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The storylines of the NCAA Cross Country Championships
How long does it take to recover from a cross country race? I’m asking for
a friend a few hundred college kids who only have eight days between their Nationals-qualifying-races and Nationals themselves.
We need a catchy name for the Friday before the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Basketball has Selection Sunday. We need an alliterative name like that, too. How about Fast-enough Friday?
The nine regional meets happened in rapid succession all across the country, and with only a select few being streamed online anywhere, fans not on-site just had to refresh a results page and focus really hard on trying to visualize the action unfolding at some far away golf course. Once the results were finalized from each region, we all sat down with our calculators and history books to see which of the 31 teams and 38 individuals on both sides made it. (Or was that last part just me?)
It’s not a perfect system for a few reasons – for one the regions aren’t balanced at all. I don’t think Texas or Arkansas are necessarily complaining, but it’s a pretty massive disadvantage for other teams, particularly ones from small conferences, to not be in a more competitive region.
Consider the dueling fates of the Columbia and Oregon State women, as both had great regional meets. Despite qualifying three individuals and finishing third in the Northeast Region, the Lions weren’t selected – they didn’t have enough points, nor did the fourth-place Harvard squad. However, the Oregon State women – who also had no points – finished fourth in the West Region but were pushed into the national meet by fifth place Cal Baptist, which had an exceptional regular season and plenty of accrued points.
The Pac-12 women had six teams qualify for nationals while the Ivy League had zero this year. That’s not to say that an Ivy League school in the northeast doesn’t have a chance to make it – there have been years when half the conference does. But that’s also a problem! The system rewards teams who have as many head-to-head match-ups vs. “good” teams as possible. Qualifying on points is more about opportunity and scheduling (read: budget and geography) than it is execution on the day of the meet that’s billed as the qualifying race for Nationals.
(Full Disclosure: Obviously as a Columbia alum I am full of bias. Oregon State is ranked 23rd in the country and beat a then 14th-ranked CBU to earn their bid – please don’t email me. I hear Corvalis is lovely! They were the only team that was pushed in this year, hence my example.)
Yet for all my griping, I don’t have any better proposal… except for an occasional rebalancing of the regions. Right now it sorta feels like there was a little gerrymandering going on and there could be some benefit if we looked at the total appearances from each region in the past five years and try to even things out.
I’ll be in Stillwater, Oklahoma on Saturday commentating the NCAA meet for ESPN, which is easily the biggest broadcast job of my career. Quite the assignment for a mediocre collegiate cross country runner turned mediocre marathoner!
Want to impress your friends at your NCAA XC viewing party by convincing them you’re either a subject matter expert or telekinetically linked to me? Here’s a preview of the what you might expect to hear me discuss:
Can the North Carolina State women repeat?
At the beginning of the year, there were big expectations placed on the shoulders of the Wolfpack. At the 2021 championships, coach Laurie Henes’s squad won the first national title in the program’s history over a very good BYU team. With the return of three low sticks: Kelsey Chmiel (6th), Katelyn Tuohy (15th), and Samantha Bush (32nd) plus a deep roster behind them, there was chatter that this year’s group could be one of the best teams ever.
Then the Nuttycombe Invitational happened, where the New Mexico Lobos put together a performance that would show the country that this season was far from decided. With an incredible spread of just 12 seconds between their first and fifth runner, the third-place squad from last year’s NCAA meet ended up forcing a tie-breaker to decide the meet’s winner. Despite competing in a difficult region where eight teams qualified for the big dance – many with top 10 potential – New Mexico still dominated with 56 points.
Even then, we may not be looking at a two-team race. There’s a wildcard known as home-field advantage. Much will be made of the difficulty of the Oklahoma State course, so who is better prepared for it than the Pokes themselves? They are led by an incredible front threesome of freshman phenom Natalie Cook, the NCAA indoor 3000m champion, Taylor Roe, and the first-year from Kenya, Billah Jepkirui. In what has become a trademark move, Coach Dave Smith has mixed and matched his team all season and has seemingly held off on showing all his cards at once. The best preview of the squad we’ll see at Nationals might be the crew OK State went with at Big 12s, when they dominated with 22 points.
Sparknotes: NC State has low sticks. New Mexico is a tight pack. Oklahoma St is at home. No one scores under 100 points.
Shout Out: This is the first time the Utah Valley University women have made the NCAA Championships. And it’s Northwestern’s first trip in 20 years.
Do the Stanford men finally end the drought?
Only on The Farm is 19 years between NCAAs titles considered a drought, and as a Yankees fan that feels unimaginable. The Cardinal will be hard-pressed to score 23 points as they did in 2003, but this team doesn’t have many weaknesses on paper. It’s a good sign when multiple guys on your team are in the hunt for the individual title and their seventh man is finishing 19th at the Pac-12 meet.
The Cardinal’s main competition will come from an equally gifted talent pool, though this group opted for year-round living at 7,000 feet of altitude rather than summer internship at a San Jose-based VC firm. The Northern Arizona University dynasty has now won five out of six team titles, with their only miss being a runner-up finish in 2019. Although they finished a distant third to Stanford at Nuttycombe, a couple of proven athletes with experience have steadily improved as the season has progressed.
Both teams held out a major piece of the puzzle at their respective regional meets as Stanford ran without Cole Sprout and NAU without George Kusche. Whether these were strategic moves or not could mean everything for the final outcome this weekend.
But again, this isn’t necessarily a two-team affair. If either squad doesn’t run to their potential, then BYU will be waiting to pounce. In their second-place finish at Nuttycombe without Casey Clinger or Christian Allen, the Cougars had a 1-5 spread of just 1.9 seconds! Either they’re all the type of roommates who do everything together, it was an incredible coincidence, or that was a relatively controlled effort and we haven’t seen everything yet.
And finally, coming out of the Midwest region is Oklahoma State, again. (Is Oklahoma really the Midwest though? It’s not really the south either. Like David S. Pumpkins, it’s its own thing.) Just as is the case with the women, the Poke fellas have played some games with benched men, and its two best runners using the regional race as a glorified tempo.
Sparknotes: Stats say Stanford wins. History says NAU wins. And BYU or Oklahoma State could be better than we think.
Will Parker Valby make it too fast for Katelyn Tuohy…or herself?
Please don’t read into that sensationalist headline too much, I have one job to do, and that’s to keep you reading this thing! That said, this is going to be an incredible battle on the women’s side because the top two individuals have had completely contrasting racing styles all season.
Parker Valby has been running incredibly quick times on every course she competes and more importantly, winning by sizable margins. She shows no hesitation to take the front early and begins pushing immediately. Without the full Florida team at the NCAA meet, Valby will be able to run with the reckless abandon of someone who has nothing to lose – except her own race.
Compare this to Katelyn Tuohy, who has controlled races just by being present in the pack (she commands that much respect throughout the NCAA) and remaining content to make a late push for the win.
As NC State is vying for the win, the big question is what happens if Valby tries to gap the field from the first step? This scenario is made even more interesting given the hilly nature of the course, a challenge Valby hasn’t faced yet this season.
But let’s not forget about the proven NCAA XC champion, Mercy Chelangat of Alabama, or last year’s third-place finisher Ceili McCabe from West Virginia. If things get moving early, do they give chase right away… or run more cautiously and clean up the pieces? Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the hometown heroes again here. Don’t be surprised if the Oklahoma State duo becomes a factor.
Sparknotes: The storyline of the meet. The greatest high school XC runner ever vs. a Pre-like rising star vs. the field, which includes some of the best collegiate runners in recent memory.
Are there really 15 guys who think they could win this race
The worst-case scenario in writing any sort of preview is failing to mention the eventual winner. Where would my credibility go if I can’t get that right? Well on the men’s side, it is very possible that next week’s newsletter will lead off with me apologizing to a National Champion whose name I don’t mention today. Part of the reason why is that six out of the seven top finishers from last year’s race have moved onto greener pastures.
I can confidently call out two people who will definitely be in it: Stanford’s Charles Hicks, the highest returner and the U23 Euro XC Champion, as well as Nico Young, the consistently good 13:11 5000m man. If we asked fans on the course right before the race who is going to take it, then these would likely be the favorites. But these hypothetical fans would be forgetting that Hicks’ teammate, Ky Robinson, outkicked both of them at Nuttycombe.
And although it was almost two months ago, Oklahoma State’s Alex Maier beat both of them at the Cowboy Jamboree in September. If you’re looking for a dark horse then Isai Rodriguez has consistently shown up at this meet with three All-American finishes to his name, highlighted by his 4th as a RS freshman.
Then there is the NCAA 10,000m champion now at Tennessee, Dylan Jacobs. Or the man who beat him at SECs, Alabama’s Victor Kiprop. Sorry in advance if I forgot you…
Sparknotes: Hopefully this isn’t like the Madden curse where if you get mentioned then you won’t win.
Race Info: Qualified Teams, Women (9:20am CT). Men (10:10am CT). Watch on ESPNU or the ESPN App.
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The B.A.A. Half Marathon 🦄
If you are wondering when Geoffrey Koech is going to move up to the marathon you may be waiting a while. In wet conditions, the B.A.A. Half was held for the first time in three years. Meanwhile, it was the 22nd occasion that Kenya’s Koech has raced the distance — this time winning in 1:02:02. As a road specialist with a personal best of 59:36, Koech can get regular $12,000 paydays as he did here and recover quickly enough to do it again soon. Do you blame him for not moving up in distance?
The top American in the race was Teshome Mekonen, who finished in 1:02:28. As he crossed the finish line he made a gesture in protest of the Tigray War in his native Ethiopia. This excellent profile by Jonathan Gault is a great starting point for fans – or other elite American male marathoners – who want to learn more about Mekonen and his story.
On the women’s side, the top finisher was Viola Chepngeno of Kenya, who covered the course in 1:10:40 — earlier this year she ran 1:06:48 in Berlin, to give you an idea of how adversely the weather in Boston impacted the times
Erika Kemp followed up her recent strong showing at the USATF 5k Champs with a 7th place finish, good for top American honors. Other notable results include the “Molly Comeback Tour 2022” – Huddle finished 12th in 1:13:29 and Seidel was 16th in 1:16:22.
Blankenship’s green thumb 🌲
I already owed Ben Blankenship for much of the good fortune in my life, however, I can now add this beautiful tree planted on my behalf in Springfield, Oregon to the list of why I love Ben. The 1500m Olympian has shared the official launch of his not-for-profit, The Endless Mileage Project, which includes two environmentally sustainable initiatives.
The first is the Fast Forest, in which a tree is planted for each of the 692 and counting American athletes who have broken the 4:00 or 4:30 barriers for the mile. The second is Recovered Running, which collects and donates running gear to running communities and schools in need.
Both are super worthy causes and really creative ways to use his platform to leave the world and sport a better place than he found it… and it’s a cool way to forever commemorate that I broke four minutes in the mile before Ben!
Catching up with Marielle Hall
This Sunday is the Philadelphia Marathon and one of the biggest names on the entry list is US Olympian Marielle Hall, who is making her debut at the half distance. Now training under coach Kurt Benninger in Rhode Island, Hall, who has personal bests of 15:02 and 31:05, has begun to find her form in the Ocean State. After strong showings at the B.A.A. 10k and Beach to Beacon, her last race out was an impressive third-place finish at the Falmouth Road Race. I caught up with her ahead of this weekend’s action in Philly:
The farthest you’ve ever raced is a 15k so this isn’t too much longer. Are you feeling at all intimidated by the distance?
I definitely feel intimidated by it, but I think I'm appropriately intimidated. I'm excited. I'm prepared for it to be hard around 8 to 10 miles. But the longer you go up in distance, the less likely you are to test that feeling in practice.
Why did you decide to make this debut in Philadelphia?
Philly sports are on top right now and I want to be a part of that! I was choosing between Boston or Philly this fall. Ultimately Philly is a little bit easier of a course to be in control. This way I can focus on running the distance and competing with people, and taking out one variable.
Have things been going well this fall since I last saw you in Falmouth?
I have been slowly reintroducing the long runs and mileage. In the summer, I was mostly just trying to focus on the workouts. We felt like some of those things were contributing to breaking down and spiraling back into overtraining or mechanically just being off. It feels like I am now in more of a “normal training” period.
How do you personally deal with three months of no racing? Some professional runners love the process of metaphorically going into the woods, but others just itch to race.
I'm definitely getting to a place where you almost become more scared of everything. I think the longer you wait the more excitement builds. And you just feel like a cannon when you get to race because there is so much pent-up energy. But I feel like before I was going through so many ups and downs in training, and I just was not able to understand what workouts or fitness equated to. Racing became more intimidating, versus how I want it to be, which is using it as a marker.
I see success as competing more consistently. Molly [Huddle] told me one of the nice things about this time of year on the east coast is you can do check-ins at races without having to travel across the country. It’s easy to jump into a road race to see how things are moving along or just to get your feet wet competing.
I still think of you as a middle-distance runner sometimes, but clearly, you are not just that. Is there some aspect of training that you have always thrived at that would have indicated your success as you’ve moved up in your career?
Initially, running from high school to college was just about getting a scholarship. The goal was really centered around my education. What event I raced was more of a reflection of where I was in my progression of how much I was running and what I was doing in workouts.
I feel like our head coach and the people around me recognized that if I put in more time and consistent work in, I’d be able to do the longer stuff. That stuck with me for a long time – to not fall in love with any particular distance, but be open to wherever the best opportunity to compete is.
I think for most people your event is how you identify yourself and if you think you're a miler then you're going to stick with it and have pride in that. And I try to focus on progression and potential. If you get to the point of being a professional athlete, then everyone can pretty much do anything – it’s just a matter of where you choose to focus.
That’s good wisdom right there! Now that you are back in the northeast, what’s a day in your life look like?
I've had some things going on injury-wise this past year, and that, combined with the regular routine of running, it takes up a lot of time. But I have been working on starting a non-profit to create more resources for Black people in endurance sports. I’m often asked why I think there isn’t more participation in long distance running and I have been reflecting on my experience to hopefully improve that representation. It’s still in the early stages, but it’s hopefully coming soon!
Rapid Fire Highlights 🔥
World Athletics has named its finalists for athlete of the year — they seem to have forgotten to ask me, but I’d give it to Mondo Duplantis and Yulimar Rojas.
David Bett won the Monterey Bay Half Marathon in a course record of 1:02:11, and secured himself a $8,000 pay day ahead of Parker Stinson, who finished second in 1:02:57. Joyline Chemutai won the women’s race in 1:10:57.
Check out the finalists for this year’s World Athletics photo of the year. Personally I give the nod to Sam Barnes for the Grant Holloway shot. Again, they seem to have forgotten to ask me for my opinion here…
Keneth Kiprop Renju, the Kenyan 10,000m champion who won the Prague and Lisbon Half Marathons this year, was suspended by the AIU for the prohibited substance methasterone, an anabolic–androgenic steroid.
At the Cross Internacional de Atapuerca in Spain, the courses are measured to be 7810m and 9750m long, which actually convinces me they don’t really measure them at all. The race is run around a World Heritage archaeological site that has artifacts tracing life in the area to a million years ago. Anyway, Kenya’s World Championship silver medalist Beatrice Chebet won the women’s race, which is important for our Bathurst 2023 watch list. And on the men’s side,Thierry Ndikumwenayo (technically still of Burundi) won yet another Spanish XC race, which is super relevant because he has secured his Spanish citizenship, although his allegiance is yet to be made official by WA.
Would you believe me if I told you that the story of Uncle Chen chain-smoking a pack of cigarettes on his way to running a 3-hour 28-minute marathon was the most reader submitted topic I’ve ever received? Like, am I supposed to have a take on this? Okay, I’ll try: this could be an okay training methodology for coaches that discourage the use of mouth breathing.
Thanks so much to Diadora for sponsoring this week’s newsletter! Dear readers, if I suck on the ESPN broadcast please don’t make it a big deal.