On Saturday, December 11, 2010 the thirty-second annual Foot Locker Cross Country Championships took place at Balboa Park in San Diego, California. The meet began in 1979 and at that time was known as the Kinney Cross Country Championships. In 1993 the name of the meet changed to the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships. The meet brings together the top cross country runners from across the country to compete in one race, head-to-head, to determine a national champion. No other high school sport does this.
The format has been pretty much the same since 1979. The US is broken into four regions (Northeast, Midwest, South, and West) with regional qualifying meets held in each of those regions in late November or early December. The top ten runners from each region qualify to the national championship race held on the second Saturday in December. Although the national meet has been held in Orlando, FL on several occasions, the traditional home for the national championship race is a 5K course at Balboa Park in San Diego, CA.
The course records for the Balboa Park course are held by Melody Fairchild, with 16:39 in 1990 and Ruben Reina with 14:36 in 1985. Only three boys have ever won back-to-back titles: Abdirizak Mohamud (1995, 1996), Dathan Ritzenhein (1999, 2000), and this year’s champion Lukas Verzibikas (2009, 2010). Four girls have won the title twice: Erin Keough (1985, 1986), Melody Fairchild (1989, 1990), Erin Sullivan (1997, 1998), and Jordan Hasay (2005, 2008).
An interesting list (thanks Wikipedia!) is runners who won both Foot Locker Cross Country championships and went on to win a NCAA Championship in cross country, outdoor track & field, or indoor track & field. To date that list has ten people.
|Footlocker National Champions and NCAA Champions|
|Chris Solinsky (m)||2002||Wisconsin||2006-07 5000, 2005-06 3000 (I)|
|Dathan Ritzenhein (m)||1999, 2000||Colorado||2003 XC|
|Jorge Torres (m)||1998||Colorado||2002 XC|
|Adam Goucher (m)||1993||Colorado||1998 XC & 5000, 1997-98 3000 (I)|
|Melody Fairchild (w)||1989, 1990||Colorado||1996 3000 (I)|
|Bob Kennedy (m)||1987||Indiana||1988, 1992 XC, 1990 1500, 1991 Mile (I)|
|Marc Davis (m)||1986||Arizona||1989 5000, 1992 3000 SC|
|Reuben Reina (m)||1985||Arkansas||1990-91 3000 (I)|
|Matt Giusto (m)||1983||Arizona||1988 5000|
|Ceci Hopp (w)||1980||Stanford||1982 3000|
Other interesting notes about former Foot Locker Champions:
- 1990 champion Louie Quintana is the current head coach at Arizona State University.
- 1991 champion Corey Ihmels is the current head coach at Iowa State University (college coach of Lisa Koll).
- Chad Hall won in 2006. His more famous brother, Ryan’s best finish was 3rd.
- 1987 champion Bob Kennedy held the American Record for 5,000 meters for thirteen years (12:58.21, 1996-2009) until 1999-2000 champion Dathan Ritzenhein bettered the mark in 2009 (12:56.27). Ritzenhein’s coach just prior to him setting the (since broken by Bernard Lagat) American record was Brad Hudson, who was 3rd in 1984.
- 1980 champion Ceci Hopp and her daughter Anne St. Geme (qualified for the 2005 championships) were the first parent-child duo to qualify for the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships.
The 2000 boys’ race is heralded as one of the greatest of all-time. Runners’ World marked the ten year anniversary of this race with a lengthy article titled “The Turning Point” about the three main protagonists in that race – Dathan Ritzenhein, Alan Webb, and Ryan Hall. This race occurred during a down period in American distance running at the international level, but these three runners – tthen all seniors in high school – gave great hope for the future. The three of them have all competed in the Olympics and are among the best active runners in the US today.
1986 is often overlooked as one of the greatest Foot Locker Cross Country Championship races of all-time. The top three finishers that year all went on to strong running careers at the international level. Winner Marc Davis was a 1996 Olympian, second place Todd Williams was the dominant 10,000 meter runner for the US in the 1990’s (1992 and 1996 Olympian), and third place Bob Kennedy (who would come back to win Foot Locker the next year) was the dominant 5000 meter runner for the US in the 1990’s (American 5000 meter record holder, and 1992 and 1996 Olympian). The top three boys at both the 1986 and 2000 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships all became Olympians.
Another good year for Foot Locker was 1993. The first, second, and fourth place finishers (Adam Goucher, Meb Keflezighi, and Brad Hauser) in the boys race would be Olympic teammates in 2000.
The list of Foot Locker Cross Country Championships participants who went on to compete at the Olympics is also quite impressive. Many top American runners, on their way to national success, competed at Foot Locker during their high school days. I made a list of runners who placed in the top 10 at Foot Locker, who later went to the Olympics or achieved other noteworthy running accomplishment.
- Matt Guisto (1982-1st) – 1996 Olympics 5000
- John Trautmann (1984-2nd) – 1992 Olympics 5000
- Marc Davis (1986-1st) – 1996 Olympics Steeplechase
- Todd Williams(1986-2nd) – 1992 & 1996 Olympics 10,000
- Bob Kennedy (1987-1st, 1986-3rd) – 1992 & 1996 Olympics 5000
- Martin Keino (1989-6th) – famous European meet “rabbit”
- Alan Culpepper (1990-4th) – 2000 Olympics 10,000; 2004 Olympics marathon
- Adam Goucher (1993-1st) – 2000 Olympics 5000
- Meb Keflezighi (1993-2nd) – 2000 Olympics 10,000; 2004 Olympics marathon (silver)
- Brad Hauser (1993-4th) – 2000 Olympics 5000
- Tim Broe (1994-10th) – 2004 Olympics 5000
- Gabe Jennings (1995-7th) – 2000 Olympics 1500
- Jonathan Riley (1996-8th, 1995-10th) – 2004 Olympics 5000
- Jorge Torres (1998-1st, 1997-2nd, 1996-5th) – 2008 Olympics 10,000
- Ian Dobson (1999-2nd) – 2008 Olympics 5000
- Matt Tegenkamp (1999-5th) – 2008 Olympics 5000
- Dathan Ritzenhein (2000-1st, 1999-1st, 1998-8th) – 2004 Olympics 10,000; 2008 Olympics marathon
- Alan Webb (2000-2nd, 1999-8th) – 2004 Olympics 1500
- Ryan Hall (2000-3rd) – 2008 Olympics marathon
- Billy Nelson (2001-9th) – 2008 Olympics Steeplechase
- Chris Solinsky (2002-1st, 2001-3rd) – current 10,000 meter American record
- Galen Rupp (2003-2nd) – 2008 Olympics 10,000
- Cathy Schiro (1984-1st, 1983-3rd, 1982-10th) – 1998 & 1992 Olympics marathon
- Suzy Favor (Hamilton) (1985-2nd) – 1992 & 1996 Olympics 1500
- Amy Rudolph (1989-10th) – 1996 & 2000 Olympics 5000
- Deena Drossin (Kastor) (1990-6th) – 2000 Olympics 10,000 & 5000; 2004 & 2008 Olympics marathon (2004 bronze)
- Jen Rhines (1991-5th) – 2000 Olympics 10,000; 2004 Olympics marathon; 2008 Olympics 5000
- Carrie Tollefson (1993-5th, 1992-9th) – 2004 Olympics 1500
- Kara Wheeler (Goucher) (1993-9th) – 2008 Olympics 10,000 & 5000, 2007 World Championships 10,000 (bronze)
- Amy Yoder (Begley) (1995-2nd) – 2008 Olympics 10,000
- Christin Wurth (Thomas) (1997-4th) – 2008 Olympics 1500
- Molly Huddle (2001-4th) – current 5000 meter American record
- Jenny Barringer (2003-3rd, 2004-10th) – 2008 Olympics Steeplechase, current 3000 SC American record
To date, there are four married couples with Foot Locker top 10 finishes to their name:
- Dathan Ritzenhein (2000-1st, 1999-1st, 1998-8th) and Kalin Toedebusch (2000-5th, 1999-10th)
- Ryan Hall (2000-3rd) and Sara Bei (2000-1st, 1998-3rd, 1997-10th)
- Andrew Begley (1994-4th) and Amy Yoder (1995-2nd)
- Adam Goucher (1993-1st) and Kara Wheeler (1993-9th)
I myself have some experience with the Foot Locker Regional meets. I ran at what was then the Kinney Western Regional Meet in 1987 and 1988 in Fresno. I was not fast enough to run in the seeded race, which is the race to qualify for the national championship meet. But I did my thing in the junior (1987) and senior (1988) boys races. I also feel very privileged to have worked with four women who were top 10 finishers at Foot Locker (then it was Kinney) during my days as the UCLA manager. Melissa Sutton (1985-6th), Laurie Chapman (1985-9th), Kira Jorgensen (1987-1st, 1986-4th), and Karen Hecox (1988-4th) were all Bruins when I had to run my race pace to keep up with the back pack of athletes that I was helping to coach.
The Foot Locker Cross Country Championships has a long history, however, the meet is getting competition from a cross country meet sponsored by Nike. Nike Cross Nationals (NXN), formerly known as Nike Team Nationals (NTN) is a cross country team national championship race held in Portland, OR. This meet began in 2004. At first there was little conflict between the two meets and athletes (if their team was invited to NXN) could compete at both meets. In 2005 and 2006, Nike and Foot Locker worked together to create a provision for athletes from the Foot Locker West Region to qualify for Foot Locker Nationals based on their race at NXN. However in 2007, Nike added Regional Meets to qualify for NXN and that has led to more meets, which means more potential for conflicting meets. In addition to thee team aspect, NXN now also has individual runners competing who aren’t on one of the top teams. A handful of athletes now have to decide if they want to run with their team at NXN Regionals or NXN Nationals, or run at their Foot Locker Regional meet to attempt to qualify for Foot Locker Nationals. To date, no runner that was considered a legitimate contender to win Foot Locker Nationals has chosen to skip Foot Locker for NXN.
Both the Foot Locker meets and the Nike meets are good for the sport of cross country. It gives kids from all over the country a chance to compete against one another at a high level. It gives runners something to strive for. Both meets give high school cross country national media attention. I just hope that something can be worked out so the two meets aren’t in a position of “fighting” to get athletes to run at their meet. The beauty of the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships has been that the winner of that race is the undisputed national champion. Some of the best US runners qualified, ran, and placed at this meet. It’s been a breeding ground for future Olympians and record holders. It would be a shame if, down the road, many of the top runners passed on Foot Locker or if the title of national champion becomes muddled because there are two champions crowned, one at Nike and one at Foot Locker.
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.