Reflections on the 2008 USA Cross Country Championships
As I’ve said in a previous article, the USA Cross Country Championships have a long history and it was a privilege and an honor to attend the 2008 meet in San Diego. 651 runners competed in the six USATF sanctioned races. If you count the 71 runners (me, Malinda, and 69 new friends) in the Community 4K race, there were over 700 runners.
You could really feel a buzz in the air when we arrived at the meet. There was eager anticipation by the participants to race and by the spectators to watch some elite running. There were knowledgeable announcers who kept you excited with up to date information as the races unfolded. You could hear the PA system everywhere you went on the course. And after races they used a wireless microphone to interview athletes in the finish line area. The announced attendance was 5000.
The Community 4K Race was a unique opportunity to participate in the event as well as spectate. You don’t get to play 18 holes on the golf course before the Master’s or take batting practice at Fenway Park before the first pitch. But here, we got to run on the same course, the same day the elite runners did. That’s special. And that’s something that makes cross country special.
I think the officials used the 4K race as a dress rehearsal for the six “real” races that were to come. We had a timing chip on our shoe and the timing mats were out at the appropriate spots. They had us do a group strider. Then it was two steps behind the line. Final instructions. When they said runners to your mark, we stepped up to the line. At the gun we were off. Malinda is convinced that for this dress rehearsal race they even had people walk the course on purpose so the course monitors and officials could practice dealing with lapped runners.
The course was mostly grass (cut short for good footing). It was a 2K loop, which we did two times. The first 1K was pretty flat and fast. But the second 1K included some small hills and quite a few turns. It was the kind of course I’ve seen on television when I watch high level cross country races. And it felt great to be able to race on such a course.
The course was also extremely spectator friendly. You could, with almost no effort, walk back and forth 20 yards and see the runners four to six times per loop depending on how tall you are. For someone like me, who puts a lot of effort into seeing the race, I got to see Jocelyn every 60-90 seconds during the race. The course was roped off with flags but since it was a such a knowledgeable group, the course monitors let the spectators duck under the ropes and cross the course. They knew that the spectators were smart enough to know when it’s okay to cross and when not to. I really liked that.
Another unique aspect of this meet was the accessibility of the athletes. In many sports the athletes emerge from out-of-site locker rooms, play, and then go back into their locker rooms. Here, the athletes were right there in front of us for their warm-ups, during the race, when they finished, and for awards or to change into sweats. It was all right there in front of you. There was no VIP seating, either. The person standing next to you could be someone’s coach, or girlfriend, or father. There was a real human element to watching the runners talking to friends and hugging teammates after the race. It was really no different than being at Golden Gate Park for a cross country meet.
There were 6 other things that stood out to me as being special while at the USA Cross Country Championships.
- How well Jocelyn Rodriguez raced. She started off in the back (as I had instructed her to) and then slowly moved up. It was impressive to watch and I could tell being patient early was paying off as she was constantly catching and passing people. It wasn’t until I got home and saw her splits online that I truly appreciated what a great race it was. Her 2K splits were: 7:44. 7:56, and 7:51. She was running as fast as Division I college freshmen in the last lap. She did not get passed by anyone but she moved up from 44th after 2K to 33rd at the end. And the three runners just ahead of her, were at one point 20-40 seconds ahead of her, but Jocelyn chased them down and was just 2-3 seconds behind them at the end. What a race!
- German Fernandez, a high school runner from Riverbank in central California, was great. We (the SHC team) saw him dominate at an invitational in Half Moon Bay in October (2:05 first 800 on his way to 11:04 for a 2.4 mile course (4:37 pace) that includes a huge hill). Then at the State Meet, we got to see him break (not break…shatter by 14 seconds) the 21-year old 5K course record at Woodward Park (14:24). So I knew who German was and was not surprised to see him battling for the win. But he did it in such dramatic fashion. Malinda and I were positioned about 200 meters from the finish line. At this point, the runners had to make two sharp 90 degree turns before the 200 meter straight shot sprint to the finish line. German came into the turns just a step behind the leader, Ryan Sheridan of Iona College. Malinda got some great pictures of these two runners eyeing each other and battling for position. Finally on the final turn, German burst by Sheridan on the inside to win 24:18 to 24:19.
- Shalane Flanagan, in addition to having some of the strongest looking abs I have ever seen, ran a dominating race. She pulled ahead after the first 2K lap and just kept pulling further and further away (5 second lead at 2K, 16 seconds at 3K, 28 seconds at 4K). Consider this, Flanagan’s 1:10 winning margin over Renee Metiver means Metiver was actually closer to 13th place Colleen DeReuck (1:05 between 2nd place and 13th place) then she was to 1st place. 2007 World Championship 10,000 meter bronze medalitst Kara Goucher didn’t race here and she is also very good. Flanagan and Goucher are two US women to get excited about following on the international scene.
- There is a lot to get excited about on the US men’s distance scene, too. The depth of the men’s race was great to see and I’m beyond the “Wow, they’re fast” stage. What amazes me is how tightly packed these guys are. The lead back came through 2K in 5:49 (4:40 mile pace) and there were no less than 55 guys within 10 seconds of that lead pack. I wonder what it must feel like to be running at that speed with that many people all around you. As they run by you can almost feel this wave of energy from all those people running fast in the pack. Another measure of the current strength of US men’s distance running is the fact that Ryan Hall came in 5th. He came into this race in the middle of his training for the London Marathon and admittedly was not in his best race shape. But after seeing him dominate Ritz and the rest of the field at the Men’s Olympic Trials in New York last fall, I think we all still expected that Ryan Hall, even at less than his best cross country race shape, was still going to win. Well, guess again. US men’s distance running has improved so now if Mr. Hall is off his game just a little, people like Ritz, Jorge Torres, Josh Rohatinsky, and Ed Moran (who I admit to not know too much about) will beat him. That’s a good thing for US men’s distance running.
- Ritz is freakin’ awesome at cross country. He’s a good (OK, very good) track runner (collegiate record holder (27:38) and 2004 Olympian at 10,000 meters). He’s a very good marathoner, too (2:11:07, 2nd at the Men’s Olympic Trials). But he’s GREAT at the hill and dale of cross country. Give him a brutal course with tough hills, poor footing, and bad weather and this guy thrives. In 2001, he won a bronze at the Junior World Cross Country Championships. In 2005 he had an amazing cross country race on a muddy 9.8K course in Belfast, holding off a chase pack of Kenyans to win the race. In San Diego, while supposedly nursing an IT Band injury, he splitted 17:29 for the first 6K and 17:34 for the second 6K. While everyone else was slowing down, he was maintaining, so his lead grew from 1 second to 26 seconds in the second half of the race.
- 21-year old Scott Bauhs is the “next Brian Sell” – the no name from a small school that mixes it up with the big boys. I had never heard of this guy until he was top American at last October’s Rock ‘n Roll San Jose Half Marathon in 1:03:04. If this hadn’t been a race Michelle Gallagher ran at, I may not have even figured out who was then. He ran high school at San Ramon Valley High School. His freshman PR’s were 5:01 (1600) and 11:00 (3200). He graduated with PR’s of 4:16 and 9:09 (was 2nd at the State Meet in the 3200). He’s now a junior at Chico State, where he was 2007 NCAA Division II national champion at 10,000 meters. He’s red-shirting this year at Chico State, so instead of racing a the NCAA Championships last fall, he was part of the infamous Chico State cheering squad (they run around the course with huge flags, no shirts, and body paint all in support of their team). I immediately liked this guy when, in talking about this, wrote on his blog:
Tomorrow there will be 14 athletes and 3 coaches flying from Chico out to Joplin MO to tear it up. Later that evening there will be a couple dozen crazy fans making the ritual trek across this vast country to make sure that everyone in Joplin knows who Chico is.
After his 10th place finish in San Diego, he’s on his way as the youngest member of Team USA to the World Championships. He writes a blog for flotrack and I get this feeling he’s just a guy who loves to run, has some talent (but maybe not Hall or Ritz talent), and is willing to put in the hard work to become not just good but great. I caught a great moment right before the awards ceremony. Ritz was going down the line shaking people’s hand, saying good job and that they’re going to do awesome in Scotland. It appeared he basically knew all the guys. But he hesitated at Bauhs and asked the “kid” his name. Bauhs replied, “Scott”. So Ritz said “Great to meet you Scott, you’re going to do great” and shook his hand. I’m sure Bauhs has spent a lot of time on the internet reading about Ritz and that must have been an unforgettable moment for him to be talking to Ritz like that.
In closing, this was a great event to attend. I will never forget how close you could get to the athletes and the action. Catching that exchange between Ritz and Scott Bauhs was priceless. Right before we left I took out a sharpie and got Ritz and Hall to autograph my meet program.
2 great runners. 1 great meet. Priceless memories.