distance running household names as Kevin Havel, Donn Cabral, Rob Finnerty and Maverick Darling. Jarrett, who was seen sporting a University of Pennsylvania sweatshirt during the weekend, said he has narrowed his college choices down to Penn and Harvard.

Soggy in 2007, drought in 2008?

One of the most talked about items at this year’s meet was the rainfall, a rarity at an otherwise picturesque location in recent years. The typically beautiful setting on Coronado Island, site of the host hotel the ritzy Hotel Del, was awash in raindrops. But there may be a drought of different sorts forecast for the boys next year as a whopping 34 of the 40 boys gathered here were seniors, including the top 17 finishers! Six juniors were also in the field, with no underclassmen. Interestingly enough, the top three returnees all hail from Colorado: Bobby Nicolls (18th in 15:44); Evan Appel (21st in 15:48); and Joseph Manilafasha (22nd in 15:49).

Cabral not going undercover

Connecticut distance star Donn Cabral, eighth here in 15:19, has decided he will bypass most and possibly all of the indoor track campaign.

“Indoors kind of takes away from a good outdoor season for a lot of guys in recent years and I’m looking more to do well outdoors,” said Cabral, who plans to attend Harvard. “I’ve seen enough guys run fast indoors and never do much in the spring and summer, which is when I want to be at my best.”

California’s Schwartz endures learning experience

Chris Schwartz of Central California might have been out of his element at first, but the well-liked junior no doubt picked up some experience that should help him if he qualifies again next year.

Growing up going in and out of group and foster homes in recent years, the 17-year-old finished 37th in the field of 40 runners, with his 16:15 clocking being well off his prior performance outings this year. While he, like all runners, received the star treatment all weekend, Schwartz admitted he found it hard to get focused this time out.

“I felt even before the race that it wasn’t going to be my day,” said Schwartz, also a solid math student who is a key part of the school’s chess team that has fared well in local competitions.

“I just didn’t feel right and relaxed. Maybe it was traveling a bit farther than usual or on a course I wasn’t used to. I hope to get another shot next year.”

Big goals on the oval in the springtime

Luke Puskedra and German Fernandez were comfortable sharing their lofty goals for the coming track season, namely going after Jeff Nelson’s 8:36.2 high school two-mile national record. Puskedra will skip most, if not all, of the indoor season to prepare for outdoors, where he will take a stab at the revered mark at the 41st Annual Arcadia Invitational in the Los Angeles area on April 12th.

Fernandez indicated a desire to attend as well last June and reiterated the possibility over the weekend, pending his coach’s approval. Tennessee’s Sean Keveren, who owns the fastest returning two-mile time in the nation, also expressed in mid-October of his desire to attend. Illinois’ Christopher Derrick might also attend, but is looking to participate in the 5,000-meter run, a new event this year.

So who is favored at Foot Locker in 2008?

If you go merely by the results, the three above-mentioned Coloradoans will get plenty of votes. But in checking the national winners in recent years, who was picking 2007 winner Michael Fout 12 months out? Did anyone foretell Kenny Cormier’s 2004 title 12 months prior? How about Matt Withrow’s winning jaunt in 2003?

With a bit more experience, some fine planning, and some excellent training/goal-setting, be sure to also keep the names Doug Smith, Elliott Jantzer and Chris Schwartz in mind. Smith has enjoyed periodic high-end success in the Northeast in recent seasons; Jantzer won state 4A in Oregon this year and battled well before settling for third at the Nike Border Clash meet; Schwartz has among the best 1600m and 3200m times in the nation among those returning next year. Wait, the same Schwartz that placed 37th at Foot Locker this year? Yes, and the same Schwartz that placed 132nd at state last year before winning this year. As he continues to learn, he will become much more formidable.

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