Cross Country in February
Cross Country in February?! That doesn’t make much sense. To us Americans, February means track & field (indoor track & field if you are from the east or midwest, outdoor track & field if you are from sunny California). But internationally, cross country is a winter sport. Most countries hold their national championships in February and the IAAF World Cross Country Championships are held in March. These World Championships are considered one of the greatest distance running events of the year as it pits different runners (cross country, track, and road runners) with different race distance specialties (5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon) all in one race, with team scoring and national pride at stake.
For 2008, the USA Cross Country Championships were on February 16 in San Diego. This served as the qualifying race for the 36th IAAF World Cross Country Championships, to be held March 30 in Edinburgh, Scotland. If you haven’t been following the World Championships the last 35 years, here what you missed: KENYAN DOMINATION. Kenya’s string of 18 consecutive men’s team titles (1986-2003) is considered the “longest winning streak in international sporting history.”
Among recent highlights for Team USA at the World Cross Country Championships are a bronze medal team performance in 2005 (team of: Lauren Fleshman, Blake Russell, Shalane Flanagan, Shayne Culpepper, Amy Mortimer, and Melissa Buttry), back-to-back silver medals by Deena Kastor in 2002 and 2003, and a bronze medal in the 2001 Junior Men’s race by Dathan Ritzenheim (first medal for an American junior at this meet since 1981).
The actual race distances have changed throughout history. For awhile (1998-2006), there was both a short course and long course cross country competition. The short was 4K and the long was 8K for women and 12K for men. Trivia #1: Shannon Rowbury placed 11th in the short course race in 2006 in New York (13:02 for 4K). Currently, there is just a single race for women (8K) and men (12K).
Also, for a period of time, the USA Championships were held in November or December. This catered to the American “fall cross country season” and allowed athletes to follow the traditional American cross country calendar (with races in the fall and a championship in November or December). However, this meant selecting a team from the USA Championships to go to the World Championships, three months early. A lot can happen in three months and often this December selection meet left the US with a less than stellar team performance at the “winter cross country World Championships.” So in 1999, USATF (the US track & field governing body) decided to create two separate cross country championships – 1) The “Fall” National Club Cross Country Championships (more for club teams like Pamakids), and 2) “Winter” USA Cross Country Championships (the more elite competition, with selection for the World Championship team based on the winter championship race).
Trivia #2: At the most recent Fall Club National Cross Country Championships, the winner of the women’s race was Delilah DiCrescenzo. Ms Delilah has received some notoriety of late not just for being a fast runner. It turns out she is the Delilah of the Grammy nominated song Hey There Delilah by the Plain White T’s. The lead singer of the group Tom Higgenson met Delilah in 2003 and the Olympic hopeful runner inspired a song. Last weekend, Delilah went to the Grammy’s with the guys from the Plain White T’s. This weekend, Delilah ran at the Winter USA Cross Country Championships and came in 16th.
Back to cross country… Trivia #3: San Francisco and Golden Gate Park have been a part of the history of the USA Cross Country Championships. In 2006, San Francisco was host to the Fall National Club Cross Country Championships. Our own John Spriggs. George Rehmet, and Keith Johnson were among the participants. The last time SF played host to the Championships before that was November 25, 1989. That Thanksgiving weekend, in a downpour, Pat Porter won a record breaking 8th consecutive individual title, while Lynn Jennings won her 3rd straight title (she would go on to win 7 straight as well as three World Cross Country Championships, 1990-92).
In addition to the competition for senior (senior meaning older than junior, not senior like 50 years+) runners, the Winter USA Cross Country Championships also currently has races for Juniors (20 and under) and Masters (40 and over). The Juniors are competing for the opportunity to run at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, too.
Below is some history on the USA Cross Country Championships from the USATF website:
This year’s national championships were the 110th edition of the men’s event and the 44th race for the women. The men’s race dates back to 1890, when the first championship took place under the guidance of the Amateur Athletic Union (USATF replaced the AAU as America’s track and field governing body in 1979). No events took place in 1893-96, 1899-1900 and 1904. The USA Championships were not conducted in 1998 due to the change from hosting the event in early December to conducting the event in February, beginning in 1999. The first women’s championship took place in 1964. The men’s and women’s Championships were held together for the first time in 1979.
Past champions of the men’s event include all-time greats such as seven-time champ Don Lash (1934-’40), four-time winner and 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter (1970-’73), three-time New York Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, eight-time U.S. cross country champ Pat Porter (1982-’89), two-time Olympian Bob Kennedy and 1996 Olympic Marathon Trials winner Bob Kempainen. At the 2000 Championships in Greensboro, N.C., Adam Goucher became the first and only man in history to win both the long and short course races at the same Championships. The 4 km competitions for senior men and women were added in 1998.
The women’s competition has also seen many great champions including five-time U.S. champ (1966, 1968-71), and five-time World Cross Country champion (1967-‘71) Doris Brown-Heritage two-time champ Francie Larrieu Smith (1972-’73), nine-time U.S. champion (1985, 1987-’93, 1996) and three-time World Cross Country champion (1990-’92) Lynn Jennings, two-time short course champ Amy Rudolph (1998-’99) and six-time defending 8 km champion Deena Kastor. In 2000 Kastor also won the short course race, making her the only woman ever to win both titles in the same year.
Looking ahead, the next Fall National Club Cross Country Championships are December 13, 2008 in Spokane, Washington. It’s unconfirmed, but I’ve read online that the 2009 USA Cross Country Championships will be in February in the Baltimore, Maryland/Washington DC area.