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Checking in
with the Distance Gods

By Stephen ("steveu") Underwood

[Editor's Note: For the past 2 years, DyeStat's most prolific TrackTalker, steveu, has chronicled the startling rise of high school distance runners in the US, most importantly with his series, The Distance Gods. Many of these runners are now making an impact on the college level, so steveu went to the Pre-Nationals cross country meet at Furman to catch up on some old friends.]

ATLANTA GA 10/29/01 - In a world often fueled by instant gratification, it's not surprising that instant success is anticipated when athletes move to the "next level." After the last two years of incredible performances by the nation's finest high school distance track and cross-country stars, such aspirations are perhaps greater than ever on the collegiate level. Many of us don't just hope the top recruits will be smash hits right away, we expect or demand it.

In the spring and summer of 2000, we took a look at a dozen or so of the top juniors and seniors in the nation, calling them "The Return of the Distance Gods," and profiling their accomplishments and their goals. Almost a year and a half later, these athletes are college freshmen and sophomores. How successful have they been? Have they lived up to the hype? What have been their struggles? Greenville, SC proved, less than 2 weeks ago, to be a great place to find some answers. Seven of the distance gods (and goddesses) were gathered together for the Pre-Nationals races (hosted by Furman) and it didn't take long to see some of the success stories to be revealed.

As it turned out, five of the six goddesses were in Greenville, including Stanford's Alicia Craig, Sara Bei and Anita Siraki, UCLA's Ale Barrientos and North Carolina's Erin Donohue (Donohue's teammate, Shalane Flanagan, ran at a meet at Michigan with most of the leading team members).

Just two of the six male gods were there, Colorado's Dathan Ritzenhein and Oregon's Eric Logsdon. Still, there are some very interesting storylines developing this fall with other profiled athletes like Stanford's Ryan Hall and Don Sage, and Wisconsin's Matt Tegankamp and Tim Keller.

Some have continually been under the national microscope, while others have only had pressure from themselves or maybe their programs. Some have not yet run up to par, some have wildly exceeded expectations and others have had mixed results. All still have exciting potential.

Super for Stanford

With smashing finishes of 3rd and 4th in the Silver Race field of 246 runners, Stanford freshmen Alicia Craig and Sara Bei had two of the most exciting performances at Pre-Nationals. Their stunning finishes paced the No. 2 Cardinal to a narrow 72-74 win over No. 4 BYU and established it as the preliminary favorite for the NCAA title on Nov. 19.

The scene in the chute was an exhilarating one with the two freshmen flushed with delight. While Craig had established herself in the top five earlier in the race and held form, Bei reminded fans of her come-from-behind Foot Locker CC title last December with her late-race drive.

"I saw Lauren and Alicia up there and we knew (from practice) that we can all run together," she said after completing the 6k course in 20:52. "I was rigging, but I got energy and strength from them and God. I'm so thankful; this is such a blessing!"

Craig, who needed just 20:48 to cover the Furman layout, said she was only able to accomplish what she did with her teammates and "the strength from God." She called her teammates "great leaders. They're so amazing!"

Regarding rumors of an injury in recent weeks, Bei said that she had a "thing in my knee" at the end of the summer, but was fine now. Dispelling ideas that practices are ultra-competitive at Stanford, she added, "Every day is so much fun."

A lot of the credit for these athletes' smooth transitions so far goes to upperclassmen leaders like Lauren Fleshman, who was 9th on Saturday but has won an NCAA track title and set a U.S. Junior 5k record so far at Stanford. "They basically don't need that much help," she said. "They just need a little guidance to keep them confident."

Having the newcomers, as talented as this class is, in a role where they know their contributions are needed has apparently worked well for everyone. "We count on the freshmen to be there and we know they are going to help the team win," said Fleshman. "The blood of a team is in its freshmen."

Waiting in the Wings/Cruising in Carolina

Meanwhile, in the women's Purple race in Greenville, a pair of faces very familiar to track fans came in 33rd and 36th. UNC's Erin Donohue (22:04) and UCLA's Ale Barrientos (22:09) are also making key contributions to their teams. But suffice it to say that both women's talent will likely be in the 1500 meters, where they will get a chance to really shine this coming spring.

Most of the goddesses profiled were HS juniors in spring 2000. But the one who has become the most dominant of them all competed as a college freshman last year. After a senior year of ups (USATF junior CC title, fast NSI mile runner-up) and downs (DNF at Foot Locker NE, DNF in Foot Locker 2M), there may not have been a lot expected - at least on a national level - of Flanagan. But she took the ACC by the scruff of the neck. She won the conference and district meets, then took 4th in Ames in her first NCAA meet. Highlights of her track campaigns included a 4:37 mile indoors and multiple ACC titles. She was named ACC freshman of the year.

This fall Flanagan has again torn it up. While some of the Tar Heels were in Greenville, Flanagan and the rest of her teammates were crushing the field at the Michigan Interregional. While a 17:26 5k may not sound devastating, Flanagan gapped Wisconsin's Bethany Brewster (9th NCAA XC 2000)and teammate Carol Henry by nearly 40 seconds in horrible conditions. Don't be surprised if Flanagan is the first "Goddess" to win an NCAA title.

Men's Showdowns Await

You can't really say there was a reunion of the male distance gods in Greenville, not with 5 of the 7 missing. Yes, the nation got a good look at Ritz in his first big collegiate race, but Stanford sat out Hall and Sage, while Wisconsin (Teg and Keller) wasn't in attendance.

Ritz and his Colorado teammates walloped a good field in the Gold race, netting 62 points despite a DNF from injured Steve Slattery. Not surprisingly, Ritz and junior star Jorge Torres proved a formidable tandem, trailing only Eastern Michigan Kenyan revelation Boaz Cheboiywo. Still, many fans were surprised when Torres pulled away from the Rockford, Mich. grad mid-race, beating him by 22 seconds (23:49-24:11). After all, hadn't the rumor mill been filled with stories of the freshman dominating Buffalo workouts and hadn't he beaten Torres at the USATF 5k?

Well, there's more to the story on both sides.

First, the real Jorge certainly wasn't on display in Eugene last summer. His true self is more likely the runner who won Pre-Nats last year and fashioned an unbeaten season before getting third in Ames.

Second, the lasting post-race image of Ritzenhein was of the deep, quarter-sized blisters on each heel and his agony while being treated in the Buff cool-down area. Not that excuses or sympathy was the order of the day ("Welcome to a man's race," joked teammate Ed Torres), but it's hard to believe that we were seeing Ritz at his ripping best. He certainly didn't have his normal push and lift. But only future races will tell.

Little can be said, otherwise, that hasn't already been said about Ritz and his transition to the college world. He and most of his fellow gods have been interviewed multiple times. Still, their stories are an exciting drama that has certainly begun, but leaves much to be revealed.

At Wisconsin, gods Tegankamp and Keller were part of a killer Badger recruiting class. Keller wound up running for the team in the fall of 2000 while Teg began a year of redshirting. As it has turned out, few athletes have ever seemed to benefit more from a redshirt year than the Missouri native.

The first big sign that Teg was going to be a monster was when he outkicked Ritz to win the world junior CC trials in February. As every US fan knows, he went on to place 5th (Ritz 3rd) at the world junior race, surpassing the wildest expectations of most everyone.

Teg has since gone on to prove himself on the track (13:49 5k at USATF outdoor) and the CC course (dominating the Griak meet). Fans were salivating gratuitously over last weekend's Big Ten showdown with Michigan's Alan Webb. (Webb won.)

Keller ran solid for Wisconsin last fall, placing 14th in the Big Tens, 16th at districts (3rd man) and 82nd at nationals. He redshirted track and has reportedly suffered injury problems keeping him out of action this fall.

Another 2000 grad among the distance gods, Don Sage, had mostly outstanding performances his freshman campaign at Stanford. Cross-country highlights included a 7th in the Pac-10 meet and in track, he popped an outstanding 3:39 1500 at the NCAA meet to take 5th. This fall, Sage has had less successful results, while his new teammate from the DG series, Ryan Hall, has had an auspicious debut. The freshman's two races have included a winning effort at the Murray Keating meet in a nifty 24:00. Both Sage and Hall, however, were missing from the Pre-Nats meet and inquiries into their respective status basically produced a "they're fine" from the Stanford coaching staff. Stay tuned.

The Longer Road

But not every distance god or goddess has jumped into college as an instant superstar. Whether it be off-season or in-season illnesses, injuries or other difficulties, it may take time for prep standouts to establish themselves at the next level. Obviously, some never do, but the future looks bright for Stanford's Anita Siraki and Oregon's Eric Logsdon. Their stories don't tell of rocket launches into college stardom, but paths of patience and perseverance.

Anita's Story

Siraki's challenges, following the Hoover, CA-star's second straight Foot Locker 2-mile title, started with a sub-par summer.

"I didn't have the normal high mileage progression I have every year," she said in a candid interview several days after Greenville. Siraki started training again 2 weeks after Foot Locker, but after a couple weeks in the 40-60 mile range, she developed a throat infection that took her out for over 10 days.
After she recovered from that, things progressed fairly well for a few weeks. But later in August, after coming up to Stanford, Siraki was training 60-70 mpw with the team and "just wasn't feeling that great in workouts. I had good workouts but sometimes it just didn't feel good, like I usually did."
The next week, she rolled her ankle on a rock that caused her to miss nearly another week.

"That's pretty much my summer," she said, "and I haven't been racing the way I would like to. I guess it's (also) a confidence issue/self-doubt, etc. I've just been trying to think positively after my race in Greenville."

On the other hand, Siraki noted that the overall transition to college running has been positive. "It's a great atmosphere here and everyone is so supportive," she said. "It's really different going from my high school where I ran alone most of the time to where I always have someone to run with. In workouts we always run in a group, which makes it so easy to be motivated. You're with a group with similar ability and running fast just flows."

Siraki also dispels the ultra-competitive workout stigma at Stanford. "There isn't racing in workouts like most people might think. The coaches give us a pace at which we should run at and specifics of how to run the workout, so everything is under control."

Apparently, the team atmosphere is positive not only between upperclassmen and freshmen, but also between fellow freshmen who have all been stars in their own right.

"It's great being teammates with former rivals like Alicia and Sara," Siraki continued. "We were all really friendly in high school so it's just nice to be around each other and just be motivated by each other. It was so awesome watching them run at Pre-Nats. And the same can be said about Lauren (Fleshman). We were friends in high school and she has such a positive outlook on everything. Lauren's a team leader and it's nice to be around people like her. It's a very positive atmosphere.

"The class of 2001 has had instant success and I wish that I could be part of that, but I'm sure that there is a reason why things are going the way they are and I know that I won't be regressing," she reflected. Then, with a smile, she added, "The road does have many paths and I guess I'm taking the slower one. And I guess in running there you're not always going to be dominating and feeling great, so it's something that I'm trying to figure out. But I'm still working hard and I guess I have to wait and see how everything turns out."

Eric's Story

Logsdon was one of the most impressive prep runners in the country by the end of the 2000 season. Not heralded on the same level as Ritz, Sage and others, he blasted a 8:10/3:51 3000/1500 double to win the two Oregon state titles and thrust himself into the national scene. Then at Golden West, he punished the field with an 8:47.88 3200, becoming the third prep of the year to break 8:50. While he finished 6th at FL nationals, he seemed to have as bright a future as anyone heading into the fall.

"I had a pretty good summer of training that year, and came in to school excited about the upcoming cross country season," he recalled. "Unfortunately, what I wanted was not in the cards. I had some troubles with injuries that kept me out of the season. I got healthy in time to train for the USATF junior cross country meet. But again, I was sidelined and unable to compete."

Things did brighten somewhat for Logsdon by track. "I was healthy all throughout the season, and was able to lower my 1500 PR to 3:49 at the Stanford Invitational. I went to Junior Nationals for track in the 1500 and placed 5th in 3:56."

Yes, the path takes many roads, and Logsdon again appears on the road to success. At Greenville, he was his team's 5th man, running 25:58.

"My summer this year went real well and I've been able to stay healthy since last winter now. We've learned from past experiences, and my training has gone smoothly. I'm looking forward to the rest of this cross country season, and helping my team become as good as we can be this year. And I'm also looking forward to moving up to the 5000 for the first time in my career on the track this year."

Logsdon also appreciates the vast difference between his high school days and college. "It's wonderful to have teammates around me that can run with me, and in some cases well ahead of me. It does nothing but motivate me to be my best. It was definitely frustrating at first to not have everything come as easy as it had in the past. It's like starting all over.

"When I was a freshman in high school, I got 76th or so at the state cross country meet. By the end of track season my senior year I surpassed everything I had ever expected of myself. Thankfully, I've got four years of college left, and if I'm lucky, years after that in post-collegiate competition to keep improving."

Read about all 12 of steveu's "Distance Gods" as they were in high school

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